UK High Court refuses declaration of incompatibility on law against assisted suicide for terminally ill patient

The High Court in London refused to grant a declaration of incompatibility pursuant to section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 in respect of the prohibition in the criminal law against provision of assistance for a person to commit suicide. While it was acknowledged by the Court that the applicant’s right to privacy and family life had been infringed; such infringement was both necessary and proportionate to the strong public interest in maintaining the provision. In reaching this conclusion the Court was particularly influenced by earlier precedent and the fact that Parliament had reviewed the provision as late as 2009 and retained the offence on the statute books. 

The applicant Mr Conway was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2014, a recognised medically terminal condition. Mr Conway sought a declaration by the High Court that the Suicide Act 1961 was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the ‘Convention’). Mr Conway argued that the blanked ban in on the provision of assistance for suicide contained in Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961(as amended) violates the right of respect for his private life under the Convention. Mr. Conway is likely to die within the next 12 months as a result of the disease and wanted to be able to decide when and how his death occurs. However, section 2 of the 1961 Act prohibits euthanasia, and would result in a 14 year prison term for any doctors who assisted him in ending his life.

While lawyers for the Secretary of State acknowledged there had been an interference with Mr Conway’s Article 8 rights it was argued Section 2 is a provision which meets the relevant standard of being ‘necessary in a democratic society’ as a proportionate measure ‘for the protection of health’, ‘for the protection of morals’, and ‘for the protection of the rights of others’. Further, that while Section 2 is a general prohibition, Parliament is entitled to regard it as necessary as protection for the weak and vulnerable. Furthermore, that Section 2 reflects and gives reassurance to patients regarding the ethical standards which medical practitioners will apply in their cases and thereby promotes trust between doctors and patients and safeguards the provision of appropriate healthcare. Mr Conway argued that a more nuanced set of criteria than the blanket ban in Section 2 could safeguard the legitimate interests outlined by the Secretary of State. In particular that the ban on assisted suicide should not apply to a person is aged 18 or above; has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a clinically assessed prognosis of six months or less to live; has mental capacity to make the decision; has made a full and informed decision; and retains the ability to undertake the final acts required to bring about death having been provided with such assistance.

Due to these restrictions on ending one’s life, Mr Conway’s only apparent option would be to remove his ventilator and slowly suffocate himself to death. According to the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, every 8 days a person travels from the UK to Switzerland in order to attend the Dignitas Clinic, where terminally ill people are allowed to end their lives by physician assisted suicide. In addition to this, she claims that around 300 terminally ill people take their own lives at home across England and Wales on a yearly basis.

Mr Conway’s case was initially heard in July of this year and interventions were heard from a number of organisations including Humanists UK and Dignity in Dying. Expert medical evidence was also heard. Ultimately the Court found that the legislative objective was sufficient to justify limiting Mr Conway’s fundamental right to privacy and family life and refused to declare section 2 incompatible with the Convention.

PILA previously reported on the case, please click here.

For a copy of the judgement click here.

For further commentary on the case please click here.

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