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Judicial review of abortion guidelines in Northern Ireland granted

Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland secures leave for judicial review to challenge Government’s failure to publish abortion guidelines in Northern Ireland

25 September 2012

Richard Stein, partner in the human rights department at Leigh Day & Co, acts for the Northern Ireland Family Planning Association (FPANI) which, yesterday morning, secured leave from the High Court in Belfast to bring a judicial review which will be heard in January 2013.  It will challenge the Northern Ireland Health Minister’s continued failure to issue guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland. Richard has represented FPANI for many years on this issue.

Abortion is currently legal in Northern Ireland where there is a serious risk to the health of the mother. FPANI first began a judicial review in March 2002, looking at the medical practices relating to abortion in Northern Ireland and the provision of abortion services. It asked that there should be clear guidance on abortion in the North because the law and practice in relation to abortion was widely misunderstood and inconsistently applied.

In 2004, on appeal to the Court of Appeal, FPANI was successful in its legal challenge to the Department of Health’s refusal to issue guidance. 
In 2009 the Department of Health finally published a document which, for the first time, provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on the termination of pregnancy. The content of these guidelines was criticised by various anti-choice groups.  On a judicial review brought by one of those groups a judge ruled that in limited respects (in relation to conscientious objection and counselling only) the guidelines were misleading and thus unlawful.  A fresh consultation was carried out on those issues in 2010 but unfortunately, despite regular chasing by FPANI, no guidelines have been published.

As a result, FPANI had no option but to bring a fresh legal challenge to force the Minister of Health to comply with the 2004 Court of Appeal order.

The FPANI barrister Tony McGleenan QC argued in court yesterday that the Heath Minister should be ordered to publish guidelines without further delay. 

Mr Justice Treacy ruled that FPANI had established an arguable case and granted leave to apply for a judicial review, with a full hearing listed for two days in January 2013.

Richard Stein said ‘It is extremely important that guidance is published without further delay so that women and health professionals in Northern Ireland know where they stand’.

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