Northern Ireland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. It also differs from the rest of the United Kingdom where abortion is easily accessible under the Abortion Act 1967. But Northern Irish women can only access abortion where the mother’s life or health is in danger. This has recently been challenged by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as incompatible with Article 8 and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2015 the Commission won a surprising victory at the Northern Irish High Court ( NIQB 96) where the Court held that Northern Irish law failed to strike a fair balance between the right of the mother to private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention and the need to protect the life of the foetus, in cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual crimes (prior to the point of viability) and foetus deformity (throughout the pregnancy). But this ruling was subsequently overruled by the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ( NICA 42). Finally, on 7 June 2018, In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland), the UK Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the Commission had no legal standing to bring the case in the first place and therefore the original ruling was void. However, at the same time, and somewhat unusual, it was held that had there been jurisdiction, the Court would have found the current Northern Irish abortion law incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention in cases of rape and incest (4-3 vote) and fatal foetal abnormality (5-2 vote).
This line of cases dating back to 2015 is extraordinary for at least three reasons. Firstly, the European Court of Human Rights has never found that strict abortion laws comparable to Northern Irish statutes, as a matter of substance, violate any Article of the European Convention on Human Rights, even when it was expressly invited to do so in A, B, C v Ireland (2011). For a domestic Court to find a violation of any Convention right in this situation is to curtail a wide margin of appreciation given to states by the European Court of Human Rights in relation to abortion regulations, at the expense of the legislature. Secondly, Northern Irish society is known to be extremely prone to social unrest and given how controversial the abortion debate is, the Courts have shown real courage by stepping into this debate so decisively. Thirdly, even though the case was ultimately thrown out on procedural grounds, the UK Supreme Court has sent a clear message that the Northern Irish abortion law must be liberalised as it considered it incompatible with the Convention. It is inconceivable that this unequivocal message could be ignored and as such, it is now a matter of time before Northern Irish abortion laws undergo a deep reform.