Changes to the law in Northern Ireland: updated information

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The UK Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which received Royal Assent on 24 July 2019. It was introduced in order to give more time for the Northern Ireland parties to agree to return to the Northern Ireland Executive.

As the Northern Ireland Executive has not been restored by 21 October 2019, the UK Parliament has placed an obligation on the UK Government to change the law in Northern Ireland relating to three important issues.

The Act requires that regulations are made in the following areas:

  • To extend same sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnerships to Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020 (s8);
  • To give effect to recommendations set out in the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) report in respect of lawful access to abortion services by 31 March 2020 (s9);
  • To introduce a system of victims payments (a “victims pension”) in Northern Ireland made by the end of January 2020 to be in force by the end of May 2020 (s10)

It has always been the Government’s strong preference for decisions on sensitive, devolved matters such as these to be taken by the locally elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

But as the 21 October deadline has now passed, these obligations have now taken effect.

There are immediate changes to the law in relation to access to abortion services. Further information is below.

Changes to the laws on marriage and civil partnerships in Northern Ireland from 13 January 2020

From 13 January 2020 same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships have been legal in Northern Ireland, following The Marriage (Same-sex Couples) and Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2019.

Couples in Northern Ireland have been able to give notice of their intention to form a same-sex civil marriage or opposite-sex civil partnership to the Registrar in the local District Council, with a minimum of 28 days’ notice period required before such ceremonies can take place. The first same-sex marriage ceremony took place on 11 February 2020.

Following a public consultation on same-sex religious marriage and associated protections, which was open between 20 January – 23 February 2020, we have made further changes to the law.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 mean that from 1 September 2020 officiants can be appointed to solemnise same-sex religious marriages, with the consent of their governing authority, and couples can give 28 days notice to the Registrar in their local District Council of their intent to form a same-sex religious marriage.

The Regulations also put in place protections so that religious bodies (and individual officiants) cannot be compelled by any means, including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement, to perform same-sex marriages or otherwise be involved in same-sex marriages.

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Equality law protections are also in place so that religious bodies and individual officiants will not unlawfully discriminate if they refuse to solemnise marriages because of the sexual orientation of the couple, and we have extended the protections to cover premises such as church halls and other buildings owned by (or on behalf of) a religious body, except where the premises are used solely or mainly for commercial purposes.

The Government response to the consultation on same-sex religious marriage can be accessed here

We also conducted a public consultation on conversion entitlements, which was open between 20 January – 23 February 2020. We have now made further changes to the law to provide for conversion entitlements, and have published the government response to the consultation.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Regulations 2020 enable same-sex couples in Northern Ireland to convert their existing civil partnerships to marriage and allow opposite-sex couples in Northern Ireland to convert their marriages to a civil partnership.

Couples in Northern Ireland will have three years from 7 December 2020 to convert an existing relationship to a previously unavailable legal relationship. These converted relationships will be backdated, such that the resulting relationship will be treated as having existed from the date the original relationship was formed. The Regulations also deliver the necessary consequential amendments to ensure all of the relevant rights, benefits and entitlements flow for couples in Northern Ireland.

The Government response to the consultation on conversion entitlements can be accessed here

Changes to the law in Northern Ireland on Abortion

Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019 (NI EF Act) imposed a duty on the UK Government to reform Northern Ireland’s abortion law, given that the Northern Ireland Executive was not restored by 21 October 2019.

The Government is legally required to make regulations that provide lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland in accordance with the recommendations made in the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women report, Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Report).

Following the restoration of the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, the Government remains under a legal duty under section 9 of NI EF Act and is delivering on this duty in a way that works best for Northern Ireland.
In bringing forward these commitments, our guiding principles for this framework are to uphold the protection of women and girls, the promotion of their health and safety, and the provision of clarity and certainty for the healthcare profession, and being responsive and sensitive to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly being restored.

