Where there is uncertainty as to whether a provision of a Bill passed by the Assembly is within the legislative competence of the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows the Attorney General to ask the UK Supreme Court to definitively determine whether the provision is within competence. This is a way to settle quickly what might otherwise involve lengthy litigation (and expense) in the lower courts. One of the grounds on which a Bill may be found to be outside the competence of the Assembly is if it is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Attorney asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the offence created by Clause 5(2)(a) of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill, which does not provide for a defence of reasonable excuse, is a proportionate interference with the rights of those who wish to express opposition to abortion services in Northern Ireland and therefore within the competence of the Assembly. The Court has determined that, balancing the competing considerations, the restrictions on Convention rights which will result from Clause 5 of the Bill are justifiable. The Attorney welcomes the decision of the Supreme Court which will provide clarity and certainty and avoid protracted future litigation. The Secretary of State may now submit the Bill for Royal Assent.