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Parliament must consider assisted suicide law, Supreme Court rules

25 June 2014

Parliament must be allowed to have a say on whether it is appropriate to legislate to allow assisted dying, the UK Supreme Court ruled today.

By a seven to two majority, the court dismissed an appeal brought on behalf of the late Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from "locked-in syndrome" which left him paralysed an unable to end his own life as he wished. He had sought a declaration that that it would be lawful for a doctor to kill him or to assist him in terminating his life, failing which that the current state of the law was incompatible with his right to a private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The majority judges however differed as to when the court should rule on whether the present law was compatible with the Convention – though they were unanimous that the question whether the current law on assisted suicide is incompatible with article 8 lies within the United Kingdom’s margin of appreciation, and is therefore a question for the United Kingdom to decide.

The President (Lord Neuberger), Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson went further and held that the court has the constitutional authority to make a declaration that the general prohibition on assisted suicide in s 2 is incompatible with article 8 – but only Lady Hale and Lord Kerr considered it appropriate to issue a declaration of incompatibility in the present proceedings.

Lords Neuberger, Mance and Wilson ruled that Parliament's judgment on the issue would not necessarily be determinative, but that this was "a difficult, sensitive and controversial issue on which great significance will be attached to the judgment of the democratically informed legislature", and it would be inappropriate for a court to decide whether the key provision, s 2 of the (England & Wales) Suicide Act 1961, was incompatible with article 8 before giving Parliament the opportunity to consider the position in the light of the judgments.

Differing on the constitutional authority point, Lord Clarke, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed and Lord Hughes concluded that the question whether the current law on assisting suicide was compatible with article 8 involved a consideration of issues which Parliament was inherently better qualified than the courts to assess, and that under present circumstances the courts should respect Parliament’s assessment.

In a second case involving a man known as Martin, who wished to travel to the Swiss clinic Dignitas to end his life, the court unanimously allowed an appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions against a ruling by the Court of Appeal that his 2010 policy on when individuals could expect to assist others to end their lives at Dignitas without being prosecuted in this country, was not sufficiently clear in relation to healthcare professionals. It held that the exercise of judgment by the DPP, the variety of relevant factors, and the need to vary the weight to be attached to them according to the circumstances of each individual case were all proper and constitutionally necessary features of the system of prosecution in the public interest.

Click here to view the judgments.

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