UK Supreme Court defers jurisdiction on assisting in suicide to the Parliament

Wednesday 25th of June. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom delivered its judgement in three related appeal cases related to the issue of assisted suicide and in consideration both of British domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In all cases, the nine senior judges refused to act to change the existing laws. All three appellants lived with significant paralysing disabilities and were not able to suicide without assistance.

Nicklinson and Lamb: Nicklinson had previously applied to the High Court for (i) a declaration that it would be lawful for a doctor to kill him or to assist him in terminating his life, or, if that was refused, (ii) a declaration that the current state of the law in that connection was incompatible with his right to a private life under article 8 of the Convention ("Article 8"). Nicklinson was joined by Lamb. The High Court rejected their application and Nicklinson died of pneumonia in the days following the decision. His wife, Jane, was continuing his action.

Martin (quoting from the summary judgement): In the second appeal an individual known as Martin suffered a brainstem stroke in August 2008; he is almost completely unable to move and his condition is incurable. Martin wishes to end his life by travelling to Switzerland to make use of the Dignitas service, which, lawfully under Swiss law, enables people who wish to die to do so. Martin began proceedings seeking an order that the DPP should clarify, and modify, his the 2010 Policy to enable responsible people such as carers to know that they could assist Martin in committing suicide through Dignitas, without the risk of being prosecuted.

Martin's claim failed in the High Court, but his appeal was partially successful, in that the Court of Appeal held that the 2010 Policy was not sufficiently clear in relation to healthcare professionals.

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The Director of Public Prosecutions also entered an appeal in this Supreme Court proceeding in relation to the issue of clarity in relation to the 2010 DPP policy on prosecuting cases of assisted suicide.

The judgement opened with this statement:

The Supreme Court, by a majority of seven to two dismisses the appeal brought by Mr Nicklinson and Mr Lamb. It unanimously allows the appeal brought by the DPP, and dismisses the cross-appeal brought by Martin.

However, the Justices were not in unanimity on any issue and made it clear that they expected the British Parliament to look further into the laws on assisted suicide and implied that, if this were not addressed, they reserved their right to find differently in any further matters brought before them.

Care UK's press release covered the matter as follows:

Having spent the past six months deliberating, the panel of nine judges ruled that any change in the law must be for Parliament to decide upon. This is very welcome news which leaves the current position of the law very clear:

Assisting or encouraging someone to commit suicide remains illegal; and

The decision of whether to prosecute in a suspected case remains the responsibility of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) whose guidance makes plain that such cases will be dealt with sensitively and compassionately.CARE believes that any change in the law would have very serious consequences for society. Although the cases of the three men involved are tragic, the risk to public safety is too great to rule in their favour.

A change in the law would put incredible pressure on vulnerable people, particularly those who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed. The recently published Report on the Washington Death With Dignity Act noted that 61% of those prescribed lethal drugs in Washington in 2013 cited being a burden on friends, family or caregivers as a reason for seeking to end their lives.

Any change in the law would be far more significant for generating fear and anxiety than individual autonomy and choice. Palliative care is designed to address these concerns - fear of death, fear of dying badly, fear of loss of control, fear of the unknown. Though it cannot cure all ills, palliative care - in which the UK is a world leader - promotes a positive approach to the end of life and aims to ensure that dedicated care and compassion in living out our final days and hours is universal.

Not Dead Yet UK also responded:

Naturally we sympathise deeply with the disabled people who brought this legal case and their families but there is much truth in the adage that 'hard cases make bad law'.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide is profoundly dangerous, irrespective of such hard cases, not least because they pose a very grave risk to thousands disabled people who have been made vulnerable by cuts in health and social care services and welfare benefits, making some feel they would be better off dead and no longer a burden on their family and friends.

We very much welcome, therefore, the ruling by the Supreme Court today because it protects the many whilst compassionately responding to the few by rarely prosecuting those who assist them with their wishes to die. Without this bright line we risk sleepwalking into state sanctioned killing.

Founder of Not Dead Yet UK Baroness Jane Campbell said "We can only hope that Parliament will heed the wisdom of the court by rejecting Lord Falconer's very dangerous Assisted Dying Bill."

The Falconer bill is set down for debate in the Lords in mid-July.

Comment: Whilst having every respect for the Justices and their difficult deliberations I cannot help but observe that there seemed to be something of a concensus that suicide is somehow a right. Certainly, when we contrast the reality that non-disabled people can and unfortunately do suicide by their own devices but the appellants cannot, it might seem on the surface that assistance is warranted so that these people can have equal access.

But suicide is not a right. The UK decriminalised suicide in 1961 in recognition that raising criminal charges against someone who had failed at a suicide attempt was not in their best interests. Suicide was NOT made legal - only decriminalised. No one has a right in law to end their own lives.

The consequences of any euthanasia or assisted suicide law is to effectively create such a right. Given that such a right (because of the universal nature of human rights) cannot be legitimately restricted to a few, the pressure to expand the remit will only continue and, thereby the risk to vulnerable people.

You can read the press statement from the Supreme Court HERE.

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