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London Irish campaigners taking British government to court over Northern Ireland abortion laws

The group claims the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, is legally obliged to take action in the absence of the devolved Assembly.

LIARC campaigners march in London.
LIARC campaigners march in London.
Image: Shutterstock/Sandor Szmutko

A CAMPAIGN GROUP is taking the British government to court in a fresh bid to change Northern Ireland’s contentious abortion laws.

The London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (LIARC) claim Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, is legally obliged to take action in the absence of a devolved assembly.

A UK Supreme Court judgement in June 2018 found the Northern Ireland abortion regime is not compliant with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape, and incest, but for technical reasons the decision was not legally binding.

In a legal letter sent to Bradley’s department, LIARC has asked the UK government to change the law in line with the Supreme Court judgement to allow abortion in these restricted circumstances.

Janet Farrell, of London law firm Bhatt Murphy, who is representing the group told TheJournal.ie: “This case is about the failure of the UK Government to take action to protect the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.

“This is despite the UK Government having the power to act, and despite Northern Ireland having no devolved government in place for two-and-a-half years.”

The judicial review challenge will argue that Bradley’s refusal to act is “unreasonable” and that the status quo creates “an obvious and unacceptable risk of further human rights violations,” while London insists the issue is a devolved matter.

LIARC is raising the money for its legal costs through online crowdfunding, which surpassed the initial £10,000 target in the first 36 hours.

Crowdfunding has become increasingly common to fund human rights cases in the UK but is illegal in Ireland under 17th century restrictions on “champerty” and “maintenance”.

Political as well as legal pressure has been building for Westminster to intervene in the absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Opposition Labour politicians are attempting to tack human rights amendments onto a technical Northern Ireland bill going through the UK parliament this week, including one to “provide services to meet the reproductive rights of women in Northern Ireland”.

A similar attempt is being made to push the British government to introduce marriage equality.

If fully funded, the LIARC case would be heard at the High Court in London. LIARC’s legal team is made up entirely of Irish women, with Farrell instructing Irish barristers Fiona Murphy and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who were involved in last year’s Supreme Court case.

Farrell has also been involved in the case of Sarah Ewart, an abortion rights campaigner seeking a formal declaration of incompatibility with human rights laws through the Northern Ireland courts. Judgement in that case is pending.

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