On time limits…
Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for women’s issues and equality as well as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has recently voiced her support for a reduction of the legal limit for abortions, from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. She cites advances in medical technology to support her opinion, arguing “what we are trying to do here is not to put obstacles in people’s way but to reflect the way medical science has moved on”. Many have objected to Miller’s argument that many more babies are surviving at 24 weeks or below, pointing, for example, to statistics from the Office of National Statistics in 2010 which showed that only 12% of babies born before 24 weeks lived for at least a year.
Miller’s statement has worried many pro-choice activists. Darinka Aleksic, the campaign co-ordinator for Abortion Rights, said: “The fact that the minister responsible for women and equalities wants to restrict access to abortion, one of the most important women’s health services, is really alarming.” Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt the recently appointed Health minister, called for the legal abortion limit to be halved. Many are wondering whether the government will soon make changes, despite David Cameron’s repeated statements that he has no plans to review the abortion laws.
On developments in Northern Ireland…
Marie Stopes has opened Northern Ireland’s first private abortion clinic in Belfast. The clinic will operate within Northern Ireland’s current strict legal framework, which permits abortions but only in very limited circumstances – to preserve the life of the mother or when continuing the pregnancy would have other serious, permanent physical or mental health effects.
The clinic’s services will be available to women from the Republic of Ireland but only where they meet Northern Ireland’s strict legal criteria. Since the clinic has opened, there have been numerous protests by anti-abortion lobbyists who have called for the clinic’s closure. Moreover, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, John Larkin, has called for a Stormont investigation into the opening of the clinic. Marie Stopes, however, feels that there is a need for a service that offers private terminations in Northern Ireland. The aim of the clinic opening was to give Northern Irish women similar rights to their English, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. Tracey McNeill, Marie Stopes UK Director, commented that the clinic aimed to assist “those small number of people that will be eligible for [an abortion] within their own country”.
Abortion has always been a highly controversial issue in Northern Ireland. Whether the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic will pave the way for further private clinics in Northern Ireland or whether it will succumb to the protestor’s demands remains to be seen.
On 26 October 2012, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the case of A v A  EWCA Civ 1396. The case concerned a residency order for four children, three of whom were born in England and one of whom was born during a period in which the mother (“NA”) was forcefully detained in Pakistan.
When NA had taken her three children to visit their father – who had returned to the Indian sub-continent after the married couple’s separation – she was restrained there with the paternal extended family for two years, during which time she gave birth to a fourth child. NA eventually fled, successfully and with the aid of her family, back to the UK, immediately launching custody proceedings to effect the return of her children. Parker J in the lower court ruled that the residency of all four children could be determined as being that of UK residency.
The Court of Appeal has overturned this ruling in respect of the youngest child (the residency of the children who were born and had lived in England was de facto established). Thorpe LJ, dissenting, contended that, in the case of the fourth child, its residency is inherently that of its mothers from birth and that the act of abduction should not be supported. The majority, however, found that the pressure to create a rule by which a newly born child was presumed to take on birth the habitual residence of its parents ought to be resisted since it would derogate from a purely factual analysis of where a child is resident and would be inconsistent with the ratio of Mercredi v Chaffe  EWCA Civ 272.
On 24 October 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that approximately 170 female ex-employees of Birmingham City Council (“BCC”) may proceed with their compensation claims in respect of BCC’s alleged breach of equal pay laws.
It is alleged that BCC made payments and provided benefits to men doing the same level of work as the women, without awarding the same to the women. In its judgment last week, the Court decided that it was capable of hearing cases brought outside the six-month time bar imposed on such cases at an Employment Tribunal. This seminal judgment effectively extends the restrictive time limit on equal pay cases for both private and public sector workers, making claims more worthwhile pursuing.
A recent BBC documentary focusing on the practice of ‘Gay conversion therapy’ in America has once again brought these controversial programs, which attempt to ‘correct’ homosexuality, to the fore. These schemes focus on the alleged psychological afflictions of homosexual men but, as argued in the recent BBC documentary, they cause wider issues, especially in parent-child relationships. While there are several facilities in the USA, there has not been the same support for them in the UK. This is illustrated by the advertising of such programs being banned from London buses, on the grounds that they are contrary to TFL’s tolerance policies. Potential ramifications of this ban are widespread: tensions arose in London when this ban was imposed because material promoting acceptance of homosexuality in society was awarded space.
The family home
The Office for National Statistics has reported that the number of cohabiting couples with children has more than doubled since 1996 but that marital partnerships are more stable than cohabiting relationships. The ONS state that while the number of cohabiting relationships with children has doubled, the number of married couples has decreased by almost half a million – down to 12,185,000. The findings by the ONS regarding stability are particularly significant given that the report, ‘Families and Households 2012’, states that the percentage of cohabiting couples with children is ‘very similar’ to the percentage of married couples with children. The report argues that cohabitations are around three times more likely to break down than marriages – leaving children in these relationships to usually be brought up by a single parent. It also suggests that children who are brought up by single parents are more likely to do worse at school, suffer worse health, and are more likely to grow up to be unemployed or be involved in crime. In the 2010 Conservative manifesto, David Cameron stated that he would implement measures to encourage marriage with a tax break, but is yet to take any action. It is unclear whether a tax break would have the desired effect of improving stability in familial relationships or would serve to further reinforce the stigma and barriers faced by non-married families. Perhaps, given the high number of children from cohabiting parents and the increased challenges faced by them, a broader, more inclusive, approach to financial or tax assistance might better serve the interests of all families.
The male oriented approach of UK prisons has long been a cause for concern and the number of suicide attempts among female inmates continues to rise.
A commission set up by the Scottish government has responded by calling for Scotland’s only female prison – Cornton Vale – to be demolished. The former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish, has recommended the opening of a smaller prison for high-risk female prisoners serving a long-term sentence, with other prisoners serving their sentences in regional units, allowing a shift in emphasis to inmate mental health. Elish has also recommended new powers be given to police to issue conditional cautions and to judges to impose combined custodial and community sentences..
In stark contrast, the Lakeview Shock Incarceration Facility in New York is a unique institution in which female offenders given a three-year sentence or less for non-violent crimes can go free after six months on completion of the prison’s boot camp program. Inmates are forced to have their heads shaved, keep intensive fitness schedules, and must eat in less than eight minutes. Prisoners have also been reduced to tears by the all-male staff that issues their orders. The institution does claim impressive stats to vouch its effectiveness but at what mental and emotional cost?
And more from afar…
Saudi Arabia is introducing a new law that will allow women to work in the legal profession from next month. This important step will see women granted a license to practice if they can secure sponsorship from a male guardian alongside three years’ experience and a legal degree. Booz & Co. recently released figures that show women in Saudi now make up 60 per cent of graduates, but only 15 per cent of the workforce.
The funeral has been held for Lucy Jones McKnight, a 20-year-old woman from Calgary and alleged victim of domestic abuse. Her partner has been arrested. November is Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, where campaigners aim to ‘break the silence’ shrouding the 200,000 reports of domestic violence in the region every year.