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HJA To Represent JUSTICE On Northern Ireland Abortion Services Case

Hodge Jones & Allen to represent JUSTICE in landmark Supreme Court case on Northern Ireland Abortion Services “Safe Access Zones”

Hodge Jones & Allen have instructed Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, Tim James-Matthews and Robbie Stern, all of Matrix Chambers to represent JUSTICE in their intervention on the landmark UK Supreme Court case of Reference by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland – Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill. The case is due to be heard at the Supreme Court on 19 and 20 July 2022.

The Bill provides for measures which allow for the designation and enforcement of “Safe Access Zones” around abortion clinics within Northern Ireland. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland has referred the Bill to the Supreme Court, under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, so that the Supreme Court can consider whether the Assembly had the power to pass the legislation in the terms that it did. It is the first time that such a referral has taken place since the passing of the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of devolution.

One of the Bill’s clauses makes it an offence for a person to act in a designated Safe Access Zone “with the intent” of, or “reckless as to whether” their act has the effect of “influencing”, “directly or indirectly” a person attending a designated abortion clinic, their accompaniers, or people working at the premises. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland has asked the Supreme Court to consider whether this constitutes a proportionate interference with rights to freedom of conscience, expression and assembly in Northern Ireland, as protected under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), because the clause does not include a “reasonable excuse” defence.

JUSTICE’s intervention argues that the lack of an express “reasonable excuse” defence does not make the Bill incompatible with the ECHR. Numerous criminal provisions applicable in Northern Ireland – and in the United Kingdom more broadly – are capable of engaging Articles 9, 10 and 11, and do not include an equivalent provision. Our position is that that criminal courts must always consider whether a conviction would be proportionate restriction when Articles 9, 10, or 11 ECHR apply, regardless of whether the offence has a “reasonable excuse” defence. The alternative would see this Bill fail and require the Northern Ireland Assembly to revise the legislation.

JUSTICE’s intervention concerns a narrow matter of statutory construction. It relates to the consideration of Articles 9, 10 and 11 ECHR in the context of a criminal trial, capable of impacting across a broad range of criminal offences engaging those rights. It does not concern broader issues regarding abortion services in Northern Ireland, or Safe Zones more generally.

JUSTICE unequivocally supports reproductive rights and the ability to access abortion healthcare services privately, safely and with dignity. This is, in accordance with Article 8 ECHR, and is especially important, particularly at a time where such rights are subject to threat – not least in the United States of America, following the overturning of the case of Roe v Wade (1973) and they support the establishment of Safe Zones as an important tool to protect those rights.

JUSTICE’s Chief Executive, Fiona Rutherford, said: “The European Convention on Human Rights is central to our devolution settlement, protecting the UK’s constitutional integrity. At its heart, this intervention is about safeguarding our fundamental freedoms across the UK, from Belfast to London, from Edinburgh to Cardiff, something which the new ‘Bill of Rights’ would severely undermine”.

Raj Chada, Head of the Criminal Team at HJA, said: “We are delighted to represent JUSTICE in this constitutionally important case on how the provision in this legislation can be properly interpreted to take into account rights under Article 9,10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights”