assisted suicide


Physician assisted dying: latest developments

22 March 2019 by

Update: 

Today (21 March) the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has dropped its opposition to assisted dying and moved to neutrality. The RCP has opposed assisted dying since 2006 but has now brought its position in line with the range of views held by its members, and with the 82% of the public who want greater choice at the end of life. Today’s result is a great victory for patients and for the campaign group Dignity in Dying. Their full press release can be found on their website and a breakdown of the results is available on the RCP website.  

DID’s report has been covered by the British Medical Journal and Politics Home so far.  You can read the full report here, and their press release here.

On 20 March Dignity in Dying released a report exposing the fact that those behind the legal challenge to the RCP (detailed below) have a long history of campaigning for pro-life causes and connections to American pro-life lobbyists, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

DID’s report has been covered by the British Medical Journal and Politics Home so far.  You can read the full report here, and their press release here.

See our last update on these events since our podcast interview with CEO of Dignity in Dying Sarah Wootton.

Physician assisted dying: latest developments

26 February 2019 by

Physician assisted dying

Update:

On 20 March Dignity in Dying released a report exposing the fact that those behind the legal challenge to the RCP (detailed below) have a long history of campaigning for pro-life causes and connections to American pro-life lobbyists, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

DID’s report has been covered by the British Medical Journal and Politics Home so far.  You can read the full report here, and their press release here.

In January we published episode 63 of Law Pod UK featuring Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying. DID campaigns for a change in the law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill people to hasten their own death in specific situations. Sarah referred in that interview to a poll that was about to be conducted of the members of the Royal College of Physicians, who have hitherto opposed assisted dying. The members are being asked whether they individually support a legal change to permit assisted dying, and what they think the RCP’s position should be. The RCP has said that it will move to a neutral position unless at least 60% of votes in a poll being sent out in the first week of February are either in favour of or opposed to a change in the law. The results will be announced in March but the poll has had a bumpy ride, including a threat of judicial review by one of its members for conducting the exercise as a “sham poll with a rigged outcome.” The Christian charity Duty of Care has called for signatures from doctors and medical students to a petition objecting to the poll.

While that has been going on, DID has supported the family of a man suffering from motor neurone disease. On 7 February Geoff Whaley travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life.

Before he died, Mr Whaley wrote an open letter all MPs to impress upon them the need for a change in the law after his wife was reported to the police, in an anonymous phone call, as a person potentially assisting someone to end their life. The Whaley’s MP Cheryl Gillan raised the family’s story in the Commons during Business of the House.

Geoff [and his wife] had to suffer the added mental anguish of facing a criminal investigation at a time when the family, and most of all Geoff, wanted to prepare his goodbyes and fulfil his last wish in peace. May I ask the Leader of the House if we can have a debate in Government time so that we can re-examine this area of law, particularly in the light of this amazing man’s efforts to give terminally ill people a choice over the way they leave this world, and to afford protection to their loved ones?


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Does someone who assists with journey to Dignitas risk losing benefit of deceased’s estate?

26 February 2019 by

Does someone who assists with journey to Dignitas risk losing benefit of deceased's estate?

Ninan v Findlay and others [2019] EWHC 297 (Ch), 21 February 2019

The claimant, Mrs Ninian, is the sole beneficiary of the residue of the estate of her late husband Mr Ninian under his will. Mr Ninian, who suffered from a progressive incurable disease, died on 16 November 2017 with the assistance of Dignitas in Switzerland. Mrs Ninian was with him throughout the trip to Switzerland, his assessment by representatives of Dignitas and the occasion of his suicide.

Shortly before the trip to Dignitas, Mrs Ninian applied for relief against forfeiture under section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 on the basis that steps taken by her may have amounted to encouraging or assisting her husband to commit suicide which brought in play the forfeiture rule.


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Right to die case allowed to proceed

13 April 2017 by

Conway, R(on the application of) v The Secretary of State for Justice[2017] EWCA Civ 275

The Court of Appeal has overturned the refusal of the Divisional Court to allow a motor neurone disease sufferer to challenge section (1) of the Suicide Act. He may now proceed to seek a declaration under section 4(2) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that the ban on assisted dying is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The background to this appeal can be found in my post on the decision from the court below, which focussed on the vigorous dissent by Charles J.

Briefly, Mr Conway wishes to enlist the assistance of a medical profession to bring about his death in a peaceful and dignified way at a time while he retains the capacity to make the decision. His family respect his decision and choices and wish to support him in every way they can, but his wife states she would be extremely concerned about travelling to Switzerland with Mr Conway so he can receive assistance from Dignitas.

