Right-to-die cases heard at Court of Appeal
- 13 May 2013
- From the section UK
Two severely disabled men and a widow have taken their right-to-die cases to the Court of Appeal.
Paul Lamb, who is paralysed, a man with locked-in syndrome known as Martin, and the wife of the late Tony Nicklinson are seeking to challenge the law.
They want health professionals to be legally protected if they assist people who wish to end their own lives.
Judges at the hearing said the case could not be decided on the basis of "personal sympathy".
In August, Mr Nicklinson, 58 - who also suffered from locked-in syndrome - lost his High Court bid to end his life with a doctor's help. He died a week later.
His widow Jane is continuing her late husband's battle in the courts by challenging the ruling, which related to England and Wales.
Mr Lamb, 57, from Leeds, was paralysed from the neck down in a car accident in 1990 and wants a doctor to help him die.
He has also taken up the case begun by Mr Nicklinson and is seeking a ruling that would give doctors a defence to a murder charge.
Martin, 48, who has locked-in syndrome caused by a massive stroke he suffered in August 2008, is seeking a change to the prosecution of assisted suicide.
Lord Judge, sitting with the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson and Lord Justice Elias, will hear arguments in the three cases over the course of several days.
At the start of the hearing, Lord Judge said: "We are acutely aware of the desperate situation in which the appellants find themselves, and we are very sympathetic."
But he added that "we cannot decide this case as a matter of personal sympathy".
It had to be decided on the "basis of principles of law" after the court has heard all sides, he said.
'Distressing and intolerable'
At the High Court in August, Mr Nicklinson had sought declarations that there should be a defence known as "necessity" available to a doctor assisting him to die - based on the argument that it was necessary for a doctor to act to stop intolerable suffering.
He argued that the law was incompatible with his right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights - which he maintained included a right to autonomy and self determination at the end of life.
Paul Bowen QC, representing Mrs Nicklinson and Mr Lamb in their cases against the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), said the High Court had "rejected the claims because, in summary, it considered Parliament, not the courts, should be responsible for changing the law in this area".
He said the High Court "did not decide the substantive issues at the heart of the claims" of whether the current law does "disproportionately interfere" with the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, nor whether the defence of necessity is available to a doctor providing the assistance to die.
Mr Bowen said Mr Lamb, who has no function in his limbs apart from a little movement in his right hand, also wished a doctor to end his life and he sought the same declarations originally sought by Mr Nicklinson.
The court heard the father of two had been in pain for 23 years, needed 24-hour care and his life consisted of "being fed and watered".
David Perry QC, for the MoJ, expressed sympathy for the late Mr Nicklinson and Mr Lamb, but said the High Court had "correctly dismissed" the case in August.
"The state of the criminal law in this respect does not violate the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the Convention," he said.
The court also heard that Martin, who is unable to speak, virtually unable to move and who describes his life as "undignified, distressing and intolerable" wanted a "dignified suicide".
Current guidance makes it clear that friends or family assisting a suicide out of compassion are unlikely to be prosecuted. But his wife does not wish to be actively involved in his suicide.
Instead, he wants health professionals to be able to assist him to end his life.
His solicitors argue that Article 8 also requires the director of public prosecutions (DPP) to develop his policy so this could happen.
In a written argument before the court, Philip Havers QC, for Martin, said his client had "never asked the courts to decriminalise assisted suicide", but was seeking "clarity about how the DPP's prosecutorial discretion will be exercised".
Yogi Amin, representing the British Humanist Association - also a party in Mr Lamb's case - said the law "should be certain and reflect modern society".
"Both Parliament and judge-made law should develop to allow for personal autonomy," he said.
Disability rights group Scope and anti-euthanasia campaigners have argued current laws protect vulnerable people.
In Scotland, there is no specific law on assisted suicide, although in theory someone could be prosecuted under homicide legislation. The law in Northern Ireland is almost identical to that in England and Wales.