Northern Ireland's strict abortion law breaches the human rights of women, the Belfast High Court on Monday said in a “historic“ ruling, three years after an Indian dentist died following refusal from doctors in the “Catholic country“ to terminate her 17-week pregnancy due to the legislation.

The long-awaited judgment could lead to the victims of rape and incest as well those suffering from fatal foetal abnormalities having terminations in Northern Irish hospitals. At present, medical teams could be jailed for life for carrying out abortions under most circumstances because of the 19th-century law.

“In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their convention rights protected, I conclude that the Article 8 rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnor malities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions,“ Justice Horner said. It was Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar's case back in October 2012 that resulted in a legislation change to the region's Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act to allow an abortion if a motherto-be's life was at risk.

Halappanavar's death due to sepsis at University Hospital Galway after being refused an emergency termination due to strict anti-abortion laws, had resulted in a very narrow change to the Catholic country's laws. Unlike the rest of the UK, the Abortion Act 1967 has never applied to Northern Ireland and since devolution of powers was restored to the Stormont Assembly, the region has resisted any attempt to relax the neartotal ban on terminations.

The judgment does not change the law and any reform has to be debated by the regional parliament. In June, a number of organisations and individuals made submissions to the Belfast HC.

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