I got in trouble for arguing with a pro-life campaigner at school, now I’m a barrister in the Northern Irish abortion law case

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By Katie King on

Supreme Court ruled in Jeremy Hunt’s favour this week, now all eyes are on Strasbourg

Passion is everything at the bar; Doughty Street Chambers’ Jude Bunting knows that well.

“I remember being at school in Northern Ireland, where I’m from, and they brought in a pro-life campaigner to give us abortion education,” he tells us. Just 15 at the time, Bunting recalls: “I had an argument with her and the whole year was kept behind after school.”

Not only an early but vital step in his journey to a wildly successful career as a barrister (“I realised I liked arguing and getting everyone to agree with me!”), this incident was a precursor to Bunting building a successful practice in a rather niche area of law: abortion.

It’s a topic on people’s minds this week thanks to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. The court on Wednesday decided by a majority of just 3:2 — much to pro-choicers dismay — that Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt had not broken the law by denying Northern Irish women free abortions on the NHS. This ruling reinforced the status quo that women not normally resident in England must pay if they wish to obtain an abortion in England.

Bunting was one of the key legal personalities in this case. He acted alongside lead counsel Helen Mountfield QC for five abortion/birth rights organisations — Alliance for Choice, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, Family Planning Association and Abortion Support Network — who jointly intervened. (An interesting side note: Birthrights is run by Matrix Chambers barrister Elizabeth Prochaska.)

Supporting the case’s claimant (a 20-year-old Northern Irish woman who paid for a private English abortion aged 15), Bunting and Mountfield stressed the five-justice bench should consider fundamental values underpinning our legal system. These include autonomy, equality and respect for human dignity.

Though the argument received a firm nod in Lady Hale’s judgment (para 93), Lords Wilson, Reed and Hughes seemed enamoured by the government’s case and the appeal was lost. A pro bono intervention which Bunting dedicated weeks to; was he disappointed? No doubt — but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t positive for him.

It was “an honour”, in fact. Engaged with their message since he was a schoolchild, Bunting thinks his clients are phenomenal people doing very heroic work — and his fellow lawyers aren’t too shabby either. He describes lead counsel Mountfield as a “breath of fresh air”, and says working with (since retired) Leigh Day partner and human rights campaigner Richard Stein was “a real treat”.

The case also afforded Bunting — who specialises in police law and administrative law, among other things — the opportunity to act in the highest court in the land. Though not for the first time since he was called in 2006, Bunting realises making arguments before the country’s most senior judges is something many law students and young advocates only dream of. On this, he comments:

The Supreme Court is a wonderful place. It’s more engaged than other courts; you’re close to the judges and you’re all on the same level. It’s high pressure but it’s also quite informal, and you end up cutting through a lot of the faff.

Of course, it’s an intimidating place to be too. Bunting, a graduate of Hertford College, Oxford, continues:

If you’re on your own without a leader, you’re stood next to some of the cleverest people in the world… [I]t’s a real test as an advocate. But that’s why you do this job, to push yourself and use legal skills to help your client.

And that’s just what Bunting intends to keep doing. The unsuccessful appellants have expressed an intention to appeal this week’s ruling to Strasbourg. Will the European Court of Human Rights be more sympathetic to Bunting and co’s legal arguments than the Supreme Court was? With the ECtHR’s impressive backlog of cases, it could be years before we find out the answer.

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