Trinity Term [2017] UKSC 41 On appeal from: [2015] EWCA Civ 771

JUDGMENT
R (on the application of A and B) (Appellants) v
Secretary of State for Health (Respondent)
before
Lady Hale, Deputy President
Lord Kerr
Lord Wilson
Lord Reed
Lord Hughes
JUDGMENT GIVEN ON
14 June 2017
Heard on 2 November 2016
Appellants Respondent
Stephen Cragg QC Jason Coppel QC
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC Katherine Eddy
(Instructed by Simpson
Millar LLP
)
(Instructed by The
Government Legal
Department
)
Interveners (Alliance for
Choice, British Pregnancy
Advisory Service,
Birthrights, Family
Planning Association and
Abortion Support
Network)
Helen Mountfield QC
Jude Bunting
(Instructed by Leigh Day
& Co
)
Intervener (British
Humanist Association

Written submissions only)
Heather Williams QC
Kate Beattie
(Instructed by Bhatt
Murphy Solicitors)
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LORD WILSON: (with whom Lord Reed and Lord Hughes agree)
A: QUESTION
1. Was it unlawful for the Secretary of State for Health, the respondent, who
had power to make provisions for the functioning of the National Health Service
(“the NHS”) in England, to have failed to make a provision which would have
enabled women who were citizens of the UK, but who were usually resident in
Northern Ireland, to undergo a termination of pregnancy under the NHS in England
free of charge?
2. No, said the Court of Appeal (Moore-Bick LJ, Elias LJ, who gave the
substantive judgment, and McCombe LJ) on 22 July 2015, [2015] EWCA Civ 771,
[2016] 1 WLR 331, when dismissing an appeal against an order to like effect made
by King J on 8 May 2014, [2014] EWHC 1364 (Admin).
B: INTRODUCTION
3. Under section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 (“the 1967 Act”) a medical
termination of pregnancy is lawful in four specified circumstances, of which the first
is, in essence, that the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks and that its continuation
would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the
physical or mental health of the woman. By section 7(3), the 1967 Act extends to
England, Wales and Scotland but not to Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland a
termination of pregnancy is lawful when its continuation would threaten the
woman’s life or when it would probably affect her physical or mental health but
only if the effect would be serious and, in particular, permanent or long-term: Family
Planning Association of Northern Ireland v Minister for Health and Social Services
and Public Safety [2004] NICA 37, para 12, Sheil LJ. The consequence of the
requirement that the probable adverse effect should at least be long-term is that
abortion in Northern Ireland is lawful only in far narrower circumstances than in the
rest of the UK. A challenge to the failure of the law in Northern Ireland to make
abortion lawful even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and of pregnancies caused
by sexual crime has been upheld in the High Court of Northern Ireland and is subject
to appeal: In re Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s Application for
Judicial Review [2015] NIQB 96, [2016] 2 FCR 418. But, irrespective of the
ultimate outcome of those proceedings, the far narrower availability of lawful
abortion in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK seems likely to continue. The
criminal law relating to abortion in Northern Ireland is a “transferred matter” within
the meaning of section 4(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and so, subject to
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section 6, its amendment or otherwise falls within the legislative competence of the
Northern Ireland Assembly rather than of Parliament in Westminster.
4. The result of the narrower availability of abortion in Northern Ireland is a
steady stream of women usually resident there who come to England in order to
secure an abortion here.
5. The evidence in these proceedings is to the following effect:
(a) Unable (unless in an emergency) to obtain an abortion free of charge
under the English NHS, these women attend private, fee-paying clinics in
England approved by the respondent under the 1967 Act.
(b) Official statistics, based on records kept by the clinics, suggest that
about 1,000 of them secure abortions in England each year.
(c) But the statistics are likely to understate their number because some of
the women are believed to hide the fact that they are usually resident in
Northern Ireland.
(d) The clinics charge about £600 for terminating a pregnancy of less than
14 weeks and up to £2,000 in the event that it is further advanced.
(e) Additionally the women need to pay for their travel to and from
England and, usually, an overnight stay.
(f) Vulnerable and frightened, they often ask a friend or family member
to accompany them, albeit, of course, at yet further cost.
(g) For most of the women, the total cost represents a vast sum of money
which they do not have.
(h) The charity known as Abortion Support Network, being the fifth
intervener in these proceedings, sometimes makes a contribution towards the
women’s costs.
(i) Even if so, the women usually need to borrow the balance.
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(j) The stigma which in Northern Ireland surrounds unwanted pregnancy
and its termination can inhibit the women from explaining the reason for their
need to borrow.
(k) The effect of any delay in raising the funds is that the pregnancy
continues, that its termination usually becomes more complex as well as more
costly and that its psychological consequences usually become more
profound.
(l) If, within the time frame set by the 1967 Act, they cannot raise the
funds to secure a lawful abortion in England, the women have to choose either
to undergo a self-administered or back-street abortion in Northern Ireland, by
which they endanger their health and expose themselves to criminal
prosecution and a likely sentence of imprisonment, or to proceed to give birth
to a child for whom they may be ill-equipped to care.
6. Although this court must acknowledge respect for the ethical “pro-life”
convictions which inform the law in relation to abortions in Northern Ireland
(together, of course, with equal respect for the contrary “pro-choice” convictions),
it remains easy to understand why the plight of women who find themselves in
unwanted pregnancy there is deeply unenviable.
7. The two appellants, A and B, are cases in point. In 2012 A, then aged 15,
became pregnant. B is her mother. At all material times they have resided in
Northern Ireland. With B’s support A decided to seek the termination of her
pregnancy. It was conducted in October 2012 at the Marie Stopes International
Clinic in Manchester. B had accompanied A there. The total cost was about £900,
of which £400 was contributed by Abortion Support Network and £500 was
borrowed from friends. Adding significantly to the emotional strain on both A and
B of discovering A’s pregnancy and of enabling her to decide whether to secure its
termination in England were the embarrassment, difficulty and uncertainty attendant
on the urgent need to raise the necessary funds.
C: LEGISLATIVE STRUCTURE OF THE NHS IN ENGLAND
8. On 1 April 2013 there was a change in the legislative structure of the NHS in
England. The present appeal, in which the claim is of a breach in 2012 of a duty
owed to the appellants, therefore relates to the previous structure. The respondent
makes a helpful concession: it is, as I will explain in para 13, that in 2012 he had a
power which, if exercised, would (so the court may assume) have enabled UK
citizens usually resident in Northern Ireland to undergo abortions under the NHS in
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England free of charge. But it is a power which he did not exercise; so the question
is whether his failure to do so was unlawful.
9. Section 1(1) of the National Health Service Act 2006 (“the 2006 Act”) was
not materially affected by the change in 2013. In its current version it provides that
the respondent must continue to promote in England a comprehensive health service
designed to secure improvement “(a) in the physical and mental health of the people
of England, and (b) in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of physical and mental
illness”. In my view correctly, King J described the provision as creating a target
duty: the express focus of both parts of it is improvement. It identifies the general
objectives by reference to which the respondent must exercise his functions under
the Act. Such is made clear in subsection (2) of the same section, when, referring
back to subsection (1), it provides that “for that purpose” he must (in the previous
version of subsection (2)) provide services in accordance with the Act and (in the
current version of it) exercise his functions so as to secure that they are so provided.
10. Section 1(1) of the 2006 Act refers not to the people in England but to the
people of England. In R (A) v Secretary of State for Health [2009] EWCA Civ 225,
[2010] 1 WLR 279, Ward LJ suggested at para 55 that the reference is therefore to
people who are “part and parcel of the fabric of the place”. I agree and suggest, more
simply, that it is to the people who live in England. Other legislation imposes an
analogous target duty on the health authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern
Ireland. Thus section 2(1)(a) of the Health and Social Care (Reform) Act (Northern
Ireland) 2009 requires the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
in Northern Ireland to promote a system of health care designed to secure
improvement in the physical and mental health of “people in Northern Ireland”. The
general scheme is therefore that the health service for the people who live in
Northern Ireland is to be provided for them there by the Northern Irish authority.
11. The original version of section 3(1) of the 2006 Act provided:
“The Secretary of State must provide throughout England, to such
extent as he considers necessary to meet all reasonable requirements –

(c) medical … services,
(d) such other services … for the care of pregnant women
… as he considers are appropriate as part of the health service
…”
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The provision of abortion services fell within either (c) or (d), indeed probably
within (c). But the respondent’s duty was to provide them “to such extent as he
considers necessary to meet all reasonable requirements”. When addressing the
same words in the predecessor to section 3(1), the Court of Appeal, in R v North and
East Devon Health Authority, Ex p Coughlan [2001] QB 213, observed at para 24
that the respondent therefore had no duty to provide services “if he does not consider
they are reasonably required or necessary to meet a reasonable requirement”.
