Judges once again avoid right to die issue

Conway, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Justice [2017] EWHC 640 – read judgment

Noel Douglas Conway, 67, is a victim of motor neurone disease. He has just been refused permission to seek judicial review of the criminalisation of physician-assisted suicide under the Suicide Act 1961. The High Court considered that Parliament has recently examined the issue following the Supreme Court decision in the 2014 Nicklinson case , and two out of three judges concluded that it would be “institutionally inappropriate” for a court to declare that s.2(1) of the Suicide Act  was incompatible with the right to privacy and autonomy under Article 8 of the ECHR. Charles J dissented (and those who are interested in his opinion might want to look at his ruling last year in the case of a minimally conscious patient).

Background facts and law

The claimant, whose condition worsens by the day, wishes to enlist the assistance of a medical professional or professionals to bring about his peaceful and dignified death. But Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act criminalises those who provide such assistance. The question of whether someone would be prosecuted for assisting suicide is governed by a detailed policy promulgated by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That policy was formulated in 2010 in response to the decision in R. (on the application of Purdy) v DPP [2009] UKHL 45, and was refined in 2014 following the decision of the Supreme Court in Nicklinson. A similar declaration of incompatibility had been sought in Nicklinson, but by a majority of seven to two the court refused to make the declaration on the grounds that it was not “institutionally appropriate” to do so. The court, however, encouraged Parliament to reconsider the issue of assisted dying.

In the instant case, the court had to determine whether the circumstances which led the Supreme Court to refuse to grant the declaration in Nicklinson had changed so that a different outcome was now possible.

The Court concluded – with an interesting dissent from Charles J – that  this was a matter for parliament.  A declaration of incompatibility would be institutionally inappropriate in the light of the recent Parliamentary consideration of Nicklinson. The claim was unarguable and permission was refused.

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Convention’s prohibition on discrimination may apply to pre-Human Rights Act wills

Hand and Anor v George [2017] EWHC 533 (Ch) (Rose J, 17 March 2017) – read judgment

The Adoption of Children Act 1926 s.5(2) had the effect that adopted children were not treated as “children” for the purposes of testamentary dispositions of property. The continuing application of this provision was a breach of the rights guaranteed by Article 14 in combination with Article 8 of the Convention. Therefore, the contemporary version of that provision, Adoption Act 1976 Sch.2 para.6, had to be read down so as to uphold the right not to be discriminated against.

Background Facts and Law

Henry Hand died in 1947. He was survived by his three children, Gordon Hand, Kenneth Hand and Joan George. In his will dated 6 May 1946, Henry Hand left the residue of his estate to his three children in equal shares for life with the remainder in each case to their children in equal shares. The question at the centre of this claim was whether adopted children count as “children” for the purposes of this will. Under Section 5(2) of the Adoption of Children Act 1926, which was in force at the relevant time, adopted children were not included as “children” for the purposes of a testamentary disposition of property.

The claimants, the adopted children of Kenneth Hand, accepted that under the domestic law in force, they were not included and their father’s share of the Henry Hand trust would go to the their cousins the defendants. However, the claimants maintained that they can rely on their rights under Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights in conjunction with Article 8 to override the discriminatory effect of that domestic law so that they are treated as equals with the birth grand-children of Henry Hand. The defendants argued that the ECHR could not be applied to interpret an instrument that was drawn up at a time before it existed. Continue reading

Rape, incest and damage: but who is the real victim?

Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority v First Tier Tribunal (Social entitlement Chamber) and Y by his mother and Litigation Friend  [2017] EWCA Civ 139

The predictability of genetic disorders continues to challenge existing law. Here, the Court of Appeal had to consider whether a child born as a result of incestuous rape could claim compensation under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (CICS) for his congenital disabilities. These were 50% predictable as a result of the nature of his conception, as opposed to 2-3% in the general population.

The court ruled against eligibility for such claims, partly because English law does not recognise so-called claims for “wrongful life”, and partly because harm caused before birth which has consequences after birth cannot be treated as an injury sustained by a living person. But the main reason for keeping the gates closed for compensation in these circumstances is that the child concerned never had, nor could have, any existence save in a defective state. Continue reading

More vaccine litigation

swine_flu_vaccine313John (A Minor: Vaccine Damage Payments scheme), Re [2017] EWCA Civ – read judgment

As commentators to my previous post on immunisation have pointed out, vaccinations are not cost-free. But the benefit of eliminating pathogens through herd immunity is generally agreed to outweigh the occasional risk to individuals. Acknowledging that there are such risks,  the government has run a modern compensation system since 1979 for people who are “severely disabled” as a result of vaccination (now the 2012 Vaccine Damage Payments Scheme). The initial scheme was put in place in response to side effects of the whooping cough vaccine.

