Legal challenge against Northern Ireland abortion regulations delayed until next year

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A legal challenge against abortion regulations in Northern Ireland has been postponed until next year.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said it was "very disappointed" that its case is being delayed until January 2023.

Hearings commenced this week in its legal challenge against the 2021 Northern Ireland Abortion Regulations but on Wednesday, government lawyers succeeded in having the case adjourned. 

The regulations were passed by Westminster while the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. They brought far more radical abortion rules to Northern Ireland, allowing abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, up to 24 weeks on physical and mental health grounds, and up to full term in cases of disability.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, said last month that he would directly commission abortion in Northern Ireland using money from the existing health budget, after "continued inaction" by the Department of Health for Northern Ireland.

"The UK Government has been clear that it would commission abortion services if the Department of Health did not act," he said.

"The devolution settlement does not absolve me of my legal obligation to ensure that women and girls can access abortion services in Northern Ireland, as they can in the rest of the UK.

"I will be meeting the Chief Executives of Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks to ensure these services can be provided. Ultimately, it remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland."

SPUC's case questions the legality of the Secretary of State advancing Westminster's abortion agenda without the cooperation of ministers in the devolved institutions. 

On day one of the case, SPUC's senior counsel, John Larkin, argued that the powers conferred to the Secretary of State are more limited than the UK government believes.

On Wednesday, the court halted proceedings after a request from the Secretary of State's lawyers for more time to consider their response.

SPUC fears that the Secretary of State will use this delay to pursue his abortion plans in Northern Ireland. 

Michael Robinson, SPUC's Executive Director of Public Affairs, urged Mr Heaton-Harris not to press ahead with "a radical abortion agenda that does not have the support of the people of Northern Ireland".

"The court has recognised that this is a very important case so we are very disappointed that the Government's lawyers have had it adjourned," he said. 

"While the reaction to our argument shows that it is potentially decisive, we are concerned that the Secretary of State will take this delay to pursue his plans."