right to die


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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The end of a chapter

25 July 2017 by

Great Ormond Street Hospital v Yates and Gard –  [2017] EWHC 1909 (Fam) – read judgment

A lot of things have been said, particularly in recent days, by those who know almost nothing about this case but who feel entitled to express opinions. Many opinions have been expressed based on feelings rather than facts.”

So said Francis J, when dealing with an unusual application by Great Ormond Street Hospital (Gosh) asking for an order, rather than a declaration, that Charlie Gard should be allowed to slip away quietly.  The involvement of the White House, the Vatican, the Bambino Gesu Children’s Hospital in Rome and Dr. Hirano and the associated medical centre in the USA  in this story demonstrates the fact that a mere declaration carries too much ambiguity to allow the hospital staff to do what the courts have approved. The terms in which Gosh put its application were unambiguous indeed:

Therefore orders are sought to remove any ambiguity; orders are enforceable. Despite all of the hospitals best endeavours, this appears as potentially necessary. Not for the first time the parents through their solicitors raised the prospect of criminal proceedings against the hospital and its staff. The Hospital understands that no court order best interests proceedings can afford it or its staff from prosecution.

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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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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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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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Our advance directives about how we should die should be respected – Court of Protection

2 June 2014 by

brain-in-head

UPDATE | The 1COR event which this post previously referred to is now full, so please do not turn up unless you have registered.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust v TH and Anor [2014] EWCOP (22 May 2014) – read judgment

In a careful and humane judgment, the Court of Protection has demonstrated that the law is capable of overlooking the stringent requirements of the conditions governing advance directives, and stressed that a “holistic” view of the patients’ wishes and feelings must be adopted, if those point to the withdrawal of life saving treatment.

Background

TH was admitted to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield earlier this year. His general health revealed a background of known alcohol excess, and he had suffered neurological damage involving seizures and severe depression of consciousness.

 

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Assisted dying in Switzerland: Unclear lethal drug prescribing guidelines breached human rights

15 May 2013 by

Syringe-used-for-flu-vacc-007GROSS v. SWITZERLAND – 67810/10 – Chamber Judgment [2013] ECHR 429 – Read judgment / press summary

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Swiss guidelines for doctors prescribing lethal drugs were too unclear and therefore breached article 8 ECHR, the right to private and family life. Ms Gross sought a prescription for a lethal drug to end her own life. She has no critical illness, but is elderly and feels that her quality of life is so low that she would like to commit suicide. The Swiss medical authorities refused to provide her with the prescription.

Assisted dying and the right to die have been firmly back in the spotlight this week, with the cases of Lamb and “Martin” going to the English and Wales Court of Appeal. Mr Lamb is taking up the point made by Tony Nicklinson in the High Court, before his death, that doctors should have a defence of necessity to murder charges in cases of assisted suicide. Mr Nicklinson’s widow, Jane, is continuing his fight too. The cases also challenge the current guidelines on when prosecution should be brought for assisting suicide. You can read more about the background to the right to die caselaw here.

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“Locked-in” sufferer’s challenge to ban on voluntary euthanasia fails in the high court

16 August 2012 by

The Queen(on the application of Tony Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2012] 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. 
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Analysis | Rabone and the rights to life of voluntary mental health patients – Part 2/2

14 February 2012 by

This is the second of two blogs on the recent Supreme Court case of Rabone and another v Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust [2012] UKSC 2 . Part 1 is here.

In my previous blog on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rabone I discussed the central feature of the case, the extension of the operational duty on the state to protect specific individuals from threats to their life, including suicide. Here, I consider the other elements of the case that Melanie Rabone’s parents had to establish in order to succeed in their claim for damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”).

Existence of the operational duty in Melanie’s case

Having established that the operational duty could be applied in Melanie’s case, her parents then had to establish, on the facts, that it was – by showing that there was a “real and immediate” threat to her life from which she should have been protected. Ever since the notion of an operational duty was first enunciated in Osman v United Kingdom (2000) 29 EHRR 245, it has become something of a judicial mantra that the threshold for establishing a “real and immediate” threat was high (see for example Re Officer L [2007] UKHL 36, and Savage v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust [2009] AC 681 [41] and [66],). There are good reasons for not imposing the operational duty lightly, given the enormous pressures and complexities involved in running police, prison and mental health services for the community as a whole. However, an overly-stringent test risked making the operational duty an obligation that was more hypothetical than real.

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