The question before the Court of Appeal in the present case was whether the determination of the severity of a person’s disablement could take account of prognosis. If an individual has been assessed as having a lifelong condition, is the state obliged to compensate them for future disabilities?

Yes, said the Court of Appeal: this is not speculation, our legal system is used to it. It is the “very stuff” of personal injury litigation.

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Should courts order vaccination against parents’ wishes?

Vaccine in vial with syringe. Vaccination concept. 3d

Vaccine in vial with syringe. Vaccination concept. 3d

SL (Permission to Vaccinate), Re 2017 EWHC (Fam) EWHC (30 January 2017) [2017] EWHC 125 (Fam)

The alleged risks attending on vaccination were outweighed by the benefits of immunisation by a clear margin, the Family Court has ruled.

Background facts

The seven month old baby SL was subject of an interim care order. The mother (the third respondent) objected to immunisations on the basis that her other children had suffered adverse reactions from them in the past. The local authority applied under the court’s inherent jurisdiction for a declaration that it was in the child’s interests for it to be given permission to arrange for him to receive the Haemophilus Influenza Type b (Hib) vaccine and the pneumococcal conjugate (PCV) vaccine. Continue reading

Computer algorithm predicts most Strasbourg judgments

brainwigArtificial intelligence … it’s no longer in the future. It’s with us now.

I posted a review of a book about artificial intelligence in autumn last year. The author’s argument was not that we might find ourselves, some time in the future, subservient to or even enslaved by cool-looking androids from Westworld. His thesis is more disturbing: it’s happening now, and it’s not robots. We are handing over our autonomy to a set of computer instructions called algorithms.

If you remember from my post on that book, I picked out a paragraph that should give pause to any parent urging their offspring to run the gamut of law-school, training contract, pupillage and the never never land of equity partnership or tenancy in today’s competitive legal industry. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that the everything lawyers do now – from the management of company mergers and acquisitions, to deciding on intentionality in negligence or criminal cases – can and will be performed a hundred times more efficiently by computers.

Now here is proof of concept. University College London has just announced the results of the project it gave to its AI researchers, working with a team from the universities of Sheffield and Pennsylvania. Its news website announces that a machine learning algorithm has just analysed, and predicted, “the outcomes of a major international court”:

The judicial decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) have been predicted to 79% accuracy using an artificial intelligence (AI) method.

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Sanctity of life v personal autonomy: Court of Protection

brainmapBriggs v Briggs & Ors [2016] EWCOP 53 (20 December 2016) – read judgment

Apologies for starting the new year on such a sombre note, but there is a shaft of light in that this Court of Protection judgement is a clear indication that judges – or some of them – are prepared to favour an individual’s autonomy over the traditional emphasis on the sanctity of life above all else.

As Charles J points out, this case raises issues of life and death and so vitally important principles and strongly held views. The decision he had to make was whether a part of the current treatment of Mr Paul Briggs, namely clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH), should be continued. Mr Briggs was in a minimally conscious state (MCS) as the result of serious and permanent brain damage he suffered as the victim of a traffic accident eighteen months ago. He was not in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) and so the approach taken by the House of Lords in the Tony Bland case did not apply to him (Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] AC 789). In that case, it will be remembered, their Lordships concluded that the continuation of life in such a state was futile. Problems arose with subsequent advancements in neurological diagnosis, where a less catastrophic condition known as MCS was established. In 2012 a court ruled that a patient in MCS could not be deemed to have made an advance directive regarding medical treatment even though during her lifetime she had made her position very clear that she would not want to continue living in such a reduced state (Re M (Adult Patient) (Minimally Conscious State: Withdrawal of Treatment) [2012] 1 WLR 1653). Her views did not, in their view, encapsulate the state of MCS. See my post on that decision here. Baker J’s refusal of the family’s application to allow treatment to be withdrawn came in for severe criticism in the British Medical Journal (see Richard Mumford’s post on that article). The author took Baker J to task for not according significant weight to the informally expressed views of M on life-sustaining treatment, expressed before she came ill. Charles J took a very different approach in this case. Continue reading