Supreme Court Hands Down Nicklinson Right To Die Judgment

Lawyer Says Judgment Sends Clear Message That Parliament Must Now Make Important Decisions On Assisted Suicide Laws


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The Supreme Court has today ruled against a challenge to the ban on assisted suicide, as judges delivered their judgment in a landmark case - but specialist lawyers say the Court has sent the clearest signs yet that Parliament must make a decision on the development of future law.

Irwin Mitchell, acting on behalf of the British Humanist Association (BHA) which intervened in the case, said Parliament must consider the state of the current law which provides for prosecution of partners, families, doctors and other caring professionals who assist or play a role in the suicide of another (also known as ‘mercy killings’).

A full panel of nine Supreme Court Justices, headed by Lord Neuberger, the court’s President, heard the culmination of a legal challenge to the current ban on assisted suicide last December, with three cases joined together to allow a sweeping judgment on the current state of the law in England and Wales.

The cases heard were that of Jane Nicklinson, whose husband Tony suffered from “locked-in syndrome” and died in 2012, along with two severely disabled men who want to remove the ban on assisted suicide in certain situations.

Their argument was that the 1961 Suicide Act, which makes it a criminal offence to assist someone taking their own life, imposes “extraordinary and cruel” limits on an individual’s personal freedom and autonomy.

However the majority of the Supreme Court judges said at this stage they did not have the jurisdiction to change the law and hinted strongly that they were looking to Parliament to make a crucial decision on the future treatment of people who have made a settled and informed decision to end their life, but because they are incapable, need the assistance of a third party in order to do so.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell acted on behalf of the British Humanist Association (BHA) who intervened in the case providing submissions and evidence from experts such as Professor A C Grayling and Professor Simon Blackburn in favour of a permissive regime on assisted suicide that respects the values of personal autonomy and a dignified end of life as long as appropriate safeguards are in place.

Yogi Amin, a Partner in the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell, representing the BHA said:

Expert Opinion
This is a very important judgment signalled by the fact that the case was heard by a full panel of nine Justices in the Supreme Court, headed by the most senior Lord Neuberger. The majority of judges rejected the appeal from the families but gave a strong signal to Parliament to review and potentially bring new legislation forward.

“It’s worth remembering that there are no real winners in this tragic situation and that the longer Parliament takes to address the concerns and the issues about the present state of affairs raised by the judiciary in this recent judgment, the longer their suffering will be. The individuals involved feel that they have been left with no choice and were seeking help from the courts in being able to carry out their final wish, or to allow others to do the same in future.

“The judges are split in their belief as to whether matters should be referred to Parliament for the laws on assisted suicide to be re-examined at this present moment in time. Lady Hale and Lord Kerr have clearly expressed support for this, whereas the majority of the other Justices have only gone as far as expressing their concerns about the present state of affairs but have not called into question their lawfulness.

“There is now a clear guide from the Court that they see it as Parliament’s duty to move the debate forward and hopefully enact appropriate legislative change to allow people to exercise their autonomy with appropriate safeguards for all in place.

“The judges agreed that the law needs to be extremely clear on what can and can’t be done and should strike a fair balance between protecting vulnerable individuals who may be subjected to unfair pressure from those around them to commit suicide without a real desire to do so, and the rights of those disabled individuals who have a clear intention to end their life because they suffer intolerable pain and agony but cannot do so because they need the assistance of another. There is a need to reflect modern society which has changed massively over the past few decades after medicine has enabled doctors to prolong the life of some patients considerably. Hopefully now Parliament will take the necessary steps to ensure this sensitive area of law is appropriately revisited.”
Yogi Amin, Partner

Lord Wilson, at paragraph 205 of his Judgment, offered a suggested list of factors in a proposed system. This proposal would allow a Court to first verify that a person’s wish to commit suicide is genuine, by reference to this list, and therefore provides a safeguard against any abuse of the system.

Tony Nicklinson was an active father of two in his fifties when he was left almost completely paralysed after a catastrophic stroke. He had campaigned for doctors to be allowed to help him end his life.

He died in 2012 after refusing food following the rejection of his case at the High Court but his widow was allowed to continue in his case all the way to the Supreme Court because of the importance of the legal issues.

The other parties in the case are Paul Lamb, 57, who was left quadriplegic following a car crash 23 years ago, and a man known only as “Martin” who wants the law changed to allow strangers to step in when family members are unwilling or unable to help with arrangements to end his life.

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in Protecting Your Rights.