Although in my view the appellants are right to question whether the existence of a
reasonable requirement was left to the determination of the respondent, his
evaluation undoubtedly governed the extent to which it was necessary to meet it; so
a broad area of the duty cast upon him by section 3(1) was left to be marked out by
the exercise of his own judgement.
12. In 2002, however, the respondent’s functions under what became section 3(1)
of the 2006 Act were made exercisable on his behalf by primary care trusts (“the
trusts”): see regulation 3(2) of the National Health Service (Functions of Strategic
Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts and Administration Arrangements)
(England) Regulations (SI 2002/2375), (“the Functions Regulations”). Regulation
3(7) was important because it defined the categories of persons for whose benefit a
trust should exercise the functions. In summary the categories were as follows:
(a) persons registered, other than temporarily, with a GP in the area of the
trust;
(b) persons “usually resident in its area”;
(c) persons resident outside the UK who were present in its area (albeit
that other regulations required a trust to charge such persons for services);
(d) persons suffering serious mental illness who were resident in other
parts of the UK and who were present in its area; and
(e) all persons present in its area but only for the provision to them of
emergency and analogous services, treatment for certain infectious diseases
and “any other services which the [respondent] may direct”.
13. Although, therefore, a woman present in England but usually resident in
Northern Ireland did not, save in the case of an emergency or if suffering serious
mental illness, qualify for the provision by the trusts of abortion services in England,
it was open to the respondent to make a direction under regulation 3(7) and section
7(1) of the 2006 Act that the function under section 3(1) of providing abortion
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services should be exercised by the trusts for the benefit of all persons present in
their area who were citizens and residents of the UK. As I have already indicated,
the case proceeds on the convenient if questionable assumption that, had the
respondent done so, then, notwithstanding the broad area of judgement then
exercisable by the trusts under section 3(1) and notwithstanding the target set under
section 1(1) to secure improvement in the health of the people of England, they
would have resolved to provide such services to UK citizens usually resident in
Northern Ireland – including, therefore, to A.
14. The change on 1 April 2013 in the legislative structure of the NHS in England
was wrought by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (“the 2012 Act”). One of its
purposes was to reduce the respondent’s role, even when only nominal, in the frontline provision of services. It abolished the trusts. It revoked the Functions
Regulations. It provided for the establishment of clinical commissioning groups
(“the groups”). And it amended section 3(1) of the 2006 Act so that the provision of
the services there identified, including, as before, medical services and services for
the care of pregnant women, is now required to be arranged by a group. But the duty,
which is qualified in terms much as before, is to make such arrangements only “to
such extent as it considers necessary to meet the reasonable requirements of the
persons for whom it has responsibility”.
15. For whom, then, does a group have responsibility for this purpose? The
answer lies in a new subsection, numbered (1A), introduced into section 3 by the
2012 Act: in principle (and apart from provision in emergencies, etc) it has
responsibility for persons provided with primary medical services by a member of
the group (ie persons registered, whether temporarily or otherwise, with a GP in the
group) and for persons usually resident in the group’s area if not registered with a
GP in another group. At first sight, therefore, the perceived solution for the pregnant
woman usually resident in Northern Ireland might be to come to England and to
cause herself to be registered temporarily with a GP here. As it happens, that
particular solution is precluded by regulation 2(2) of the National Health Service
(Clinical Commissioning Groups – Disapplication of Responsibility) Regulations
2013 (SI 2013/350), which excludes persons usually resident in Northern Ireland
(and in Scotland and Wales) from those to whom a group owes duties under section
3(1) and (1A). In addition to its duties, however, a group also has a power in relation
to those for whom, under section 3(1A), it has responsibility. The power is conferred
by a new section, numbered 3A, introduced into the 2006 Act by the 2012 Act: it is
to arrange for the provision to them of such services as it considers appropriate for
securing improvement in their physical and mental health. So the woman usually
resident in Northern Ireland but temporarily registered with a GP in England would
qualify for any such services; and there is no such exclusion of her from qualification
for the exercise of the group’s power as precludes her qualification for the discharge
of the group’s duties.
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16. Just as in 2012, in relation to the case before the court, the respondent had
power to make a direction which (so we are to assume) would have enabled UK
citizens usually resident in Northern Ireland to undergo abortions in England free of
charge under the NHS, so today the groups therefore appear also to have power to
enable them to do so. Were it to have been unlawful for the respondent in that respect
to have failed to exercise the power which he had prior to 1 April 2013, it would
seem hard to understand why it has been otherwise than unlawful for the groups in
that respect to have failed to exercise the power which they have had since that date.
D: TWO GROUNDS OF CHALLENGE
17. The appellants argue that the respondent’s failure to provide for A, as a UK
citizen usually resident in Northern Ireland, to be entitled to undergo an abortion
free of charge under the NHS in England was unlawful both in public law and
because it was in breach of their human rights.
E: PUBLIC LAW
18. It is already apparent that, strictly speaking, the challenge is to a failure on
the part of the respondent to have exercised a power, namely the power to make the
direction identified in para 13 above. The appellants contend that, when he decided
not to exercise the power, he took an irrelevant consideration into account and he
accepts that, if he did so, his decision was unlawful. They also argue that his decision
was more broadly irrational. But they go further. They submit that, in the light of its
context, the respondent’s power to make the direction became a duty to do so. For,
so their argument runs, the context was section 3(1) of the 2006 Act, which imposed
on the respondent the duty identified in para 11 above. The respondent does not
argue that, just because by 2012 the exercise of his functions under section 3(1) had
been delegated to the trusts, the subsection had become irrelevant to the exercise of
his power to make the direction. But, in my view correctly, he points to two features
which significantly diminish the ability of the appellants to rely on the duty in the
subsection:
(a) A broad area of the duty was left to be marked out by the exercise of
his own judgement: see para 11; and
(b) in discharging the duty, his target had to be to improve the health of
the people who lived in England: see para 10.
19. The appellants submit that:
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(a) A was usually resident in part of the UK and thus, in principle, she was
a UK tax-payer and a contributor to the funding of the UK-wide NHS;
(b) she was also a UK citizen;
(c) all UK citizens usually resident there should, at any rate in this context,
be treated alike irrespective of the area within the UK of their usual residence;
(d) the respondent chose to provide abortion services in England free of
charge under the NHS for women usually resident in England on the basis
(which was correct) that they had a reasonable requirement for it;
(e) but women usually resident in Northern Ireland were, as he knew,
generally unable to access such services there;
(f) and so the only decision rationally open to him was to provide such
services for them in England.
20. Like the judges in the courts below, I would reject the appellants’
submissions set out above. Parliament’s scheme is that separate authorities in each
of the four countries united within the kingdom should provide free health services
to those usually resident there. The respondent was entitled to make a decision in
line with this scheme for local decision-making and in accordance with the target
reflective of it which was imposed on him by statute. But the respondent has taken
his argument a stage further. In response to the letter before action sent on behalf of
the appellants, he stated that it was
“the policy of the Government … that, in general, the NHS
should not fund services for residents of Northern Ireland
which the Northern Ireland Assembly has deliberately decided
not to legislate to provide, and which would be unlawful if
provided in Northern Ireland.”
This is the consideration which the appellants submit to have been irrelevant. It was,
so they argue, the assembly’s decision which created the need and it could hardly
also represent a reason for refusing to meet it. I disagree. The respondent was
entitled to afford respect to the democratic decision of the people of Northern
Ireland; was entitled to have in mind the undeniable ability of Northern Irish women
lawfully to travel to England and to purchase private abortion services there; and
was entitled to decide not further to alter the consequences of the democratic
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decision by making such services available to them free of charge under the public
scheme in England for which he was responsible.
F: HUMAN RIGHTS
21. The appellants argue that the respondent’s decision not to exercise the power
to make the direction identified in para 13 above was unlawful because it violated
article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”) taken
in conjunction with article 8 of it. Paragraph 1 of article 8 provides for a right,
qualified in para 2, to respect for private and family life. Article 14 provides that the
right shall be secured without discrimination “on any ground such as … national …
origin … or other status”. The appellants assert that enjoyment of their right to
respect for their private and family life (more particularly perhaps for private life in
the case of A and for family life in the case of B) was not secured without
discrimination on the ground of status. But B’s asserted right is parasitic on that of
A so, in what follows, it will be convenient to refer only to the latter.
(i) Scope
22. The respondent now accepts that a decision whether to provide abortion
services to a group of women free of charge falls within the scope of their rights
under article 8 to respect for their private life. It is indeed a decision which may
profoundly erode their autonomy in relation to about the most intimate area of their
private life. In A, B and C v Ireland (2011) 53 EHRR 13 the three applicants were
residents and citizens of Ireland. The Grand Chamber of the European Court of
Human Rights (“the ECtHR”) rejected the complaints of A and B that the Irish
prohibition against their undergoing abortions there, even when in the interests of
their health, had infringed their rights under article 8; but it upheld the complaint of
C that Ireland had infringed her right under the article by having failed to enable her
to ascertain whether, in her particular medical circumstances, she had a right to
undergo an abortion there. At an early stage of its judgment, the Grand Chamber
had said:
“214. While article 8 cannot … be interpreted as conferring a
right to abortion, the court finds that the prohibition in Ireland
of abortion where sought for reasons of health and/or wellbeing about which the first and second applicants complained,
and the third applicant’s alleged inability to establish her
qualification for a lawful abortion in Ireland, come within the
scope of their right to respect for their private lives and
accordingly article 8.”