The main argument in support of the permission to appeal was that it was self-evident from the division of opinion in the Divisional Court that there would be a realistic prospect of success. Mr Conway’s legal team also argued that the issues raised about Mr Conway and those in a similar position to him were of general public importance and that this was a compelling reason for the appeal to be heard.
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Judges once again avoid right to die issue

2 April 2017 by

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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Court of Protection orders continued reporting restrictions after death

27 April 2016 by

why_we_need_kidney_dialysis_1904_xIn the matter of proceedings brought by Kings College NHS Foundation Trust concerning C (who died on 28 November 2015) v The Applicant and Associated Newspapers Ltd and others [2016] EWCOP21 – read judgment

The Court of Protection has just ruled that where a court has restricted the publication of information during proceedings that were in existence during a person’s lifetime, it has not only the right but the duty to consider, when requested to do so, whether that information should continue to be protected following the person’s death.

I posted last year on the case of a woman who had suffered kidney failure as a result of a suicide attempt has been allowed to refuse continuing dialysis. The Court of Protection rejected the hospital’s argument that such refusal disclosed a state of mind that rendered her incapable under the Mental Capacity Act.  An adult patient who suffers from no mental incapacity has an absolute right to choose whether to consent to medical treatment (King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v C and another  [2015] EWCOP 80).
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Court of Session rejects challenge to prosecution policy on assisted suicide

22 February 2016 by

Ross v Lord Advocate [2016] CSIH 12, 19th February 2016 – read judgment  

The Inner House of the Court of Session has rejected a reclaiming motion (appeal) from a decision of the Outer House in which it was held that the Lord Advocate’s refusal to publish specific guidance on the circumstances in which individuals would be prosecuted for assisted suicide did not violate Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Factual and Legal Background

The petitioner, Gordon Ross, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He anticipates that there will come a time when he will not wish to continue living but, because of his physical state, he would require assistance to end his own life. Mr Ross was apprehensive that anyone who assisted him would be liable to criminal prosecution and therefore sought clarification from the Lord Advocate (the head of the prosecution service in Scotland) as to the factors that would be taken into account in deciding whether or not to prosecute.
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The “socialite” who rejected life saving treatment

3 December 2015 by

why_we_need_kidney_dialysis_1904_xKing’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v C and another  [2015] EWCOP 80 read judgment

A woman who suffered kidney failure as a result of a suicide attempt has been allowed to refuse continuing dialysis. The Court of Protection rejected the hospital’s argument that such refusal disclosed a state of mind that rendered her incapable under the Mental Capacity Act.  An adult patient who suffers from no mental incapacity has an absolute right to choose whether to consent to medical treatment. Continuation of such treatment is unlawful, even if the refusal seems irrational to others. As the judge said, this rule

reflects the value that society places on personal autonomy in matters of medical treatment and the very long established right of the patient to choose to accept or refuse medical treatment from his or her doctor (voluntas aegroti suprema lex). Over his or her own body and mind, the individual is sovereign (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859).

The Trust’s further application to be allowed to restrain C “physically or chemically” from leaving the hospital where she was receiving the dialysis was therefore rejected.

Background facts

The coverage of this case reflects a certain level of social disapproval. “Right to die for socialite scared of growing old” – “Socialite allowed to die was terrified of being poor” run the headlines. Behind them lurks an essentially religious consensus that people should not be allowed to opt out of senescence and its associated poverty and suffering, such matters being for God alone.  There is also a measure of censoriousness behind the  details brought to court regarding C’s attitude to motherhood and men, the news that she had breast cancer, her love of “living the high life” and her dread of growing old “in a council house”.
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Challenge to prosecution policy on assisted suicide in Scotland fails – Fraser Simpson

10 September 2015 by

Holyrood-GettyRoss, Re Judicial Review, [2015] CSOH 123 – read judgment

The Outer of House of the Court of Session has refused an individual’s request for clarification of the prosecution policy relating to assisted suicide in Scotland.

by Fraser Simpson

Factual Background

The Petitioner, Mr Ross, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and currently resides in a care home due to his dependence on others. Although not wishing to currently end his life, Mr Ross anticipates that in the future he will wish to do so and will require assistance.

In July 2014, the Petitioner requested from the Lord Advocate – the head of the prosecution service in Scotland – guidance on the prosecution of individuals who assist others to commit suicide. The Lord Advocate replied that such cases would be referred to the Procurator Fiscal – the Scottish public prosecutor – and dealt with under the law of homicide. The Lord Advocate further stated that decisions regarding whether prosecution would be in the public interest would be taken in line with the published Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service Prosecution Code (“COPFS Code”). However, he admitted that it would often be in the public interest to prosecute such serious crimes as homicide.
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More bad news in the fight for a right to die

22 July 2015 by

281851582_1115426167001_110818righttodie-5081250R (o.t.a A.M) v. General Medical Council [2015] EWHC 2096 (Admin) Read the full judgment here

The High Court has rejected the argument made by “Martin”, a man with locked-in syndrome who is profoundly disabled and wishes to end his own life. This comes shortly after Strasbourg’s rejection of the Nicklinson and Lamb cases, for which see my post here.

Philip Havers QC, of 1COR, acted for Martin, and has played no part in the writing of this post. 

Martin would like to travel to a Swiss clinic to end his life, but wishes to obtain a medical report, from a doctor, to assist. He would also like to take medical advice on methods of suicide.

