In the News:
Right to die campaigners have sustained yet another setback, following the judgment of R (AM) v General Medical Council last week.
Lambert 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Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights if artificial nutrition and hydration were to be withdrawn from a patient in a persistent vegetative state.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.
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. Continue reading
Wednesday’s debate on current key topics in the Court of Protection was a hard-hitting discussion on matters which elicit strong views, such as voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide, the role of “dignity” and “sanctity of life”, and whether the latter two principles can ever be reconciled.
The fact that these are not essentially legal issues was underscored by the inclusion of ethics philosopher on the interventionist panel, Professor Anthony Grayling, who fielded the questions put to him alongside Philip Havers QC and Leigh Day solicitor Richard Stein. A video of the event will shortly be available on the 1 Crown Office Row website so I shall try to refrain from any spoilers, but here is a brief trailer to whet the appetite for a full recapitulation.
The evening started with a consideration of the Nicklinson and Martin cases, on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide respectively. There were a number of questions put to the panel which essentially rolled up into this:
Should voluntary euthanasia be a possible defence to murder, or can we justify action with a primary purpose of killing a person on the grounds of preventing that person’s harm or suffering?
The panel was broadly in agreement that it should. Richard Stein observed that the argument that there can never be adequate safeguards to protect the vulnerable is being used as a “smokescreen”, and, equally, the notion that disabled people cannot exercise their free will to die because it reduces the value of disabled lives is a “hugely patronising” one. Continue reading
The Queen(on the application of Tony Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice  EWHC 2381 (Admin) – read judgment
Lord Justice Toulson, sitting with Mrs Justice Royce and Mrs Justice Macur, has handed down judgment in the case of Tony Nicklinson and that of another “locked-in” syndrome sufferer, “Martin”. On all the issues, they have deferred to parliament to take the necessary steps to address the problems created by the current law of murder and assisted suicide.
Philip Havers QC of 1 Crown Office represented Martin in this case.
Tony Nicklinson sought a declaration of immunity from prosecution for a doctor who would give him a fatal dose of painkillers to end his life in Britain. He also sought a declaration that the current law is incompatible with his right to respect for private life under article 8, contrary to s1 and 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, in so far as it criminalises voluntary active euthanasia and/or assisted suicide.
Martin’s claim was slightly different as his wife does not want to do anything which will hasten his death. He therefore asked for permission for volunteers to be able to help him get to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland (under recent guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions only family members or close friends who are motivated by compassion are unlikely to be prosecuted for assisting a suicide). In the alternative he sought a declaration that section 2 of the Suicide Act is incompatible with the right to autonomy and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention. Continue reading
Lee Carter, Hollis Johnson, Dr. William Shoichet, The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Gloria Taylor v Attorney General of Canada (2012 BCSC 886) 15 June 2012 – read judgment
Interest in the “locked-in syndrome” cases currently before the High Court runs high. We posted here on the permission granted to locked-in sufferer Tony Nicklinson to seek an advance order from the court that would allow doctors to assist him to die under the common law defence of necessity.
He is also arguing that the current law criminalising assisted suicide is incompatible with his Article 8 rights of autonomy and dignity. The other case before the three judge court involves another stroke victim who is unable to move, is able to communicate only by moving his eyes, requires constant care and is entirely dependent on others for every aspect of his life. (Philip Havers QC of 1 Crown Office Row is acting for him)