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The new framework allowing lawful access to services will be in place from 31 March 2020. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, were laid in Parliament on 25 March 2020. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland will oversee the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland, consistent with this framework. This includes the operational readiness of services.

The Department of Education and the Department for Communities also have responsibility for the implementation of relevant recommendations in the CEDAW Report.

The Government will continue to work closely with the relevant Northern Ireland departments to ensure implementation of the recommendations, ensuring that the legal provisions for access to abortion services can also be accompanied by models of care, training, professional guidance and professional standards of practice to assist medical professionals.

New abortion framework for Northern Ireland

The regulations allow for access to abortions without conditionality up to 12 weeks gestation (11 weeks + 6 days), to be certified by one medical professional that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twelfth week.

Abortions beyond 12 weeks gestation (11 weeks + 6 days) are lawful in the cases where:

  • the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy up to 24 weeks gestation (23 weeks + 6 days);

  • Severe fetal impairment and fatal fetal abnormalities without any gestational time limit; and

  • where there is a risk to the life of the woman or girl, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or where necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, including in cases of immediate necessity without any gestational time limit.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland will be responsible for commissioning abortion services, as appropriate, in General Practitioners premises, clinics provided by a Health and Social Care (HSC) trust, and HSC hospitals, operating under the overall Northern Ireland HSC framework.

For early medical abortions (up to the end of the tenth week), the woman’s home in Northern Ireland will be a place where the second stage of early medical abortion may be carried out, following a medical consultation and the taking of the first stage of the treatment.

Further information on the availability of services in Northern Ireland will be provided by the Northern Ireland Department of Health in due course.

For further information about the legal framework, please see the regulations and the Government’s response to the consultation here.

Government response to public consultation

The Government undertook a six-week public consultation on the proposals for the new framework that would provide lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.
The consultation opened on 4 November 2019 and closed on 16 December 2019 and we carefully analysed all of the submissions received.
We particularly welcomed the submissions from health professionals, statutory bodies and people with lived experience in Northern Ireland in informing the final framework.

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Accessing abortion services in England

Ahead of the new legal framework coming into force on 31 March 2020 and services becoming operational, women and girls resident in Northern Ireland will be able to access abortion services in England.
All costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed accommodation, will be paid for, with no means testing required.
This will remain in place after 31 March 2020 until we are confident that service provision in Northern Ireland is available to meet women’s needs.

Women from Northern Ireland can call a single telephone number to make an appointment with the most appropriate provider, based on:

The Central Booking Service number is 0333 234 2184. The package of care available includes:

  • a consultation including impartial information/advice, and where needed, counselling with an abortion provider in England, including an assessment of whether the legal grounds for an abortion in England are met an abortion procedure;

  • HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests; and

  • choice of contraception from the abortion provider.

Further information can be accessed here

COVID-19

While COVID-19 restrictions are in place, you can continue to leave your home to travel for health reasons.

The Central Booking Service can provide advice on options for travel and accommodation.

Please continue to observe social distancing to reduce social interaction where possible.

Victims’ payments

The Government has made Regulations to provide for a scheme to acknowledge those living with serious and continuing disablement from physical and/or psychological injuries due to a Troubles-related incident.
The scheme will be open to people who were injured through no fault of their own living with the effects of either physical or psychological injury.

This follows a public consultation in the Autumn, and the Government’s response to that consultation can be viewed here

The scheme will be administered by an independent Board with practical support from the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). Full details about its launch should be made available by the NICS and its opening for applications will be advertised in the Belfast Gazette.

The Secretary of State has published guidance here to support the Board in making decisions about whether payments would be inappropriate, on the basis of serious convictions or in exceptional circumstances having regard to material evidence. The Regulations make clear that those injured at their own hand are excluded, and provide for the establishment of an independent Board, supported by the Executive, which will make case-by-case decisions. The guidance says that anyone who has a conviction – terrorist or otherwise – which caused serious harm to anyone else, should ordinarily not receive a payment.

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