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(ii) Other Status
23. It is no criticism of the appellants to record that the ground of the alleged
discrimination has been formulated in different ways. For the relevant concepts are
difficult. It is clear that, at the centre of their argument, is a complaint based on usual
residence. As I will try to explain, the complaint is that, by his decision, the
respondent has treated women usually resident in Northern Ireland either differently
from women usually resident in England or similarly to women usually resident
outside the UK; and the context which makes such treatment significant and which
allegedly creates indirect discrimination is that women usually resident in Northern
Ireland have no general entitlement to undergo abortions there.
24. A person’s place of residence is, curiously, not one of the grounds of
discrimination specified in article 14. But does it fall within the portmanteau of
“other status”? In Carson v United Kingdom (2010) 51 EHRR 13 the applicants,
who were entitled to the UK state retirement pension but resident outside the UK,
complained about a rule which precluded index-linking of the pension when paid to
overseas residents. They claimed that it violated article 14 taken in conjunction with
article 1 of Protocol 1 to the Convention. The Grand Chamber concluded at para 71
“that place of residence constitutes an aspect of personal status for the purposes of
article 14” but, in the event, it proceeded to reject the applications.
25. How, then, can the respondent argue that usual residence in Northern Ireland
does not constitute a status which can ground a complaint of discrimination in breach
of article 14? He relies on the earlier decision of the ECtHR in Magee v UK (2000)
31 EHRR 35. The applicant, who had been arrested in Northern Ireland and denied
access to a solicitor for over 48 hours, complained of a violation by the UK of article
14 taken in conjunction with article 6. He alleged that, had he been arrested in
England and Wales, he would have been granted access to a solicitor at once. The
court rejected the complaint; it held at para 50 that the basis for the alleged difference
of treatment was that, at the time of his arrest, the applicant had been present in
Northern Ireland rather than in England and Wales and that, in that such a basis was
not related to any personal characteristic, it was not a ground falling within article
14. In the Carson case, at para 70, the court distinguished the Magee case in that
same way. The respondent presents the complaint of the appellants as relating to a
difference of treatment of women resident in Northern Ireland but only when present
in England. But the respondent’s presentation itself reveals the personal
characteristic at the heart of the complaint – namely residence in Northern Ireland.
26. The complaint of the appellants is indeed therefore of a difference of
treatment on a ground of status within article 14. But, in my view wisely, they now
seek to attach a qualification to the status of usual residence in Northern Ireland.
Were the complaint to remain broadly that the respondent visited a significant
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difference of treatment upon women resident not in England but in Northern Ireland
in which they have no general entitlement to undergo an abortion, it would logically
extend to women resident not in Northern Ireland but in other countries, in particular
Ireland, in which they too have no general entitlement to undergo an abortion. Thus,
no doubt in order that their claim should not be unnecessarily ambitious, the
appellants now seek to qualify the status of those alleged to have been unlawfully
disadvantaged by a difference of treatment. The suggested status is therefore defined
as “women who are UK citizens, present in England and usually resident in Northern
Ireland”.
27. The above qualification presents no problem for the appellants. Usual
residence is recognised as falling within “other status” for the purpose of article 14.
National origin is there specified as also a status for that purpose. A status for the
purpose of article 14 can have more than one component; see, for example, the
decision of the ECtHR in 2012 in BS v Spain (Application No 47159/08), in which
(a) a woman who was (b) black and (c) a prostitute established a ground of
discrimination contrary to article 14 by reference to the interaction of all three
factors: see paras 52 and 62 of the judgment.
28. What, then, is the group with which the appellants seek to compare the
allegedly disadvantaged group as now defined? They give alternative answers. And
they give them by reference to alternative presentations of the nature of the
respondent’s decision.
29. The obvious presentation of the nature of the respondent’s decision is that
(save exceptionally) abortion services were to be made available free of charge
under the NHS in England only to those usually resident in England. On this basis
the comparator group suggested by the appellants is women present in England and
usually resident in England. Here the claim is that the allegedly disadvantaged group
should have been treated in the same way. The Convention does not require a state
to make abortion services generally available, still less to make them free of charge,
but, once it decides to make them available, whether free of charge or otherwise, the
state must devise a framework for access to them which accords with Convention
obligations: RR v Poland (2011) 53 EHRR 31, para 187.
30. But, in the alternative, the appellants turn the nature of the respondent’s
decision inside out. The alternative presentation of it is that (save exceptionally)
abortion services were not to be made available under the NHS in England to those
not usually resident in England. On this basis the comparator group suggested by
the appellants is all other women present in England but not usually resident in
England. Here the claim is that the allegedly disadvantaged group should have been
treated in a different way from that in which the comparator group was treated. For,
so the argument proceeds, the situation of “women who are UK citizens, present in
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England and usually resident in Northern Ireland” is significantly different from that
of all other women present in England but not usually resident in England, even if
the latter are usually resident in countries where abortion services are not generally
available. The appellants contend that the legitimacy of this alternative answer is
established by the decision of the Grand Chamber in Thlimmenos v Greece (2000)
31 EHRR 15. There the applicant, a Jehovah’s Witness, had refused to enlist in the
army for religious reasons and had therefore been convicted of a felony. The effect
of a Greek decree was that a person convicted of a felony could not be admitted as
a chartered accountant. The Grand Chamber upheld his complaint that, in failing to
differentiate between felonies committed for religious reasons and felonies
committed for other reasons, Greece had violated article 14 taken in conjunction
with article 9 (the right to freedom of religion). It observed at para 44 that a violation
occurred not only “when States treat differently persons in analogous situations
without providing an objective and reasonable justification” but also “when States
without an objective and reasonable justification fail to treat differently persons
whose situations are significantly different”.
31. I do not see how the appellants’ alternative presentation, based on the
Thlimmenos case, adds anything to their first and obvious presentation – apart from
an extra level of unwelcome complexity. The respondent cannot deny that he treated
women usually resident in England differently from women who, although UK
citizens, were usually resident in Northern Ireland. But the difference of treatment
does not amount to discrimination, and thus is not in breach of article 14, if it was
justified.
(iii) Justification
32. If he is to establish justification, the respondent has to persuade the court to
give an affirmative answer to the four well-known questions posed, for example, by
Baroness Hale of Richmond in R (Tigere) v Secretary of State for Business,
Innovation and Skills [2015] UKSC 57, [2015] 1 WLR 3820, at para 33. In my view
an affirmative answer clearly falls to be given to the first three of them: for the aim
of the respondent’s decision in relation to women who were UK citizens but usually
resident in Northern Ireland, to which the decision was rationally connected, was to
stay loyal to a legitimate scheme for health services to be devolved in the interests
of securing local provision to residents in each of our four countries. Nor, with that
aim, could he have reached any decision less intrusive upon the rights of such
women to respect for their personal life. The issue surrounds the fourth question:
did his decision strike a fair balance between their rights and the interests of the UK
community as a whole?
33. The respondent’s own conclusion that his decision struck a fair balance
should, so he contends, be adopted unless it was “manifestly without reasonable
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foundation”. A central issue, so he says, is economic – should the women have to
pay for the abortion services which are available to them in England? – and, although
he does not contend that it would be impossible for the NHS in England to fund the
provision to them of such services free of charge, he points out that the funding of
other services would in that event be diminished. So, according to him, the central
issue raises a second issue which relates to the allocation of resources. He proceeds
to cite the decision of the Grand Chamber in Stec v United Kingdom (2006) 43
EHRR 47, at para 52, that, in relation to “general measures of economic or social
strategy”, the Strasbourg court will generally respect the policy choice of national
authorities unless it is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. But it is now
clear that, while this criterion may sometimes be apt to the process of answering the
first question, and perhaps also the second and third questions, it is irrelevant to the
question of fair balance, which, while free to attach weight to the fact that the
measure is the product of legislative choice, the court must answer for itself: see In
re Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill [2015] UKSC 3,
[2015] AC 1016, para 46, Lord Mance.
