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Paul Lamb’s assisted dying case refused permission by Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has refused permission for humanist Paul Lamb to judicially review the law on assisted dying, in a move expected to end the prospect of further cases for the foreseeable future. Paul was being supported by Humanists UK. Rebuffed by the courts, he is now taking his campaign to Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland and calling for an inquiry into assisted dying.

Paul, 65, a former builder from Leeds, is paralysed from the neck down following a car accident in 1990. He lives in constant pain and is dependent upon around the clock care for almost every aspect of his life. He is campaigning to change the law on assisted dying for those who are either incurably suffering or terminally ill, and wants the right-to-die when his pain ever becomes too much to bear.

Lawyers acting for Paul had appealed against a decision from the High Court in December 2019, when his case was denied permission to proceed, but they have been unsuccessful. They had argued that the current law – which prohibits helping anyone to die under threat of up to fourteen years’ imprisonment – violates Paul’s human rights by discriminating against him, and was therefore incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998.

However, the Court of Appeal refused to permit Paul permission to bring his full case and instead ruled that assisted dying should be resolved by Parliament and not the courts. This seems to end the prospect of further legal challenges against the law banning assisted dying for the foreseeable future.

The rejection of this case comes amid growing support for legal assisted dying, as last month– in one of the largest surveys of medical opinion ever – the British Medical Association reported that half of doctors personally support assisted dying, with just 39% opposed, and that if the law were to change, a majority favoured changing it to help those in Paul’s situation.

Lord Justice Nick Phillips said that previous legal cases had ‘recognised that the interference with human rights brought about by sections 2 and 2A of the Suicide Act 1961 can be justified by reference to weighty countervailing factors, including the protection of the vulnerable. It has also been recognised that the balancing exercise in this difficult area is pre-eminently a matter for Parliament, not the courts’.

Paul Lamb has now written to the Secretary of State urging him to take notice of the Court’s decision and calling for him to issue an inquiry into assisted dying, which could pave the way for future legislation.

Without a change in the law, Paul will now only be able to end his life by illegally travelling to Switzerland, or by lawfully choosing to starve himself to death.

Commenting on the judgment, Paul Lamb said:

‘I am devastated by this decision, and the powerless position it has left me in. Without the option of a dignified death, I now have no choice if my pain ever becomes unbearable, other than the horrifying prospect I was most afraid of from the start – slowly starving myself to death. I cannot understand, in a civilised society like ours, why I should be forced to suffer when millions of people around the world already have the choice I asked for.

‘Throughout my case, all I have been told is how sympathetic others are to my situation. But I have never wanted anyone to pity me. All I have ever wanted is for my choice to be respected and given equal validity under the law, like everyone else’s. Instead this decision, if it is the final word on the matter, condemns me to a life of constant pain, and removes the small part of my life that I could still have some say over – how I want to die.

‘I may have lost this case, but I’m going to continue fighting to change this law’.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘It’s now been half a decade since our highest judges asked Parliament to reconsider the law on assisted dying. Since then, the number of Britons travelling to Switzerland has doubled, half of doctors have come to personally support a change in the law with only a minority opposed, and progressive countries have demonstrated that choice and control can be balanced alongside robust safeguards.

We are disappointed that the courts have yet again failed to challenge one of the most unethical laws in our country. However, once again the message of this judgment is clear: Parliament cannot ignore its responsibility to examine this law any longer. It is time for MPs to confront the compelling evidence favouring assisted dying, and for the Government to help by issuing a long-overdue inquiry.

Whilst this judgment may have brought an end to Paul’s case it hasn’t ended the fight for a legal, safe, and compassionate law on assisted dying. Adults of sound mind who are either incurably suffering or terminally ill deserve the right to choose how, where, and when they die – and we will continue to champion their rights and Paul’s voice.’

NOTES:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Assisted Dying Campaigner Keiron McCabe at keiron@humanism.org.uk or phone 07972204007. Due to his worsening condition Paul is unavailable for interviews or further comment.

Details on the legal case

Paul Lamb was represented by Rosa Curling of Leigh Day, Philip Havers QC of 1 Crown Office, Adam Sandell of Matrix Chambers, and Eesvan Krishnan of Blackstone Chambers.

The case was between Paul Lamb and the Secretary of State for Justice. In July 2019, an application to judicially review sections 2(1) and 2(2A) of the Suicide Act 1961 was submitted. The Court was invited to grant a declaration of incompatibility under the Human Rights Act 1998, on the grounds that the Suicide Act was incompatible with Paul Lamb’s rights under Article 14 (prohibition on discrimination) and Article 8 (right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights. On 19 December, the High Court decided that Paul Lamb’s case was ‘unarguable’ and denied him permission to proceed to a full hearing. Lord Justice Dingemans and Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing said that the rulings from previous case law held that assisted dying is a matter for Parliament and not the courts. A final appeal was then lodged to the Court of Appeal, and rejected by Lord Justice Phillips on 13 May on similar grounds.

Shortly following the outcome of his case Paul was hospitalised and deemed unresponsive to treatment. As a result, announcing the outcome of his case has been delayed on the request of his carers and medical staff. He has now sufficiently recovered for an announcement to be made.

This case had been a fresh legal bid following an earlier legal case from Paul. In 2014, alongside the widow of Tony Nicklinson, Paul previously challenged the law on assisted dying before the UK Supreme Court. In a narrow split decision the Court decided not to declare the Suicide Act incompatible with Paul’s human rights, and instead instructed Parliament to examine the law, warning that it may declare the law invalid at a later point if Parliament failed to do so. Paul subsequently challenged the UK’s ban before the European Court of Human Rights in 2015, but it ruled that the issue was within the UK’s margin of appreciation.

Wider developments

Parliament last voted on assisted dying in 2015, rejecting by 330 against to 118 a private member’s bill which would not have assisted Paul, but which would have legalised assistance for those with six or fewer months left to live.

Last month, the British Medical Association (BMA) announced the outcome of its members’ survey on assisted dying. The BMA heard from almost 29,000 doctors and medical students and found that 50% personally believe that doctors should be able to prescribe life-ending drugs for patients to take themselves, with just 39% opposed to it. Asked who should be eligible for an assisted death if the law were changed, 59% felt that patients with physical conditions causing intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved should be; whereas only 24% thought patients suffering from a condition likely to cause death in six months or less should be the only people eligible.

According to the UK Assisted Dying Coalition, of which Humanists UK is a founding member, more than one person a week now travels from the UK to Switzerland for an assisted death.

A 2019 poll from NatCen has found that 88% of people in England and Wales favour assisted dying for those who are incurably suffering, in at least some circumstances.

Assisted dying is now permitted for the terminally ill and incurably suffering in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Canada; it is also legal for terminally ill people in Colombia, ten US jurisdictions, and the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia.

Recently, New Zealand voted in a national referendum on whether assisted dying should become legal, and Ireland’s Oireachtas (Parliament) voted to move forward on proposals to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill and incurably suffering.

Read Paul Lamb’s letter to the Secretary of State for Justice: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Paul-Lamb-Letter-to-Justice-Secretary-1.pdf 

Read more about Paul Lamb: 

https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/patrons/paul-lamb/

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign for assisted dying reform: 

https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/assisted-dying/

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefiting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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