Supreme Court dismisses two ‘right to die’ appeals

News|June 25th 2014

The Supreme Court has dismissed two appeals from individuals seeking assistance to end their lives.

One of the appeals concerned Tony Nicklinson, who I’ve written about in this blog before.

Nicklinson suffered from ‘locked-in syndrome’ after a stroke in 2005. As he could only move his eyes and head, he was unable to do anything for himself and wanted to end his life.

Without intentionally starving himself, there was no way for Nicklinson to achieve this without assistance, but Section 2 (1) of the Suicide Act 1961 dictates that it is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison to assist someone’s suicide.

He applied to the High Court in the hope they would allow someone to help him die, but was denied. He died of pneumonia six days after the ruling.

Mr Nicklinson’s widow vowed to continue her late husband’s fight and took his case to the Court of Appeal, adding a man named Paul Lamb as a claimant in the proceedings.

Paul Lamb was involved in a “catastrophic car crash in 1990” which left him unable to move except for his right hand. Similarly to Mr Nicklinson, he appealed for the right to die as his life was “a mixture of monotony, indignity and pain”.

The appeal was dismissed.

With the High Court and Court of Appeal rejecting their pleas, the case was brought to the Supreme Court.

The argument before the Court was that Section 2 (1) of the 1961 Act was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which states that no public authority shall interfere with a person’s private life except in extreme cases.

Nicklinson and Lamb’s appeal was heard at the same time as one from a man in similar circumstances.

The man identified only as ‘Martin’ suffered a brainstem stroke in 2008 which left him unable to move his body. With no hope of a cure, Martin wished to use the Dignitas service offered in Switzerland.

Dignitas enables people who wish to die a way to do so. Under Swiss law, it is completely legal.

The problem Martin faced was that, because he could not move, he would have to have someone else assist him in getting to Switzerland in the first place. Concerned this would breach Section 2 (1), he sought assurances that any carer who helped him would not be prosecuted.

Martin’s application to the High Court failed but his appeal was partially successful. The High Court said it was “most unlikely” that a carer from outside of the family would be prosecuted for helping him.

Martin did not feel the ruling went far enough so he appealed to the Supreme Court on similar ECHR grounds to the Nicklinson case.

During the judgment, Lord Sumption laid out the current state of assisted suicide under British law.

A patient who is mentally competent can refuse food and water in the knowledge that doing so would kill them, and their doctor must comply with their wishes. Doctors are also allowed to assist and advise a patient with regard to the alleviation of pain, but “may not advise a patient how to kill himself”.

This summary was endorsed by President of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale and Lord Mance.

The Supreme Court voted to dismiss the appeal of Nicklinson and Lamb by seven votes to two, and unanimously dismissed Martin’s appeal.

The justices ruled that the question of Section 2 (1) being incompatible with the ECHR was a question for the government to decide, not the courts:

“If a provision of an Act of Parliament is incompatible with an applicant’s Convention right, this is a matter for Parliament.”

This was inevitably going to the Supreme Court’s verdict.

At the time it was announced that Nicklinson’s case was being taken to the Court of Appeal,I said it was a hopeless case.

I met his daughters during an appearance on ITV’s This Morning last year, and while their determination was easy to understand and admire, it was always going to be a lost cause.

Whether it is the High Court, the Court of Appeal, or the Supreme Court, judges cannot change British law.

Photo of the UK Supreme Court’s official badge by IanVisits via Flickr

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