34. The appellants correctly submit that, in interpreting Convention rights, the
ECtHR now frequently refers to the text of international conventions and even to
the recommendations of committees set up to oversee observance of them by the
parties to them. They and the interveners urge the court to assess the fairness (or, as
they submit, the unfairness) of the respondent’s decision in its application to women
who were UK citizens but usually resident in Northern Ireland through the prism of
such material. They therefore rely on article 12(2) of the United Nations Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
(“CEDAW”), which requires the UK, as one of the parties to it, to “ensure to women
appropriate services in connection with pregnancy …, granting free services where
necessary …” They also rely on CEDAW General Recommendation No 24, issued
on 5 February 1999 by the committee set up by that Convention, in which, by way
of elaboration on article 12, it recommended at para 31(c) that “[w]hen possible,
legislation criminalizing abortion should be amended, in order to withdraw punitive
measures imposed on women who undergo abortion”. And they further rely on
General Comment No 22 (2016) of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights, in which at para 28 parties to the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the UK, are required to “liberalize
restrictive abortion laws” and to “guarantee women and girls access to safe abortion
services”.
35. These three quotations represent the high point of the mass of such material
now pressed upon the court. The conventions and the covenant to which the UK is
a party carefully stop short of calling upon national authorities to make abortion
services generally available. Some of the committees go further down that path. But,
as a matter of international law, the authority of their recommendations is slight: see
Jones v Ministry of Interior of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [2006] UKHL 26,
Page 15
[2007] 1 AC 270, para 23, Lord Bingham of Cornhill. At its highest one can say
only that there is a trend in some of the international material to which the current
law in Northern Ireland runs counter. The trend adds background colour to the
inquiry into fair balance under the Convention. In my view, however, the appellants
need material of a far more vivid hue to put into the balance against the respondent’s
resolve to stay loyal to the overall scheme for separate provision of free health
services within each of our four countries and to the democratic decision reached in
Northern Ireland in relation to abortion services. In my view the balance struck by
his decision was fair.
G: CONCLUSION
36. On any view the dissenting judgments of Lord Kerr and Lady Hale command
considerable respect. Lord Kerr concludes that it was the duty of the Secretary of
State (and is the duty of the groups) to provide for a UK citizen present but not
usually resident in England the same medical services, free of charge, under the
NHS as he provided (and as they provide) for those usually resident in England.
Lady Hale agrees with him but also stresses that a requirement for abortion services
represents a special case. It is, however, easy to think of other people suffering a
grave medical condition who could mount an equally convincing special case. Lady
Hale also suggests that the duty of the NHS in England to provide abortion services
extends even to foreign citizens present in England; but its entitlement to charge
such citizens, which Lady Hale recognises, might not negate the effect of the
suggested extension on the functioning of the service. Irrespective, however, of its
precise extent, the duty proposed to be cast upon the respondent by Lord Kerr and
Lady Hale would, in my view, precipitate both a substantial level of health tourism
into England from within the UK and from abroad and a near collapse of the edifice
of devolved health services. In the end, for the reasons given above, I find myself
unable to agree either that sections 1 and 3 of the 2006 Act or that the human rights
of UK citizens generate the suggested duty. I would dismiss the appeal.
LORD REED: (with whom Lord Hughes agrees)
37. I agree entirely with the reasoning and conclusions of Lord Wilson. I have
thought it right to make some additional observations about an aspect of the case
which is of wider importance in the context of the devolved constitutional structure
of the United Kingdom. That is the question whether laws or administrative practices
adopted within one of the constituent parts of the UK, which differentiate between
UK citizens according to whether they are or are not residents of that part, fall within
the scope of article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Page 16
38. There are numerous decisions and judgments of the European Court of
Human Rights, and of the former Commission, in which differential treatment based
on a person’s not having a right of residence in the country concerned, or on his
being a resident of a foreign country, has been held to fall within the scope of article
14. The case of Carson v United Kingdom 51 EHRR 13, discussed by Lord Wilson
at paras 24-25, was a case of that kind.
39. There have also been cases concerned with situations in which a national law
or administrative arrangement resulted in the differential treatment of people in
different parts of the country concerned. In some cases of that kind preceding
Carson, the Commission proceeded directly to consider whether the differential
treatment was justified, without separately addressing the question whether it was
based on an “other status”, within the meaning of article 14, and therefore fell within
the scope of that article. Examples include Lindsay v United Kingdom (1979) 15 DR
247, and Gudmundsson v Iceland (Application No 23285/94), given 17 January
1996, unreported. A similar approach was adopted by the Court in later cases such
as Orion-Břeclav SRO v Czech Republic (Application No 43783/98), given 9 July
2002, unreported, Posti v Finland (2003) 37 EHRR 6, and Alatulkkila v Finland
(2005) 43 EHRR 34.
40. Cases concerned with legislation or administrative rules introduced at a subnational level, within the context of a federal or devolved constitutional structure,
which resulted in different rules applying in different constituent parts of the state
in question, have been less common. An early example before the Court was the
case of Dudgeon v United Kingdom (1981) 4 EHRR 149, concerned with legislation
in Northern Ireland that criminalised homosexual behaviour which was lawful in the
rest of the UK. The majority of the Court, having held that there was a violation of
article 8, found it unnecessary to determine the complaint under article 14, but Judge
Matscher, in a dissenting opinion, considered the complaint. In the course of doing
so, he stated:
“The diversity of internal legislation in a federal state can
never, in itself, constitute discrimination, and it is unnecessary
to justify it. To claim the contrary would be to mistake totally
the very essence of federalism.”
41. The Commission adopted a similar approach in a series of cases concerned
with other differences between the laws of the different jurisdictions of the UK. An
example is the case of P v United Kingdom (Application No 13473/87), given 11
July 1988, unreported, where the Commission stated:
Page 17
“… in many, if not all, of the contracting states, different legal
jurisdictions exist in different geographical areas within the
state (eg cantons, communes, Länder, etc) … the mere existence
of variations between such jurisdictions within a state does not
constitute discrimination within the meaning of article 14 of the
Convention.”
Similar observations were made in Times Newspapers Ltd v United Kingdom
(Application No 14631/89), given 5 March 1990, unreported.
42. That was not, of course, to say that the laws of a jurisdiction within a state
could not violate article 14: for example, the Commission noted in P v United
Kingdom that there was no indication that the difference there in question was based
on any ground such as “association with a national minority”. All that was being
said was that differences between the laws in different jurisdictions were not in
themselves discriminatory. Thus in Nelson v United Kingdom (1986) 49 DR 170, a
complaint based on differences between the laws governing remission and parole in
Scotland and England was dismissed because the differences were “not related in
any way to the personal status of the applicant”.
43. The Court considered differential treatment arising from differences between
the law of Northern Ireland on the one hand, and England and Wales on the other
hand, in the case of Magee v United Kingdom 31 EHRR 35, discussed by Lord
Wilson at para 25. There, the Court stated (para 50):
“… in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom there is not
always a uniform approach to legislation in particular areas.
Whether or not an individual can assert a right derived from
legislation may accordingly depend on the geographical reach
of the legislation at issue and the individual’s location at the
time. For the Court, in so far as there exists a difference in
treatment of detained suspects under the [Northern Irish
legislation] and the legislation of England and Wales on the
matters referred to by the applicant, that difference is not to be
explained in terms of personal characteristics, such as national
origin or association with a national minority, but on the
geographical location where the individual is arrested and
detained. This permits legislation to take account of regional
differences and characteristics of an objective and reasonable
nature. In the present case, such a difference does not amount
to discriminatory treatment within the meaning of article 14 of
the Convention.”
Page 18
44. It is not entirely clear from that passage whether the Court meant that
differences in treatment based on the jurisdiction to whose laws a person was subject
by reason of his geographical location were not based on the person’s “status”,
within the meaning of article 14, or whether it meant that such differences required
to be, and were in that case, objectively justified. The former interpretation is in my
view to be preferred, for three reasons. First, the Court’s general approach at that
time to issues of “status”, within the meaning of article 14, was based on “personal
characteristics” (I say “at that time”, because in later cases the Court has tended to
refer instead to “identifiable characteristics”, in response to arguments that personal
characteristics are necessarily immutable and inherent); and a person’s geographical
location cannot readily be regarded as a personal characteristic. Secondly, there are
strong constitutional arguments against treating differences in the laws of different
jurisdictions internal to a state as necessarily requiring justification, as was
recognised by Judge Matscher in Dudgeon and by the Commission in the cases
mentioned earlier. This has also been accepted by the Court of Justice of the
European Union: R (Horvath) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and
Rural Affairs (Case C-428/07) [2009] ECR I-6355 (“where the constitutional system
of a member state provides that devolved administrations are to have legislative
competence, the mere adoption by those administrations of different … standards …
does not constitute discrimination contrary to Community law”: para 58). Thirdly,
and most importantly, that is how Magee was interpreted by the Grand Chamber in
Carson v United Kingdom 51 EHRR 13, para 70, to which I turn next.
45. The case of Carson v United Kingdom was concerned with UK legislation
which differentiated between residents of the UK and residents of other countries.
