Landmark ruling on abortion

Demonstrators staged a protest outside the court

A landmark judgement means fewer Northern Ireland women may have to travel to England for an abortion.

In the Court of Appeal in Belfast on Friday, three senior judges ordered the Department of Health to draw up guidelines on when abortions can be carried out under existing law.

The ruling upheld an appeal by the Family Planning Association against the dismissal of a judicial review last year, when it was declared there was no onus on the department to set out guidelines.

However, Lord Justice Nicholson said on Friday that it did not mean anyone could claim the law should be liberalised as a result of the judgment.

Currently, abortion is only permissible in Northern Ireland where the mother's life is in danger or there is a serious threat to her mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland women, who do not comply with these conditions, travel to Britain where abortion is more freely available.

Since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed there, some 64,000 women from the province have had abortions in England or Wales.

'New guidelines'

Lord Justice Nicholson said any change in the law was a matter for Parliament and not the courts.

But he said he believed doctors were not adequately aware of the principles that govern the law in Northern Ireland.

He said new guidelines could help them.

He stressed, however, that it did not mean that anyone could claim the law should be liberalized as a result of the judgment.

The parties in the case have until 29 October to make written submissions about the precise form of the guidelines.

The court will then decide if more oral submissions are needed.

Dismissing the judicial review last year, Sir Brian Kerr, now Lord Chief Justice, declared there was no onus on the department to set out guidelines.

But he went on to express the view that it would be "prudent" to do so.

The respondent in the case was the Department of Health and their stance was supported by anti-abortion groups including the Northern Catholic Bishops, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Precious Life and Life.

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