Judgment will be given next week by the UK Supreme Court on whether prohibitions on abortion in Northern Ireland conflict with European human rights law.
The court will rule on 7 June on whether ss 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and s 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945 are incompatible with articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European Convention in failing to provide an exception to the prohibition on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland in cases of serious malformation of the unborn foetus, or pregnancy as a result of rape or incest.
It will also decide whether the Northern Ireland Act 1998 entitles the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to bring proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998, and to seek a declaration of incompatibility under s 4 of that Act, other than in respect of an identified unlawful act or acts.
Abortion is prohibited in Northern Ireland except where carried out in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother. On proceedings being brought by the Commission, the Northern Ireland High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the criminal law was incompatible with article 8 (but not articles 3 or 14) of the Convention due to the absence of exceptions covering fatal foetal abnormalities at any time, and pregnancies which are a consequence of rape or incest up to the date when the foetus becomes capable of existing independently of the mother. The Northern Ireland Assembly voted on 10 February 2016 against legalising abortion in such cases, and the Court of Appeal subsequently allowed appeals by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice there.
The present appeals have been brought against that ruling and to decide two devolution issues raised by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland on the issue of the standing of the Commission to bring the proceedings.
The result will be keenly awaited in the wake of the referendum in the Irish Republic, which voted to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion there, which has led to calls for the law in Northern Ireland to be liberalised in a similar way to that now proposed.