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UK Court dismisses challenge to Northern Ireland abortion law

Pro-abortion protestors hold placards during a demonstration calling for abortion to be legalised in Northern Ireland, outside Belfast city hall in Belfast on May 28, 2018.

[LONDON] Britain's Supreme Court on Thursday struck down an attempt to overturn Northern Ireland's restrictive laws on abortion over a legal technicality, barely two weeks after Ireland voted in a landslide to do away with similar rules.

But in an important caveat, Justice Brenda M Hale, president of the court, said that a majority of the justices "are of the firm and clear opinion that the current law is incompatible with" the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a party.

The court's conclusions are not binding. But Justice Brian F Kerr said that they "must be worthy of close consideration by those in whose power it lies to decide whether the law should be altered."

Pressure has been mounting on Northern Ireland to change its laws, which ban abortion in nearly all cases, since the Irish referendum cleared the way for the repeal of a constitutional amendment that imposed similar restrictions. But the National Assembly in Belfast has been suspended for more than a year in a sectarian wrangle, and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought forward the legal challenge, has said it is now up to the British Parliament in London to legislate changes.

"This is a victory, a historic landmark for women's rights in Northern Ireland," David Russell, chief executive of the rights group, said, adding that the Supreme Court's dismissal on technical grounds did not diminish its significance.

"It has been clear that Northern Ireland's laws are incompatible with human rights and there needs to be a political solution," he said.

By a 4-3 vote, the court's justices concluded that they could not rule in the case because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had not had standing to file it. Justice Jonathan H Mance explained the majority's view that a legitimate challenge to the law could be made only by a person it had harmed.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission said it had challenged the law "in order prevent any woman or girl from having to face the burden of doing so."

The court's statements seemed nonetheless to invite a new challenge to the law, and indicated that it could be successful.


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