24 September 2012
A sexual health charity has been granted High Court permission to challenge the government's alleged failure to issue new guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Family Planning Association (FPA) was granted leave to seek a judicial review of the Department of Health's decision not to publish information on terminations.
Its lawyers argued earlier court orders meant there was a legitimate expectation that revised guidance would be completed.
A barrister claimed a completely revised guidance document was drawn up more than a year ago, but had not yet been disclosed.
Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, except in limited circumstances where the mother's life or mental well-being are considered at risk.
In 2009 the department published a document which, for the first time, provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy.
However, later that year the High Court ruled it did not properly cover counselling and conscientious objection issues.
A judge held that the guidelines were misleading and should be withdrawn for reconsideration.
Since then a fresh public consultation process on counselling and conscientious objection was carried out as part of the redrafting.
The court was told on Monday that the exercise resulted in 32 responses, of which 25 dealt with the relevant issues.
Barrister Tony McGleenan, representing the FPA, said Health Minister Edwin Poots, has been in office for 16 months but it was not clear what steps he had taken to consider the new guidance.
"It seems there was a completely revised guidance document produced in February 2011 that hasn't been shared with the applicant nor with the court," he said.
Mr McGleenan claimed it was "remarkable" that the department and the minister would "simply ignore" correspondence prior to the formal commencement of legal proceedings.
He said the case was of "concern for a range of reasons to large sectors of society in Northern Ireland".
However, Attorney General John Larkin QC, responding on behalf of the department, argued that it was entitled to proceed with caution "on this difficult, fraught area".
"We say the department simply cannot be faulted for the painstaking, conscientious work it is engaged in," he said.
The Attorney General claimed the legal challenge was premature and misconceived, falling "somewhere between enforcement proceedings or a glorified freedom of information request".
Mr Justice Treacy ruled that the FPA had established an arguable case.
He granted leave to apply for a judicial review, with a full hearing listed for two days in January.