A and B head to the European Court of Human Rights

by Women from Northern Ireland seeking NHS abortion services in England

A and B head to the European Court of Human Rights

by Women from Northern Ireland seeking NHS abortion services in England
Women from Northern Ireland seeking NHS abortion services in England
A and B narrowly lost in the Supreme Court in June 2017, challenging lack of NHS funding for abortion services for women from Northern Ireland. They wish to appeal to the EctHR.
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Women from Northern Ireland seeking NHS abortion services in England
A and B narrowly lost in the Supreme Court in June 2017, challenging lack of NHS funding for abortion services for women from Northern Ireland. They wish to appeal to the EctHR.
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Urgent update

July 3, 2017

The Government’s U-Turn

  • The case remains live and is still in need of urgent funding despite the Government's U-Turn
  •  A and B have outstanding legal issues to take to the EctHR should the Government fail to settle their case on satisfactory terms.

Within days of A and B launching this appeal for crowdfunding, there was an unexpected u-turn by the Government. On Thursday 29 June, the...

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Women from Northern Ireland should not be second class citizens under abortion laws

  1. The case raises important issues on reproductive rights of women from Northern Ireland who are UK citizens but face discrimination as they are blocked from accessing free abortion services in England, and abortion is criminalised in Northern Ireland.
  2. A and B wish to make a prompt application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as their appeal to the Supreme Court was narrowly dismissed on 14 June 2017.
  3. They need to fundraise to take their case to Strasbourg.

 A and B’s legal challenge to the European Court of Human Rights

In 2012, a young woman, aged 15, had to travel to England with her mother to access abortion services that she was unable to access in Northern Ireland. She was also barred from accessing NHS abortion services in England and her only option was to pay for the services of a private clinic. We are calling the young woman “A” and her mother “B” to protect their identities. The experience was deeply traumatic for A, who was 15 at the time, and was made worse by the stress of B having to raise nearly £1000 as they had limited income (they were fortunate in obtaining some financial help from the Abortion Support Network). A and B feel very strongly that women from Northern Ireland should not have to suffer such devastating experiences.

A and B now wish to make a prompt application to the European Court of Human Rights as their appeal to the Supreme Court was narrowly dismissed on 14 June 2017. They are calling on the support of the community to help them pay for the legal expenses of bringing their case to Strasbourg. The case raises important issues on reproductive rights of women from Northern Ireland who are UK citizens but face discrimination when trying to access abortion services in England.

BACKGROUND

In Northern Ireland, women who receive abortions and the medical practitioners who perform them can face up to life in prison. Because the UK’s Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland, abortion services can only be received lawfully there if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a strong likelihood that she will suffer serious or long term harm to her physical or mental health. As a result, most medical practitioners there are reluctant to administer abortions.

Because of this, many women's only other option is to travel to England to receive these services. While the journey alone is mentally and financially taxing, the cost of the procedure itself in a private clinic is very high - around £600 if the woman is under 14 weeks pregnant, rising to around £2,000 if the pregnancy is further advanced. Add to that the cost of a ferry or flight, transport to the clinic, and a hotel – and, if possible, the cost of a parent, partner or friend joining for support – and the sums required are at least £800 and can exceed £2,500. These are huge costs for any woman, but for low income women in particular the impact can be devastating. Some women cannot afford the cost; some proceed with an unwanted pregnancy, and some take matters into their own hands by taking dangerous actions to try to force a miscarriage. These are devastating decisions which other women across the UK – in England, Wales and Scotland – do not have to face.

The Secretary of State for Health in England, Jeremy Hunt MP, has the power to provide Northern Irish women with access to free NHS abortion services in England, as they are blocked from exercising their reproductive rights at home. However he has refused to exercise this power. This case is about whether he must end the discrimination against Northern Irish women and provide them with access to these services, free of charge – a right which all other UK citizens, in England, Wales and Scotland, have had for the past 50 years.

A is one of many women who travel to England to access services which are criminalised in Northern Ireland. Statistics show that approximately 800 - 1,000 women each year travel between the two parts of the UK for this reason, although this figure is likely to be an underestimate as it is believed many women give false addresses to avoid the stigma and shame associated with abortion in Northern Ireland. This means that at least 2 women per week make this journey.

THE LEGAL JOURNEY

In January 2013, devastated at their own experience and determined to fight for other women and girls’ rights in future, A and B started a judicial review claim against the Secretary of State. It was turned down by the High Court in May 2014 and also by the Court of Appeal in 2015. However, the Court of Appeal agreed that their European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) rights were engaged, which was a significant and important change from the narrower approach adopted by the High Court. In June 2017, the Supreme Court handed down judgment confirming their Article 8 rights were engaged and that they were discriminated against under Article 14. Unfortunately, by a slim majority, the court concluded that the discrimination was justified. Lady Hale and Lord Kerr gave very strong dissenting judgments. A and B are now taking their fight to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

A and B’s appeal has been legally supported by six high-profile national charities which have all confirmed that they will intervene in A and B’s application to the ECHR.