One of the issues in the case, as identified in the heading to paras 66-71, was whether
“country of residence” was an “other status”, within the meaning of article 14. The
court held that it was. It stated at paras 70-71:
“70. The Grand Chamber … has established in its case law
that only differences in treatment based on a personal
characteristic (or ‘status’) by which persons or groups of
persons are distinguishable from each other are capable of
amounting to discrimination within the meaning of article 14
… It further recalls that the words ‘other status’ (and a fortiori
the French equivalent toute autre situation) have been given a
wide meaning so as to include, in certain circumstances, a
distinction drawn on the basis of a place of residence. Thus, in
previous cases the Court has examined under article 14 the
legitimacy of alleged discrimination based, inter alia, on
domicile abroad and registration as a resident. In addition, the
Commission examined complaints about discrepancies in the
law applying in different areas of a single contracting state (see
Lindsay v United Kingdom and Gudmundsson v Iceland). It is
Page 19
true that regional differences of treatment, resulting from the
application of different legislation depending on the
geographical location of an applicant, have been held not to be
explained in terms of personal characteristics (see, for example,
Magee v United Kingdom, para 50). However, as also pointed
out by Stanley Burnton J [R (Carson) v Secretary of State for
Work and Pensions [2002] EWHC 978 (Admin)], these cases
are not comparable to the present case, which involves the
different application of the same pensions legislation to persons
depending on their residence and presence abroad.
71. In conclusion, the Court considers that place of
residence constitutes an aspect of personal status for the
purposes of article 14.”
46. No question arose in Carson as to whether a person’s residence or nonresidence in a constituent part of a country with a federal or devolved constitution
was an “other status”. It is also true that the Grand Chamber, in distinguishing the
Magee line of cases, referred to the fact that those cases were concerned with
“regional differences of treatment”, as opposed to “residence and presence abroad”.
On the other hand, the contrast drawn by the Court in the last two sentences of para
70 was between a difference in treatment resulting from the application of different
legislation, according to where the person in question was located, and a difference
in treatment resulting from the application of a single piece of legislation which
differentiated between people according to where they resided.
47. Differential treatment of the latter kind can be equally present whether the
legislation in question is national or sub-national in origin, and whether the residence
test relates to residence within the country in question or within a constituent part of
it. A law which treats the residents of a place differently from non-residents
therefore differentiates on the basis of personal status, within the meaning of article
14, whether the law in question has been passed by the Parliament of the United
Kingdom and applies to the whole of the UK, or has been passed by the devolved
legislature of one part of the UK and applies only in that part; and whether the
differentiation is between residents and non-residents of the UK, or between
residents and non-residents of a part of the UK. The same must be equally true of an
administrative arrangement.
48. That interpretation of para 70 is confirmed by the unqualified language of
para 71: “place of residence constitutes an aspect of personal status for the purposes
of article 14”: a phrase which has been repeated in later judgments (see, for example,
Pichkur v Ukraine (Application No 10441/06), given 7 November 2013, para 47).
Page 20
49. The fact that the differential treatment of residents and non-residents of a
particular part of the UK falls within the scope of article 14, whether it arises by
virtue of national or devolved legislation or by virtue of administrative
arrangements, does not of course by any means entail that such treatment is in
violation of the article. But it does mean that the difference in treatment requires to
be justified.
LORD KERR: (dissenting)
50. A woman from Northern Ireland (NI) visiting England who suffers an acute
attack of appendicitis will have, if it proves necessary, her appendix removed in a
National Health Service hospital, without charge. The same woman, if she travels to
England in order to obtain an abortion, must pay for that procedure. How can this
be right? The answer is that it cannot be, and is not, right.
51. It might be suggested that the two situations are not analogous because when
the notional woman needs an appendectomy and happens to be in England, she is
not exercising a choice in obtaining that treatment, whereas the same woman
travelling to England for an abortion does so out of choice. In fact, of course, a
woman who travels to England to obtain an abortion has, in the clear majority of
cases, no true choice. She must travel away from her home and the support of her
family and friends to obtain treatment of the most traumatic type in unfamiliar
surroundings. If she wishes to obtain an abortion, she must travel to England. That
is because, as Lord Wilson has explained, the circumstances in which that procedure
may be carried out in NI are far narrower than in England. It is beyond question that
a woman from NI who seeks an abortion in England may travel there lawfully and
may lawfully obtain an abortion, provided she fulfils the conditions stipulated by
the Abortion Act 1967. But she cannot obtain that treatment on the NHS. England
is in practice the only place where a woman from NI can obtain an abortion. But,
unlike an Englishwoman who likewise will only seek an abortion in England, the
woman from NI must pay.
52. Para 5 of Lord Wilson’s judgment provides an admirably comprehensive
account of the relevant factual background to this appeal. In that para Lord Wilson
described the circumstances in which women from NI come regularly to England to
secure abortions. He has recognised the plight into which many of these vulnerable
women are cast by the decision of the Secretary of State for Health that treatment
for their condition is not to be available on the NHS.
53. The only matters beyond those referred to by Lord Wilson which, I believe,
should be taken into account are: (i) it is an accepted fact that 15-16% of abortions
carried out in England for non-resident women are for women normally resident in
Page 21
NI. Official statistics suggest that around 1,000 abortions are carried out in England
on NI women; (ii) even if one accepts the figure of 1,000 per annum, which, for the
reasons given by Lord Wilson, is likely to be a significant underestimation, it is a
considerable percentage of child bearing women in NI with a population of 1.8m
and an annual birth rate there of some 24,000. In England and Wales, the number of
abortions was 184,000 for a population of 56.1m.
The 2006 Act
54. Three primary issues arise concerning the correct interpretation of the
principal provisions relevant to this appeal (sections 1 and 3 of the Act). The first is
whether the phrase, “the people of England” introduces a demographic restriction
which applies to section 1(1) of the Act generally. The second issue is, if the phrase
in section 1 partakes of such a restriction, does it affect the geographical reach of
section 3. The third issue is whether the section 1 duty is properly to be characterised
as a target duty, and, if so, what significance should attach to that term.
55. Before turning to the provisions, it is to be noted that the cross headings to
Part I of the Act (in which both sections 1 and 3 are contained) are: “Promotion and
Provision of the Health Service in England” and “The Secretary of State and the
Health Service in England”. Of course, the use to which cross headings may be put
as an aid to interpretation is limited. But it is of some interest that the opening words
describing the nature of the succeeding provisions do not refer to any demographic
restriction.
56. It might be considered that confining the Secretary of State’s duty to one
which required him to provide services to the people of England only would not
reflect political and practical reality. The “people of England” is an amorphous
phrase, capable, at least theoretically, of many meanings. As Lord Wilson observed,
Ward LJ in R (A) v Secretary of State for Health [2010] 1 WLR 279, para 55
suggested that it meant people who are “part and parcel of the fabric of the place”.
With respect, I find that interpretation may pose more questions than it answers, for
who are to be regarded as constituting part of the fabric of a place? While not
disagreeing with Ward LJ’s formulation, Lord Wilson suggested what it meant was
“the people who live in England”. But, how is that to be defined? England attracts
many people to her shores. Some wish to live here permanently but may have no
legal right to do so, or even to have entered the country. Are they people of England
while they live here? Others may be short or long term visitors. Imagine the case of
a woman from NI who has come to visit relatives in England, intending to stay for
six months. Is she a person of England during those months? She is certainly living
here. And what if she fell pregnant half way through her stay? Would she have to
pay for an abortion because she did not normally live in England? These
Page 22
considerations indicate how difficult it is to fix on a restricted meaning for the
phrase, “people of England”.
57. This difficulty can be avoided, however, by a clear understanding of the
separate aims of section 1(1) and of the true nature of the objective to which the
phrase “people of England” has been applied.
The “people of England” and the provision of services “in or throughout
England”
58. Section 1 of the 2006 Act, as originally enacted, provides:
“1. Secretary of State’s duty to promote health service
(1) The Secretary of State must continue the promotion in
England of a comprehensive health service designed to secure
improvement –
(a) in the physical and mental health of the people of
England, and
(b) in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of
illness.
(2) The Secretary of State must for that purpose provide or
secure the provision of services in accordance with this Act.
(3) The services so provided must be free of charge except
in so far as the making and recovery of charges is expressly
provided for by or under any enactment, whenever passed.”
59. The primary obligation imposed on the Secretary of State is to continue to
promote in England a comprehensive health service. The comprehensive health
service was to secure improvement in two separate areas. The first of these was the
physical and mental health of the people of England. The second (and distinct from
the first) was the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness. That second purpose
did not have a qualification that it should apply to the people of England only. This
is important because it clearly indicates that the Secretary of State’s duty was not
Page 23
fulfilled merely by bringing about an improvement in the health of the people of
England. The duty also included the requirement to promote a comprehensive health
service which would not only achieve that objective but would also advance the
prevention etc of illness.
