Supreme Court decision on the ‘right to die’ case

Topics covered: Ridouts professional advice

The Supreme Court has handed down its decision on the ‘right to die’ case.  The Court deliberated for over six months and their decision marks this as a landmark case.

The case considered three severely disabled men who wanted to die.  Two of the men, Paul Lamb and Tony Nicklinson argued that they should be permitted by law in England and Wales to have assistance with ending their lives.  They argued that the current law on assisted suicide was incompatible with their Article 8 right to respect for their private lives under the European Convention of Human Rights and sought a declaration under section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

A third man, known only as Martin, sought clarification from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the policy that governs prosecution of people who assist a suicide.  He questioned whether strangers such as carers, doctors or nurses were likely to be prosecuted for assisting in the suicide of an individual.

Although the Court formally rejected the claimants’ cases, when considered in detail the judgement highlights a major step towards liberalising the law for people who want to end their lives in England and Wales.

The court decided that it had the power to declare that the statute was not compatible with Article 8.  However, at this point in time it has not made such a declaration and has instead stated that Parliament needs to debate the legislation in the near future.  If Parliament does not properly do so, the court may then issue a declaration of incompatibility.

The DPP provided a rare statement clarifying that an individual member of a profession, or a professional carer, who does not have previous influence or authority over the person wishing to die, and who is brought in for the simple purpose of assisting the suicide after a person has reached his or her own settled decision to end his or her life, and who provides services that a family member would not be prosecuted for providing, would be most unlikely to be prosecuted.  This has never previously been stated by the DPP and does not reflect the current policy.  The DPP therefore has a duty to review the written policy.  If this is not done the courts have the power to require appropriate action to be taken.

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