WHAT THE CLAIMANTS SAY

“We are really encouraged that two of the judges found in our favour and all the judges were sympathetic to A’s situation. We have come this far and fought hard because the issues are so important for women in Northern Ireland. For this reason, we will do all we can to take the fight further. We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country.”

HOW THE FUNDS WILL BE USED

This crowdfunding goal is to secure funding to cover the initial legal costs of making the application to the European Court of Human Rights. Depending on the outcome of that application, A and B may make a further request for more funds to pursue the proceedings to a full hearing.

In the meanwhile, A and B’s legal team will prepare the case at reduced hourly rates due to their commitment to these important issues. A and B have been deeply encouraged by the significant support they have received in the press and on social media for bringing the case so far and would be very grateful to receive financial support to take this vital case to the European Court of Human Rights.

CURRENT LEGAL WORK REQUIRED

  • Advising A and B
  • Drafting a detailed application to the European Court of Human Rights
  • Preparing complex bundles to comply with court regulations
  • Corresponding with the interveners and the Secretary of State
  • Issuing the application
  • Corresponding with the Court


Main image: Credit Alastair Moore / London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign

Urgent update

July 3, 2017

The Government’s U-Turn

  • The case remains live and is still in need of urgent funding despite the Government's U-Turn
  •  A and B have outstanding legal issues to take to the EctHR should the Government fail to settle their case on satisfactory terms.

Within days of A and B launching this appeal for crowdfunding, there was an unexpected u-turn by the Government. On Thursday 29 June, the Government announced that it would fund abortion services in England for women travelling from Northern Ireland.  The announcement came hours before a crunch vote in the House of Commons on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, proposed by Labour MP Stella Creasy MP which had cross-party support from 105 MPs.  The u-turn appears to have been made to avert the political embarrassment of losing a vote on this issue.

A and B are delighted at this turn of events, which vindicates their decision to fight the case so far.  They welcome the announcement that the Government will, in future, fund abortions for women who make the lonely, distressing journey from Northern Ireland to England for a termination which A had to make and pay for in 2012.

However, A and B’s fight is not over.  The Government must urgently now confirm that the proposal meets the practical needs of the hundreds of women forced to travel to England every year, and they must compensate A and B for their financial loss, and the stress and anxiety they have suffered in 2012 and in the five years since.  Today, A and B’s legal team is writing to Jeremy Hunt MP to propose a settlement to avoid the need for A and B to have to travel to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to vindicate their rights and the rights of the hundreds of women like them who are forced to travel every year to access abortion services.  If he refuses to settle the case, A and B will have to fight on and ask the Court in Strasbourg to decide.

What are the Outstanding Issues for A and B?

In the Supreme Court, Jeremy Hunt MP argued strongly that in not funding abortions for Northern Irish women on the NHS in England it was respecting the decisions of the devolved government in Northern Ireland to have stricter laws on abortion, and that this was not a decision which could or should be taken in Westminster. But now they have done just that, two weeks after a majority of the Supreme Court narrowly agreed with their reasoning.  The policy u-turn undermines Jeremy Hunt MP’s argument which persuaded the Supreme Court, by 3 votes to 2, to reject A and B’s claim.

Continuing the case is important for four reasons:

  • First, A and B were caused loss by the Government’s discriminatory failures to provide services and they are entitled to compensation for their losses and the stress and anxiety caused to them.
  • Second, A and B’s case is that women from Northern Ireland have a fundamental right not to be discriminated against in the provision of abortion services by the NHS in England, and their access to services should not be dependent on the whim of the Government of the day.
  • Third, it is now more important than ever that the Government’s justification, used to persuade the Supreme Court, is carefully examined, as the Government has completely abandoned it.  That ruling may have repercussions in many other areas.
  • Fourth, little is known about the details of the deal – A and B want to ensure that other women from Northern Ireland have a meaningful way of accessing funding.  It remains unclear whether Northern Irish women will continue to be blocked from NHS hospitals in England; and whether they will be able to access the promised funding ‘up front’.  These are important questions and A and B want answers in order to protect other low income women like them.

Crowdfunding

A and B need funds to continue their fight.  They urgently need donations to enable them to prepare to bring their case to Strasbourg. 

It is more important than ever to fund this case.  Your support so far has persuaded the Government to change its mind.  Now we must keep them under pressure and secure the best possible deal for A and B, and all Northern Irish women.

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