60. Where subsection (2) provides that the Secretary of State must “for that
purpose” secure the provision of services in accordance with the Act, this does not
refer exclusively to the improvement of the health of the people of England. “For
that purpose” must be taken to refer to all the objectives identified in subsection (1).
These were (i) the continued promotion of a comprehensive health service; (ii) the
improvement of the health of the people of England; and (iii) the prevention,
diagnosis and treatment of illness. The duty under subsection (2) to secure the
provision of services in accordance with the Act must reflect these separate
objectives.
61. It can be readily understood why the two objectives of the comprehensive
health service were identified in separate sub-paragraphs of section 1(1). It is
understandable that the aspiration that a health service should improve the health of
the nation can be expressed as applying to the people of England. After all, the
Secretary of State does not have a responsibility to improve the health of other
nations. When it comes to providing health services generally, however, a much
wider constellation of issues arises. The diagnosis and treatment of illness, although
it of course contributes to improving the health of the nation, involves more than
fulfilling that objective. The treatment of individual patients, while it may contribute
incidentally to an improvement in the health of people generally, requires the
provision of adequate medical services, irrespective of the part that they may play
in improving overall standards of health.
62. When, therefore, one comes to section 3 of the Act, the Secretary of State’s
duty to provide the services listed there is impelled, at least in part, by considerations
other than improving the health of the people of England generally. The principally
relevant parts of section 3 of the 2006 Act, as originally enacted, are set out in para
11 of Lord Wilson’s judgment and I need not repeat them here. The duty is to
provide the listed services “throughout England”. As Lord Wilson has pointed out,
the Secretary of State’s duty was to provide them “to such extent as he considers
necessary to meet all reasonable requirements” but the critical question was how
were those reasonable requirements to be defined.
63. In para 18(b) of his judgment Lord Wilson accepted the respondent’s
argument that in discharging the duty, the Secretary of State’s target had to be to
improve the health of the people who lived in England. For reasons that have been
foreshadowed in earlier passages of this judgment and on which I will expand
presently, I do not accept that argument.
Page 24
64. Before doing so, I should say that I agree with Lord Wilson’s reservations
about the correctness of the opinion expressed by the Court of Appeal, in R v North
and East Devon Health Authority, Ex p Coughlan [2001] QB 213, to the effect that
the Secretary of State had no duty to provide services if he considered they were not
reasonably required or necessary to meet a reasonable requirement. The Secretary
of State surely does not enjoy a blanket immunity from challenge to his
determination of what were the reasonable requirements in any given situation. True
it is that his evaluation of what those requirements demanded will weigh heavily in
any challenge to his decision but if that decision can be shown to be legally flawed
by reason, for instance, of its irrationality or of the failure of the Secretary of State
to take account of a plainly relevant consideration, the mere fact that he is charged
with the statutory responsibility of reaching a decision on the question of reasonable
requirements, does not render that decision invulnerable to challenge. The outcome
of this appeal does not depend on this type of challenge. The primary issue here is
whether the Secretary of State properly conceived the nature of his statutory
obligation under section 3 of the 2006 Act.
65. In my opinion, the Secretary of State was not obliged to view the discharge
of his duty under section 3 through the lens of whether the services provided would
improve the health of the people of England. To the contrary, the provision of those
services was primarily concerned with the second objective in section 1(1)(b),
namely, the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness. Implementation of that
condition was unconstrained by the need to gear it to improvement of the health of
the people of England. The conclusion that the focus was on fulfilling the second
objective is reinforced by considering the type of services which the section requires
the Secretary of State to provide, as well as the prefatory injunction that he provide
the services throughout England as opposed to for the people of England.
66. The services stipulated in sub-paras (e) and (f) of section 3(1) plainly relate
to the objective of section 1(1)(b). They are “(e) such other services or facilities for
the prevention of illness, the care of persons suffering from illness and the after-care
of persons who have suffered from illness as he considers are appropriate as part of
the health service”, and “(f) such other services or facilities as are required for the
diagnosis and treatment of illness”. The Secretary of State’s obligation, therefore,
was to ask himself “what are the reasonable requirements in the provision of those
services throughout England”; not “what are the reasonable requirements of the
people of England for these services”.
67. The Secretary of State was therefore wrong to conclude that the discharge of
his duties under section 3 was dominated by the “people of England” question. Of
course, his primary obligation, so far as concerned the improvement of the health of
the nation, was to “the people of England”, however that phrase is to be construed.
But it did not provide a fetter on his consideration of how his statutory duty should
Page 25
be fulfilled. To the contrary, the discharge of his duties under section 3 should have
been regarded by him as requiring a far wider consideration.
68. In England, an abortion can only lawfully be provided under section 1 of the
Abortion Act 1967 to avert a risk of physical or mental injury to the mother, the
unborn child or any existing children in the family. As Laws LJ explained in ProLife
Alliance v British Broadcasting Association [2002] 3 WLR 1080; [2002] EWCA
Civ 297 at para 6:
“The great majority [of abortions] are performed on the third
of the five permitted grounds under the Abortion Act 1967 as
amended: that is that the continuance of the pregnancy would
involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of
injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
There is some evidence that many doctors maintain that the
continuance of a pregnancy is always more dangerous to the
physical welfare of a woman than having an abortion, a state of
affairs which is said to allow a situation of de facto abortion on
demand to prevail.”
69. Thus, while pregnancy is not, of course, itself an illness, allowing an
unwanted pregnancy to continue to term carries a risk of physical or mental injury.
There can therefore be no question but that Englishwomen who seek an abortion in
England are being treated “for the prevention … of illness” under sections 1(1)(b)
and 3 of the 2006 Act. Women from NI provided with abortion services in England
are likewise being treated under these provisions. The single difference is that
women from NI cannot avail of section 1(3), whereas women from England can.
70. It was argued for the respondent that differences in standards in treatment for
all manner of illnesses and conditions differed in the different parts of the United
Kingdom but that citizens of one part were not entitled to demand provision of what
they might regard as superior services in a part of the kingdom in which they did not
live. It was suggested that this was in keeping with individual schemes for health
services being provided to residents in each of the four countries of the United
Kingdom. But abortion services such as A required are not provided at all in
Northern Ireland. This is not an instance of her seeking what she regarded as a better
level of service in England. It was a case of her being obliged to come to the only
medical service of which she could avail. The decision of the Secretary of State to
refuse to allow NI women to obtain abortion services on the NHS in England was
one taken in the knowledge that she could not obtain those services elsewhere.
Page 26
The power of the Secretary of State to direct that abortion services on the NHS
should be available to women from Northern Ireland and his reasons for not
exercising it
71. As Lord Wilson has observed (in para 8 of his judgment), it was accepted
that the Secretary of State had the power to enable UK citizens usually resident in
Northern Ireland to undergo abortions under the NHS in England free of charge. I
agree with all that he has said in paras 12-16 of his judgment about the continuing
availability of that power. Indeed, all of this was a matter of concession by the
Secretary of State.
72. Given that the Secretary of State had that power, one must concentrate on his
reasons for deciding not to have recourse to it. His decision not to do so was based
on two considerations. The first was that whatever course he took should be
consonant with his target to improve the health of the people of England. If that
factor loomed over the decision, it seems almost inevitable that his conclusion would
have to be not to allow women from NI to have abortions on the NHS. It is difficult
to see how a decision to allow them to have abortions in England free of charge
could be reconciled with an overriding obligation to promote the health service in
order to improve the physical and mental health of the people of England. The very
existence of a power to permit NI women to have abortions on the NHS seems
inconsistent with such an obligation. Whatever of that, for the reasons that I have
given, I believe that the Secretary of State was wrong to consider that his statutory
duty was so confined.
73. The second reason proffered by the Secretary of State was that it was the
policy of the government that the NHS should not fund services for NI residents
which “the Northern Ireland Assembly has deliberately decided not to legislate to
provide, and which would be unlawful if provided in Northern Ireland” – see the
letter referred to in para 20 of Lord Wilson’s judgment. This view was reached
against the background that the Secretary of State’s primary obligation was to
provide health services for the people of England. Notwithstanding my conclusion
that this should not have been the framework within which the decision was taken,
it is right that I should examine it as a possible defence even in what I consider was
the correct legal context, namely, that the Secretary of State was under a duty to
provide medical services throughout England unconstrained by the requirement that
these be devoted to the people of England.
74. Lord Wilson has said that the Secretary of State was entitled to afford respect
to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland (para 20). I agree.
Indeed I would go further. He was bound to show such respect. But respect for what?
The Northern Ireland Assembly had decided that abortion in that jurisdiction should
not be provided on the same basis as in England. But it has expressed no view about
Page 27
the ability of women from NI to travel to England to obtain abortions. Assembly
members, indeed all informed persons in the entire population of Northern Ireland,
are plainly aware of the fact that many women from NI travel every year to England
to obtain abortions and have done so for many years. The need for respect on the
part of the Secretary of State, on behalf of the British government, did not extend to
denying Northern Irish women the means of obtaining abortions in England. It was
entirely right that this should be so. Why should affording Northern Irish women
abortions on the NHS constitute a lack of respect, when countenancing and
permitting such abortions does not?
