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Assisted suicide cases rejected by Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has today dismissed the widely publicised cases of Jane Nicklinson, the widow of Tony Nicklinson, who sought an assisted death and Paul Lamb, immobilised after a road accident and seeking the right to an assisted death. The cases will now proceed to the Supreme Court.

The British Humanist Association (BHA), which intervened in the case in support of the principle of assisted dying, has expressed its disappointment at the decision of the Court and urged Parliament and the Government to now take action to help terminally ill or incurably suffering people who want the right to die with dignity at a time of their choosing.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, said ‘Brave individual after brave individual has brought legal case after legal case in the face of their own incredible suffering to try to secure the right to die with dignity. Their determination is inspiring and we will support them right up until the end, but they really shouldn’t have to be doing this at all. They represent the majority of over 80% of the British public that supports their fight and it is Parliament and government who should be putting the work in on changing the law – not people who have already suffered enough. This is the most important bioethical issue of our time and the lack of legal or political progress in the face of massive public demand and a knock-down moral argument in favour of change is a standing rebuke to our view of ourselves as a civilised and humane society.’

Jane Nicklinson said, ‘As a family we are hugely disappointed with the judgement but it will not stop us. We will carry on with the case for as long as we can so that others who find themselves in a position similar to Tony don’t have to suffer as he did. Nobody deserves such cruelty.’

Alex Rook, a specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell acting on behalf of the BHA, commented, ‘This is an extremely emotional and complex issue and the law should provide clarity and reflect modern society. Both Parliament and judge made law should develop to allow for personal autonomy.’

A second case before the Court, in which the BHA also intervened, has been won. An appellant known as ‘Martin’ has disabilities such that he is unable to end his life without the assistance of others to travel to Switzerland. Such assistance may fall within the definition of the criminal offence of assisting a suicide and ‘Martin’ sought clarity from the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether it would. The Court has ruled that there should indeed be further clarification from the Crown Prosecution Service in its guidelines. The BHA has welcomed this victory.

In all its evidence the BHA submitted that, ‘Being able to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing must be understood to be a fundamental human right… Our position is that the right to choose when to die is inextricably linked to the right to life.’ Prominent moral philosophers prepared the BHA’s evidence, which centred on the obligation we have to alleviate suffering, the principle of personal autonomy, and the right of mentally competent adults to make decisions about their lives, as long as they do not result in harm to others.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson at andrew@humanism.org.uk or on 07855 380633, or Richy Thompson at richy@humanism.org.uk or on 020 7324 3072.

In August 2012 the Divisional Court dismissed Tony Nicklinson’s claim. He died less than a week later, on 22 August 2012. He had argued that the current state of the law breached his rights under Article 8 ECHR and that the common law defence of ‘necessity’ should be available to a charge of murder in a situation such as his, to permit a doctor to assist him in ending his life where the court had in advance sanctioned this step being taken. His widow Jane Nicklinson, joined by Paul Lamb, through this hearing sought to have the Divisional Court’s ruling set aside and for the case to be sent back to be heard before a fresh panel of Judges.

BHA witness statements came from:

  • Simon Blackburn, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge;
  • A C Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities;
  • John Harris, professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester;
  • Richard Norman, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at the University of Kent.

The British Humanist Association was represented by Yogi Amin and Conor Maguire (Irwin Mitchell), and Rebecca Trowler QC and Caoilfhionn Gallagher (Doughty Street Chambers).

Additional Background Information:

Polling showing 81% of public support assisted dying: http://humanism.org.uk/2012/09/07/news-1108/

Previous BHA news articles:

The BHA’s campaign on Assisted Dying: http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/assisted-dying/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes Humanism and a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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