Karen Bradley to fix legal 'error' after abortion case

  • Published
Karen BradleyImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Karen Bradley was speaking at the Commons Women & Equalities Committee

Karen Bradley has told a committee she plans to legislate to give the NI Human Rights Commission legal standing to act in cases like last year's Supreme Court challenge to abortion laws.

She told the committee that legislation is required to rectify "an error" when the commission was created.

It lost on the issue of whether it had the required legal standing to bring the case.

The Northern Ireland secretary comments came in response to a question from Labour MP Jess Phillips at Westminster's Women and Equalities Committee.

Ms Phillips wanted to know if it would require a woman or child who has been raped to take a legal challenge while still pregnant before the abortion laws in Northern Ireland can be reformed.

Earlier, Mrs Bradley repeated her view that she would like to see a change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland

She told the committee that the Executive Formations and Exercise of Functions Act passed in October allows the executive to reform at any time and because of that "I, as the secretary of state have no executive powers to direct the civil service".

Timeline of NI abortion law challenges

She acknowledged to the committee that this was "frustrating" but said "that is the reality of the legal position."

Questioned by Ms Phillips as to how the law on medicinal cannabis could have been changed in Northern Ireland within the same time period, Mrs Bradley explained that it was possible as drugs policy is not a devolved matter.

Conservative MP Eddie Hughes asked Mrs Bradley about the consequences of the 1967 Abortion Act never having been introduced in Northern Ireland and whether that was "a good thing".

Mrs Bradley said it was a "subjective matter" but she had been clear that she "would like to see a change in law in NI".

Supreme Court judgement

In June, a majority of judges on the Supreme Court ruled that the existing law on abortion in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

But the court dismissed the NI Human Rights Commission's appeal on the technical grounds that the commission did not have the necessary legal standing to bring its case.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sarah Ewart was denied an abortion in 2013, despite doctors saying her baby would not survive outside the womb

For this reason, the Supreme Court did not make a formal declaration that the law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the UK's human rights obligations.

A Belfast woman who travelled to England to get a termination after being diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality six years ago is currently taking a court challenge in relation to the matter.

Court ruling 'highly persuasive'

Asked how long the UK government was prepared to allow the current situation to persist, Mrs Bradley repeatedly emphasised that her focus is on trying to restore devolution at Stormont.

The committee's chair Maria Miller put it to Mrs Bradley that the current legal regime regarding abortion is failing women in Northern Ireland and putting their health at risk.

Ms Miller asked Mrs Bradley if she did not regard that as genuinely urgent.

Image caption,
Anti-abortion campaigners protested outside court in June

Mrs Bradley declined to outline any timescale on her consideration of whether to intervene over the abortion issue.

But she told MPs the UK government would regard a ruling by the European Court on Human Rights as binding and a formal declaration of incompatibility by the UK Supreme Court as "highly persuasive".

Mrs Bradley said changing the legal standing of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would require primary legislation but the Northern Ireland Office would act at the earliest opportunity.

Why is the law different in Northern Ireland?

The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in Great Britain, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) - where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth - are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

However, anti-abortion campaigners argue that doctors cannot reliably predict the timescale of death and they point to several cases where babies have defied the prognosis and survived into adulthood.

Media caption,

The law on abortion in Northern Ireland explained