75. Lord Wilson’s answer is that the Secretary of State was entitled to decide not
to alter further the consequences of the democratic decision by making such services
available to them free of charge. With regret, I cannot agree. If, as must be presumed
to be the case, the NI Assembly regarded with equanimity the fact that many women
from NI travelled each year to England to obtain abortions, I cannot see how
allowing these abortions to take place on the NHS would involve a further alteration
to the democratic decision of the Assembly.
76. Indeed, I question whether providing NHS funding for abortions for women
from NI involves any alteration to the democratic decision. Both the Assembly and
the British government were aware that it was perfectly legal for them to travel to
England to obtain abortions. Once in England, provided they satisfied the criteria of
the Abortion Act 1967, it was perfectly legal for them to obtain abortions. The NI
Assembly had no function or say in the exercise of the women’s unalterable legal
entitlement to obtain abortions in those circumstances. The democratic decisionmaking in NI simply does not impinge on the exercise by NI women of their rights
in England.
77. By making it more difficult for women from NI to obtain abortions in
England, the Secretary of State was not affording respect to the wishes of the
electorate in Northern Ireland or the decision of NI Assembly. Unless, that is, it is
considered that affording respect warrants the creation of problems for vulnerable
women to exercise their right in a part of the UK solely because they come from a
part of the kingdom where they are unable to exercise the right. That seems to me to
partake of double standards. Women throughout the UK, apart from NI, are entitled
to abortion services under the Abortion Act 1967 and the British government must
be taken to approve of, or at least assent to, that position. On that account, they must
be taken to disapprove of, or at least dissent from, the denial of that right to women
from another part of the UK. Why then should they feel constrained, under the guise
of affording respect to the NI Assembly’s wishes, to make it more difficult for NI
women to exercise, in England, rights to which they are undeniably entitled?
Page 28
A target duty?
78. The Secretary of State argued that the duties owed under sections 1 and 3 of
the 2006 Act were “target” duties and, on that account, they were unenforceable on
the application of an individual. In support of that argument, reliance was placed
firstly on the decision in R (Justice for Health Ltd) v Secretary of State for Health
[2016] Med LR 599; [2016] EWHC 2338 (Admin), para 89 where Green J said that
target duties:
“(a) … do not specify a particular or precisely defined end
result as opposed to a broad aim or object and (b) their
mandatory nature is diluted by the fact that they do not compel
the achievement of that end result instead requiring the
Secretary of State only to factor those objectives into
consideration.”
79. These observations were made in relation to sections 1A-1G of the 2006 Act,
as amended. Those provisions relate to specific duties of the Secretary of State,
relevant to: terms and conditions of employment of those working in the NHS; the
quality of services of those who avail of it; the planning and delivery of education
and training of the professionals employed in the NHS; and reporting to Parliament.
These are a quite different series of duties from those involved in the present appeal.
In any event, Green J did not suggest that the failure of the Secretary of State to
discharge any of the duties could not be the subject of judicial review by someone
affected by the failure. The case provides no support for the respondent’s principal
contention that target duties cannot be enforced by an individual.
80. Next Mr Coppel QC for the Secretary of State relied on a passage from the
speech of Lord Hope of Craighead in R (G) v Barnet London Borough Council
[2003] UKHL 57; [2004] 2 AC 208 at para 91 where, in relation to the target duty
the target duty in section 17(1) of the Children Act 1989, he said:
“I think that the correct analysis of section 17(1) is that it sets
out duties of a general character which are intended to be for
the benefit of children in need in the local social services
authority’s area in general. … [In] R v Barnet London Borough
Council, Ex p B [1994] ELR 357 … Auld J … observed … that
the duties under Part III of the [Children Act] 1989 … fell into
two groups, those which are general and those which are
particular, and that the general duties are concerned with the
provision of services overall and not to be governed by
individual circumstances.
Page 29

As Mr Goudie for the defendants accepted, members of that
section of the public [affected by the local authority’s decision]
have a sufficient interest to enforce those general duties by
judicial review. But they are not particular duties owed to each
member of that section of the public of the kind described by
Lord Clyde in R v Gloucestershire County Council, Ex p Barry
[1997] AC 584, 610a which give a correlative right to the
individual which he can enforce in the event of a failure in its
performance.”
81. This citation, so far from supporting the respondent’s central thesis on the
matter of target duties, seems to me to be entirely destructive of it. A and B do not
suggest that their individual cases required the attention of the Secretary of State or
that they were owed any obligation personal to them. But they were certainly
affected by the Secretary of State’s decision in relation to the availability of abortion
services to NI women. And, on that account they were entitled to enforce the
Secretary of State’s general duties by way of judicial review.
82. In relation to the section 3 duty in particular, Mr Coppel relied on the decision
in R (Condliff) v North Staffordshire Primary Care Trust [2012] PTSR 460; [2011]
EWCA Civ 910. In that case the claimant, a morbidly obese man, made a funding
request to the trust for gastric surgery. This was refused because he did not meet the
trust’s policy of offering funding to people who had a body mass index which
exceeded a certain level. The claimant sought judicial review of the trust’s decision
on the ground, inter alia, that it had breached his right to respect for his private and
family life under article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). The application was dismissed, the
Court of Appeal holding that article 8 of ECHR did not give rise to a positive duty
on a statutory health care provider to consider non-clinical, social or welfare
considerations wider than the comparative medical conditions and medical needs of
different patients when deciding on the allocation of funding for medical treatment.
At para 4 Toulson LJ said of section 3 of the 2006 Act, “this is a public law duty
and not a direct duty owed to individual patients”. He did not say, however, that an
individual, affected by a decision was not entitled to challenge the legal validity of
the policy. Mr Condliff had challenged the failure of the trust to depart from its
policy because of his individual circumstances. This is not the species of challenge
made by A and B. They challenge the policy, not a refusal to make an exception in
their case. The Condliff decision is not germane to their circumstances. In my
judgment, the arguments of the Secretary of State in relation to target duties must
fail. I would therefore allow the appeal.
Page 30
The human rights challenge
83. I fully agree with Lord Wilson, for the reasons that he gives, that the
appellants’ complaint plainly comes within the ambit of article 8 of ECHR. I also
agree with his conclusion, stated in para 31 of his judgment, that “the respondent
cannot deny that he treated women usually resident in England differently from
women who, although UK citizens, were usually resident in Northern Ireland”. But
I cannot agree with his decision that that difference in treatment is justified.
84. Lord Wilson has said (in para 32) that the legitimate aim of the Secretary of
State, in deciding not to permit women from NI to have abortions on the NHS in
England, was to “stay loyal to a legitimate scheme for health services to be devolved
in the interests of securing local provision to residents in each of our four countries”.
For the reasons that I have earlier given, I do not consider that there was any call on
his loyalty to apply such an interdiction. Properly understood, section 1 of the 2006
Act imposed twin but distinct duties on the Secretary of State. Simply stated these
were (i) to promote a health service that would bring about an improvement in the
health of the citizens of the country for which he had responsibility, viz England;
and (ii) to provide medical services that would lead to better diagnosis and treatment
of illness in England. Permitting women who come from NI to have their abortions
on the NHS involves no compromise on the scheme of having each of our four
countries being responsible for local provision of medical services. Allowing NI
women to have abortions on the NHS in England does not impinge on the NI
Assembly’s continuing responsibility for the provision of medical services in
Northern Ireland.
85. The important point on which to focus is that the responsibility is one which
is discharged on a geographical basis. The English Secretary of State is responsible
for providing proper medical services in England. The Northern Irish Minister for
Health is responsible for providing such services in NI. If an Englishwoman is
treated in NI on the NHS for a condition suffered during a visit to that country, no
interference with the scheme for the four countries arises. Likewise, no interference
would arise if NI women who are in England were permitted to have abortions on
the NHS. If the avowed aim is that articulated by Lord Wilson, therefore, I cannot
accept that this is legitimate. It cannot feature in any assessment of justification for
the differential treatment.
86. Two other conceivable aims should be mentioned as possible candidates for
being a legitimate aim. The first is the decision that the NHS should not fund
services for NI residents which the Assembly has decided not to legislate to provide,
and which would be unlawful if provided in Northern Ireland. For the reasons given
earlier, I do not consider that this can possibly qualify as a legitimate aim. The
second is cost. This has never been put forward as a legitimate aim, although it did
Page 31
feature as a matter which the Secretary of State claimed should be taken into account
as part of the balancing exercise, the fourth in the now well-established four stage
evaluation of claimed justification for interference with a Convention right – see R
(Aguilar Quila) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (AIRE Centre
intervening) [2012] 1 AC 621, [2011] UKSC 45; Bank Mellat v HM Treasury (No
2) [2014] AC 700, [2013] UKSC 39; and R (Tigere) v Secretary of State for
Business, Innovation and Skills [2015] UKSC 57; [2015] 1 WLR 3820. Whatever
of its possible relevance to a balancing exercise it simply cannot be considered as a
legitimate aim. Indeed, Mr Coppel, during oral argument, said on behalf of the
Secretary of State, “It has never been our position that the reason abortion [for
women from NI] is not provided on the NHS is that it would be too costly.”
