Suicide, murder and the courts

  • 31 July 2013
  • From the section Health
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Appeal Court
The cases of Martin, Nicklinson and Lamb are the latest in a series of challenges to the law on assisted suicide and murder

How far should the courts interfere in interpreting the law on murder and assisted suicide? That was a key question that the appeal court had to consider in the cases of three paralysed men - "Martin", Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb.

Martin - who does not wish to be identified - describes his life as undignified, distressing and intolerable following a stroke. Tony Nicklinson, who died last year, said repeatedly that life was no longer worth living following his stroke.

Paul Lamb says he has lived in daily pain for 23 years since a car accident.

But the judges made clear that despite having sympathy for the appellants, their decisions must be made with regard to the law.

All three men would - given the choice - have preferred to end their lives at home by being given a lethal dose. But the law on murder makes it clear that any health professional who kills a patient - even acting out of compassion - faces prosecution in this country.

Martin

Martin managed to persuade two of the three appeal court judges that the law on assisted suicide needs further clarification. The Director of Public Prosecutions has to approve any assisted suicide court action in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2009 he issued guidance which made it clear that family or friends who travelled with a loved one to the Swiss suicide group Dignitas, would not risk prosecution.

Martin and his wife are very close but despite respecting his decision she is unwilling to play any part in bringing about his death. Martin says he would have to ask a carer or nurse to help him - or a stranger - and that might involve payment.

Two of the three appeal court judges agreed that the DPP must clarify the law so that a health professional or anyone else would know if they risked prosecution for travelling with him to Dignitas -where around one Briton a fortnight ends their life.

Martin's case will now go to the Supreme Court for a final ruling ruling.

Nicklinson and Lamb

Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb wanted the judges to go much further. They were mounting a direct challenge to the law on murder. It would have meant that any doctor who ended their life could have had immunity from prosecution.

Mr Nicklinson died last year of natural causes days after the High Court rejected his case.

The appeal court judges unanimously dismissed the appeal of Mr Nicklinson's widow Jane, and Paul Lamb.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said in his ruling:

"The circumstances in which life may be deliberately ended before it has completed its natural course, and if so in what circumstances, and by whom, raises profoundly sensitive questions about the nature of our society, and its values and standards, on which passionate but contradictory opinions are held.

"Addressing these life and death issues in relation to life before birth, the circumstances in which a pregnancy may be terminated were decided by Parliament. The abolition of the death penalty following the conviction for murder was, similarly, decided by Parliament. For these purposes Parliament represents the conscience of the nation. Judges, however eminent, do not: our responsibility is to discover the relevant legal principles, and apply the law as we find it."

Lord Judge had been the dissenting voice in not wanting to force the DPP to clarify the law on assisted suicide.

But all three judges were clear. If the law actually needs changing - as Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb had wanted - it was a matter for Parliament and not the courts.

That was welcomed by Alistair Thompson from the Care Not Killing Alliance:

"We have to guard against people saying that human life has a finite value - that if you are disabled, elderly or terminally ill that you life is somehow worth less than if you are able bodied - that is quite wrong."

All three cases will now go to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.

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