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UK Panel of senior judges to prepare a ruling on Right to Die

The Telegraph in London (John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor) reported on 8 December 2013, that a full panel of nine Supreme Court Justices, headed by Lord Neuberger, the court’s President, is to be convened next week to hear the culmination of three separate legal challenges to the current ban on assisted suicide. The three cases have been put into one ‘super-case’ to allow a sweeping judgment on the current state of the law in England and Wales.It will see Jane Nicklinson, the widow of Tony Nicklinson, the ‘locked-in syndrome’ sufferer who died last year, is joining with two severely disabled men in a concerted attempt to use human rights laws to sweep away the 50-year-old ban on assisted suicide.

Their lawyers plan to draw on legal arguments already developed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Labour former lord chancellor who chaired an unofficial commission into assisted suicide last year.Legal papers set out how they plan to argue that the 1961 Suicide Act, which makes it a criminal offence to assist someone taking their own life, imposes ‘extraordinary and cruel’ limits on individual freedom.They will argue that the ban has already been partially unravelled by official guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions four years ago, amounting ‘de-facto decriminalisation’ of assisted suicide for those who take loved-ones to Switzerland to end their lives.

The three’s lawyers will argue that the current arrangements discriminate against people who are unable to travel abroad or take other steps themselves to end their lives because of the severity of their condition. Crucially they will argue that a series of previous cases already establish a qualified ‘right for people to choose how they die but one which those with severe disabilities cannot use. This, they say amounts a breach of human rights and renders the ban on assisted suicide It comes just months before Lord Falconer presses ahead with a private bill in the House of Lords which would introduce a new assisted suicide system modelled on controversial rules in place in the US state of Oregon.

Mr Nicklinson, a 58-year-old father-of-two who enjoyed skydiving and rugby until being left almost completely paralysed after a catastrophic stroke, fought a long and public campaign for a doctor to be allowed to help him end his life. He died in August last year after refusing food following the rejection of his case at the High Court.  But Mrs Nicklinson was granted special dispensation to continue the case in his place because of the significance of the legal issues it contains, taking it to the Court of Appeal and now the Supreme Court.

She has been joined by Paul Lamb, 57, a former lorry driver who was left quadriplegic by a car accident 23 years ago. They want the court to create a new defence of ‘necessity’ which could be used against murder charges by doctors who provide fatal doses of drugs on request.

Meanwhile a man known only as ‘Martin’ is fighting to open up the DPP’s guidelines further, to allow strangers to step in when family members are unwilling or unable to help with arrangements. Martin wants to go to the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland but his wife has made clear that she feels morally unable to help him die.

All three cases have been rebuffed by lower courts but the fact that they are to be heard by a full panel of nine judges is an indication of the seriousness with which they are being taken. “I am hopeful, we would not be doing this if we didn’t think we had some prospect of success,” said Mrs Nicklinson. ”I know it is a huge thing we are asking for but the fact that we are sitting in front of nine judges shows that they are taking it seriously.” She said that even though it would be too late to reduce her late husband’s suffering, she was determined to see it through. “It would be huge,” she said. “It is what Tony always wanted and wasn’t able to make use of but it would be his legacy. He started it all off, Paul is continuing it but it would mean an awful lot to us.

Legal papers submitted on behalf of Mrs Nicklinson and Mr Lamb say: “This appeal marks what the appellants hope is the final stage of their long, high profile effort to obtain a remedy in respect of the extraordinary and cruel consequences for them of the current law prohibiting assisted suicide in England and Wales under [the] Suicide Act 1961.”  Papers from Martin’s legal team make his case to end his life in stark terms. “He can move his eyes, and communicates, painfully slowly, by spelling out words on the screen of a special computer than can detect where on the screen his eyes are pointing,” they say. “Martin finds his circumstances undignified, distressing and intolerable. He is not going to recover. He wants to end his life. That decision is settled, consistent, and reached with capacity.”

BBC News is also reporting on this court hearings. Click  here.