87. If no legitimate aim exists for the interference with the appellants’ article 8
rights, when read with article 14, the entire edifice of justification crumbles. It is
therefore unnecessary for me to address the other three stages identified in Aguilar
Quila and the other cases referred to in the preceding paragraph. I should like to say
something about the issue dealt with by Lord Reed in his judgment concurring with
Lord Wilson.
88. Although academic in the present case (for reasons that I will give presently)
the issue discussed by Lord Reed is an important and difficult one. Lord Reed has
formulated the issue in this way: “whether laws or administrative practices adopted
within one of the constituent parts of the UK, which differentiate between UK
citizens according to whether they are or are not residents of that part, fall within the
scope of article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” As he has
pointed out, although the issue was on, at least, the periphery of some cases
considered by the European Court of Human Rights or the European Commission
on Human Rights in Strasbourg, it has not often been directly dealt with. It was
canvassed on the applicant’s behalf in Dudgeon v United Kingdom (1981) 4 EHRR
149 and raised in Nelson v United Kingdom (1986) 49 DR 170 as Lord Reed has
said. The issue occupied centre stage in Magee v United Kingdom (2000) 31 EHRR
35, discussed by Lord Wilson at para 25 and more fully addressed by Lord Reed in
paras 43 and 44 of his judgment.
89. Lord Reed has referred to the important statement of principle in the
dissenting opinion of Judge Matscher in Dudgeon where he stated in forthright terms
that differences in legislation in different states in a federation could never amount
to discrimination, and the question of justification for such differences simply did
not arise. Judge Matscher did not address the question of whether Mr Dudgeon could
have claimed “other status”, I suspect because he would have regarded the question
as otiose.
Page 32
90. In Magee the principal reason that the applicant failed in his article 14 claim
was that he had been arrested and detained under statutory provisions and a regime
of detention that was unique to Northern Ireland among the jurisdictions of the
United Kingdom and that his claim that he had received differential treatment from
that which he would have received had he been arrested in any other part of the UK
was not viable. However, the decision was expressed by the court (and I agree with
Lord Reed that it is not entirely clear on which precise basis they reached their
conclusion), the claim was bound to fail on the fundamental basis articulated by
Judge Matscher in Dudgeon. Individual jurisdictions within a federal system are
entitled to devise their own laws. They are not required to subscribe to a common
model. In effect, Mr Magee’s claim, in order to succeed, would have had to assert
that laws could not be enacted in Northern Ireland which had less favourable effect
on those detained than did the relevant laws in other parts of the UK.
91. The appellants’ case is fundamentally different. They do not assert that the
law in Northern Ireland should correspond with that in England. They claim that
when women from Northern Ireland are in England, they are entitled to be treated
in the same way as Englishwomen in the provision of abortion services. To analogise
with the position in Magee, if the applicant in that case had been arrested in England,
he would have been entitled to the same detention regime as would have been
afforded Englishmen arrested for the same offences. The appellants derive their
status as women from NI who have been treated differentially from women in
England. I therefore consider that they are entitled to succeed on their human rights
claim also.
LADY HALE: (dissenting)
92. I too would have allowed this appeal, for the reasons given by Lord Kerr. In
particular, I agree with him that the aim in section 1(1)(b) of the National Health
Service Act 2006 is not limited to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness
in the “people of England” (whatever that may mean). It is only the aim in section
1(1)(a), the improvement of those people’s physical and mental health, which is so
limited. I also agree that the relevant services listed in section 3(1), specifically, “(a)
hospital accommodation, (b) other accommodation for the purpose of any service
provided under this Act, (c) medical, dental, ophthalmic, nursing and ambulance
services” are designed, or principally designed, to meet the aim of treating illness in
section 1(1)(b) rather than health promotion in section 1(1)(a). The question,
therefore, is whether a policy of not providing the medical service of terminating
pregnancies under the Abortion Act 1967 to women who live in Northern Ireland is
consistent with the duty to provide (or secure the provision of) such services as are
“necessary to meet all reasonable requirements”.
Page 33
93. In considering what is reasonably required, regard must be had to some of
the fundamental values underlying our legal system, values which were stressed in
the helpful intervention on behalf of the Alliance for Choice, British Pregnancy
Advisory Service, Birthrights, Family Planning Association and Abortion Support
Network. These include autonomy and equality, both of which are aspects of an even
more fundamental value, which is respect for human dignity. The right of pregnant
women to exercise autonomy in relation to treatment and care has been hard won
but it has been won. In St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1999] Fam 26, 50
Judge LJ, giving the judgment of the court, said this:
“In our judgment while pregnancy increases the personal
responsibilities of a woman it does not diminish her entitlement
to decide whether or not to undergo medical treatment.
Although human, and protected by the law in a number of
different ways set out in the judgment in In re MB (An Adult:
Medical Treatment) [1997] 2 FCR 541, an unborn child is not
a separate person from its [sic] mother. Its need for medical
assistance does not prevail over her rights. She is entitled not
to be forced to submit to an invasion of her body against her
will, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends
on it. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her
decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant. The
declaration in this case involved the removal of the baby from
within the body of her mother under physical compulsion.
Unless lawfully justified this constituted an infringement of the
mother’s autonomy. Of themselves the perceived needs of the
foetus did not provide the necessary justification.”
94. That case was concerned with autonomy in the negative sense, the right to
refuse medical treatment, even though it would save the baby’s life. The more recent
case of Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board (General Medical Council
intervening) [2015] UKSC 11; [2015] AC 1430, is concerned with the positive right
to choose what treatment to have. The court emphasised that “an adult person of
sound mind is entitled to decide which, if any, of the available forms of treatment to
undergo” (para 87) and therefore to be provided with the information necessary to
enable her to make that choice, a choice in which she is entitled to be guided by her
own values and preferences (para 115). Of course, there are sometimes
countervailing considerations which constrain her choices. Abortion is only
available in Great Britain if both the substantive and the procedural requirements of
the Abortion Act 1967 are complied with. But if they are, it is the woman’s choice
whether or not to have that abortion. It is a reasonable requirement to provide her
with a service, wherever she comes from. The NHS can charge women from abroad
to whom they provide abortion services. But they cannot charge women from the
United Kingdom, however great their need.
Page 34
95. This is to deny pregnant women from Northern Ireland the same right to
choose what is done with their bodies as is enjoyed by all other pregnant citizens of
the United Kingdom. It is inconsistent with the principle of equal treatment which
underlies so much of our law. This is not to say that the law in Northern Ireland has
to be the same as the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is not what this
case is about. But it is to say that a woman from Northern Ireland who is in Great
Britain ought not to be denied, as a matter of policy, the same rights as other women
here enjoy.
96. Nor is it to say that the NHS must always provide exactly the same services
throughout the United Kingdom. There are often difficult choices to be made which
will depend upon many factors, some of which will be local to the place where the
services are provided. But pregnancy is a special case. As Lord Bingham of Cornhill
explained in Rees v Darlington Memorial Hospital NHS Trust [2003] UKHL 52;
[2004] 1 AC 309, at p 317, having a child that she did not want to have denies a
woman the opportunity “to live her life in the way that she wished and planned” (I
tried to explain the full extent of the denial of her autonomy in Parkinson v St James
and Seacroft University Hospital NHS Trust [2001] EWCA Civ 530; [2002] QB
266). Many women will nevertheless choose to continue the pregnancy and take
care of the child. But a lawful abortion restores her autonomy and respects her
dignity.
97. It is for those reasons that I also agree that the policy is incompatible with the
Convention rights of women from Northern Ireland. The protection of dignity and
autonomy is a core value underlying the rights guaranteed by article 8. The
difference in treatment by the NHS in England between women from England and
women from Northern Ireland cannot be justified by respect for the democratic
decisions made in Northern Ireland as to what will be provided by the NHS there.
In fact, the reason why abortion is only available on a very limited basis in Northern
Ireland is not that the NHS has chosen to provide different services there. It is that
the criminal law of Northern Ireland remains as it was in England before the
Abortion Act 1967 was passed. The NHS there could not provide abortion on a wider
basis there even if it wanted to do so. There is no question of trying to change the
criminal law of Northern Ireland. But that law does not prohibit women from
travelling to England to have an abortion which is perfectly lawful here. It cannot
constitute a good reason for a policy of denying them health services which are
lawful here.