THREE claimants in the series of cases known as the "right to
die" litigation have failed to persuade a panel of nine Supreme
Court judges that UK law breaches their human rights.
The appeals arose from claims brought by the late Tony
Nicklinson, Paul Lamb, and another claimant known only as Martin,
each of whom said that he was suffering such a distressing and
undignified life that he had long wished to end it - but could not
do so by himself because of his physical incapacity.
Mr Lamb has been completely immobile since a car crash in 1990.
He has 24-hour carers, is in constant pain, and requires morphine
continually. He wanted the law to permit him to seek assistance in
killing himself. He was supported by the widow of Mr Nicklinson,
who had been completely paralysed after a stroke, and could
communicate only by laboriously blinking to spell out words on a
computer. He died in August 2012 by starving himself, after the
Court of Appeal refused to declare that it would be lawful for a
doctor to kill him, or assist him in terminating his life.
Martin suffered a brainstem stroke when he was 43, and is unable
to move. He is cared for by his wife and carers, and communicates
via an eye-blink computer. He wishes to end his life, which he
regards as undignified, distressing, and intolerable. His only way
of achieving that is by travelling to the Dignitas clinic in
Switzerland, where the law enables those who wish to die to do
Martin's wife does not wish to be involved in that project, and
he does not want any other member of his family to be involved. He
says that he needs assistance from his carers, or from an
organisation such as Friends at the End. He wants the Director of
Public Prosecutions (DPP), Alison Saunders, to clarify and modify
her policy, so that responsible people, such as his carers, could
assist him in committing suicide through Dignitas without the risk
of being prosecuted.
Besides the claimants and the DPP, there were three interveners
who appeared in the appeal before the Supreme Court: Choice in
Dying, CNK Alliance Ltd. (Care Not Killing), and the British
The first issue before the Supreme Court was whether it should
declare that section 2 of the Suicide Act was incompatible with the
right to respect for private life, which was protected by article 8
of the Human Rights Convention.
It was argued that the rights of Mr Nicklinson and Mr Lamb under
article 8 should be accommodated by their being able to seek the
assistance of third parties to enable them to kill themselves in a
dignified and private manner, at a time of their choosing, in the
Against that, the main justification advanced for an absolute
prohibition on assisting suicide was the perceived risk to
vulnerable individuals, who might feel themselves a burden to their
family, friends, and society, and might,if assisted suicide were
permitted, be persuaded, or convince themselves, that they should
undertake it when they would not otherwise do so.
The Supreme Court, by a majority of seven to two, declined to
make that declaration, and said that it was a matter for Parliament
to investigate, debate, and decide on.
Martin also relied on article 8, and argued that the terms of
the DPP's 2010 policy was insufficiently clear about the likelihood
of prosecution of individuals - especially members of the caring
professions, who might be prepared, out of compassion, to provide
assistance to a person who had a voluntary and informed wish to
commit suicide. He argued thatthe policy should be modified to make
it clear that such an individual would not be liable to
Martin had been partly successful in the Court of Appeal, which
ruled that the policy was not sufficiently clear in regard to
health-care professionals. The DPP appealed against that
The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the DPP's appeal. It said
that it should not involve itself with the terms of the DPP's
policy on assisted suicide.
A Bill on assisted suicide is currently before the House of
Question of the week: Is it time to
relax the law on assisted suicide?
Aiding suicide is
committing suicide is no longer an offence, it is still an
offence under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 for a person
to do "an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide
or attempted suicide of another person". The Act, however,
provides that a prosecution cannot be brought for the offence of
assisting in a suicide without the DPP's permission. The DPP has
the right to decide that it is not in the public interest to
prosecute someone who assisted in a suicide, even when it is clear
that an offence has been committed.
In 2010, the DPP
published a policy document setting out the "public-interest
factors tending in favour of prosecution", including cases where
the victim was aged under 18, or did not have the capacity to reach
an informed decision to commit suicide, and where the suspect was
not wholly motivated by compassion: for example, because he or she
stood to gain from the victim's death, or where the suspect had
pressured the victim to commit suicide.
"public-interest factors tending against prosecution" included
circumstances where the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion,
or had sought to dissuade the victim from taking the course of
action which resulted in the suicide, or had reported the suicide
to the police.
position is that the State is not entitled to intervene to prevent
a person of full capacity, who has arrived at a decision to take
his own life, from doing so. But such a person did not have the
right to call on a third party to help him or her.
assisting suicide are rare. Between 1998 and 2011, a total of 215
British citizens appear to have committed suicide at the Dignitas
clinic in Zurich, but none of them has been