Abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights law, the Belfast High Court has ruled.

The judgment delivered on Monday could lead to the relaxation of the law on abortion in the region.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the case to extend abortion to cases of serious fetal malformation, rape or incest.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and termination of pregnancy is only allowed if a woman’s life is at risk, or if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

In June, a number of organisations and individuals made submissions to the High Court.

They included Sarah Ewart, who went public about having to travel to London to access termination services in 2013 after her first baby was diagnosed with a severe brain malformation.

The NIHRC argued that forcing women like Ms Ewart to leave the jurisdiction, away from support networks, amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and that the current law is incompatible with the European convention on human rights, violating the human rights of women and girls.

Justice Horner agreed with that argument and said women who were the victims of sexual crime and cases of fetal abnormality were entitled to exemptions in the law.

He said that “in the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of the citizens of Northern Ireland to have their [European Convention on Human] rights protected by the courts”, the current legislation was in breach of their human rights.

The NIHRC described the judgment as a landmark ruling. Its chief commissioner, Les Allamby, said: “In taking this case we sought to change the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so.

“We are pleased that today that the high court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the commission’s favour

“Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations. It was important for the commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”

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