There is no dispute that a doctor advising him in this way will likely break the law, by committing the crime of assisting suicide. However, Martin argued that in practice, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has relaxed guidelines on when it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution against a doctor in these circumstances.

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Strasbourg rejects right to die cases

20 July 2015 by

Paul LambThe European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the applications to the ECtHR in Nicklinson and Lamb v UK, cases concerning assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, are inadmissible.

This is the latest development in a long running series of decisions concerning various challenges to the UK’s law and prosecutorial guidelines on assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. You can read the press release here  and the full decision here.
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Withdrawal of nutrition and hydration would not offend right to life – Strasbourg Court

16 June 2015 by

P3_010457_Sonde_SHS_PUR_violett_Kurzzeit_SG8_80_A6_RGB_575px_01Lambert and Others v. France (application no. 46043/14) – read judgment

In an important step away from Pretty v UK, the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court has upheld the right of to die with dignity by ruling that there would be no violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights if artificial nutrition and hydration were to be withdrawn from a patient in a persistent vegetative state.

Although the facts were very different, it is heartening to see Strasbourg at last allowing the argument that the state’s obligation to protect life also involves a duty to respect people’s rights to exit life with dignity. The importance of this ruling cannot be underestimated, as can be seen in the ferocity of dissent set out in the Separate Opinion annexed to the judgment (discussed at the end of this post.)

The case involved a challenge by some of the patient’s family members to a judgment delivered on 24 June 2014 by the Conseil d’État which authorised this step.  The following summary of the facts and judgment is based on the Court’s press release.

Background facts

Vincent Lambert sustained serious head injuries in a road-traffic accident on 29 September 2008, which left him tetraplegic and in a state of complete dependency. At the time of this hearing he was in the care of a hospital which specialises in patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state.In 2011 his condition was characterised as minimally conscious and in 2014 as vegetative. He receives artificial nutrition and hydration which is administered enterally, through a gastric tube.
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Supreme Court of Canada upholds physician-assisted dying

9 February 2015 by

TaylorCarter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5 (CanLII) 6 February 2015 – read judgment

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a challenge to the constitutionality of the prohibition on assisted dying, saying that since they last ruled on this issue in the 1993 case of Rodriguez (where a “slim majority” upheld the prohibition), there had been a change in the circumstances which “fundamentally shifted the parameters” of this debate.

The Court issued a declaration of invalidity relating to those provisions in the Canadian criminal code that prohibit physician assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition that causes “endurable and intolerable” suffering. These laws should be struck down as depriving those adults of their right to life, liberty and security of the person under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights (The Constitution Act 1982)

Importantly, the court recognised what has long been proposed by campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic, that the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing people to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.
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It is heartless not to assist people to die: Debbie Purdy

31 December 2014 by

UnknownThe multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy died in the Marie Curie hospice in Bradford on December 23 2014. Having been denied her right to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, which would have exposed her husband to the risk of prosecution under the 1961 Suicide Act, she took the only option available to her – refusing food. Death by starvation is not pleasant. The relevant Wikipedia entry describes some of the symptoms:

The body breaks down its own muscles and other tissues in order to keep vital systems such as the nervous system and the heart muscle functioning.
… Early symptoms include impulsivity, irritability, hyperactivity, and other symptoms. Atrophy (wasting away) of the stomach weakens the perception of hunger, since the perception is controlled by the percentage of the stomach that is empty. Victims of starvation are often too weak to sense thirst, and therefore become dehydrated.

All movements become painful due to muscle atrophy and dry, cracked skin that is caused by severe dehydration. With a weakened body, diseases are commonplace. Fungi, for example, often grow under the esophagus, making swallowing painful.

I apologise for introducing such a gloomy subject into the dying embers of 2014, but it is too important to pass by.

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Supreme Court rejects right to die appeals

25 June 2014 by

Tony NicklinsonR (on the application of Nicklinson and another) (Appellants) v Ministry of Justice (Respondent); R (on the application of AM) (AP) (Respondent) v The Director of Public Prosecutions (Appellant) [2014] UKSC 38 – read judgment

On appeal from [2013] EWCA Civ 961

The Supreme Court has declined to uphold a right to die a dignified death.  However, a glimmer is is to be found in this judgment in that two out of the seven justices who concluded that it was for the United Kingdom to decide whether the current law on assisted suicide was incompatible with the right to privacy and dignity under Article 8, would have granted such a declaration in these proceedings., particularly where the means of death was one that could have been autonomously operated by the disabled appellant, leaving no doubt as to the voluntary and rational nature of his decision.

But the majority concluded that this was a matter for Parliament, not for the Courts.

The following summary is from the Supreme Court’s Press Summary

Bacground 

These appeals arise from tragic facts and raise difficult and significant issues, namely whether the present state of the law of England and Wales relating to assisting suicide infringes the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”), and whether the code published by the Director of Public Prosecutions (“the DPP”) relating to prosecutions of those who are alleged to have assisted suicide is lawful.
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