Supreme Court hears challenge to Bill banning protests outside abortion clinics

Pro choice

The Supreme Court in a 7-Justice panel is, this week, hearing a challenge to legislation that seeks to protect those receiving abortion services. In March 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Abortion Service (Safe Access Zones) Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that women and girls accessing abortion services can do so without interference and, in doing so, protect their Article 8 ECHR rights. Clause 5(2) of the Bill makes it a criminal offence to do the following: “to do an act in a safe access zone with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of— (a) influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly, (b) preventing or impeding access by a protected person, or (c) causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person” The “safe access zone” is an area of a certain size around premises offering abortion services – the Bill refers to an area of 100m as the default size. A “protected person” is someone accessing the services, someone accompanying that person, or someone working in the protected premises. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland referred the Bill to the Supreme Court. She is arguing that clause 5(2)(a) breaches the Articles 9, 10 and 11 ECHR rights of individuals who wish to use the area next to abortion clinics for the purpose of, e.g., protesting, praying, handing out leaflets, etc. If such a breach existed, it would mean the Bill is outside the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As against that, there is evidence before the Court of how even the mere presence of protestors outside abortion clinics and peaceful attempts to influence women has a harmful impact on those women and their healthcare decisions. A summary of the case be seen on the Supreme Court’s website here. Reports of the case can be found on BBC News and ITV News. David Blundell QC and Yaaser Vanderman are acting for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission instructed by Michael Black.

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