Licences to research hybrid embryos 'illegal', say groups

Two public interest groups are asking the High Court on Wednesday to launch a judicial review into whether the Government's fertility body acted illegally in granting permission to two universities to research animal human hybrid embryos.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted the licenses to the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University and King’s College London in January, before a major parliamentary debate and vote on whether to allow animal human hybrid embryos under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008.

Although the Act was approved in Parliament earlier in the year, it is not due to come into force until April 2009, with the large proportion of its provisions scheduled to come into effect in October 2009.

The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) and Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) claim that the HFEA acted outside its powers in granting the licences before the debates and votes in Parliament.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, barrister and founder of CLC said: “The HFEA was fully aware that Parliament was about to debate the principles and practice of this highly controversial issue, and indeed that the legislation in force at the time could have been narrowed or widened, and yet they decided to go ahead.

“There are many technical and nuanced reasons why we believe the HFEA’s decision was outside the power handed down to it by Parliament, but the case tomorrow asks two basic questions: to whom are these regulators/independent public bodies accountable and, who makes the law of the land, Parliament or such independent public bodies?”

CLC said it expected to gather support for its appeal from other non-profit organisations concerned at the level of unaccountability of public bodies like the HFEA, where it said there were “no internal means of challenging such decisions and real difficulty in holding them legally accountable through the courts”.

“The usual tactic of big public bodies which are independent of Government and seemingly unaccountable is that whenever faced with a legal challenge they employ top QCs and firms of solicitors to act for them and by doing so, run up huge legal costs which frighten off most voluntary and charitable groups,” said Ms Williams.

“In this country if you lose a case you have to pay the other side’s costs which in a case such as this quickly mount to hundreds of thousands of pounds. How can access to justice be secured in such a situation?

“The courts are there to enable citizens and public interest and charitable organisations in this country to seek and gain justice and that justice must not be limited only to those with large pockets.”

CORE said, meanwhile, that it was “seeking fair play”.

“The Authority’s 18-year history of granting research licences demonstrates a disproportionate concern for the interests of scientists and a singular lack of objective consideration for the special status of the human embryo,” it said in a statement.