The High Court has told two men suffering from ‘locked-in syndrome’ that their legal challenges to the ban on voluntary euthanasia have been rejected.
In judgment today, the court said that it recognised that the men’s cases raised difficult ethical, social and legal issues, and expressed sympathy for the men’s physical and emotional torment, but ruled that any change to the law around assisted suicide was a matter for parliament.
The two claimants, Tony Nicklinson and AM, are victims of ‘locked-in syndrome’, a condition where although they have suffered catastrophic physical disabilities, their mental processes are unimpaired and they are fully aware of their predicament. Both men have said that they wish to die with dignity, but their condition makes them incapable of ending their own lives.
Neither is terminally ill, but their condition is not going to improve, and they are likely to live, helpless and in pain, for many years. The two men applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the current law that makes assisted suicide illegal.
Nicklinson sought a declaration that it ‘would not be unlawful’ for his general practitioner or another doctor to ‘terminate or assist the termination’ of his life.
AM sought an order that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) should clarify his published policy so that people who ‘on compassionate grounds’ helped him commit suicide would know whether they might face prosecution.
Refusing the men’s applications for judicial review, Lord Justice Toulson said: ‘To do as Tony (Nicklinson) wants, the court would be making a major change in the law. To do as (AM) wants, the court would be compelling the DPP to go beyond his established legal role. These are not things that the court should do.
‘It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. Under our system of government these are matters for parliament to decide, representing society as a whole, after parliamentary scrutiny, and not for the court on the facts of an individual case or cases.’
Agreeing with Toulson LJ’s reasoning, Mr Justice Royce said: ‘No one could fail to be deeply moved by the terrible predicament faced by these men struck down in their prime and facing a future bereft of hope. Each case gives rise to most profound ethical, moral, religious and social issues. Some will say the judges must step in to change the law. Some may be sorely tempted to do so.
'But the short answer is that to do so here would be to usurp the function of parliament in this classically sensitive area. Any change would need the most carefully structured safeguards which only parliament can deliver.’
Mrs Justice Macur, agreeing with both Toulson LJ and Royce J, said: ‘The issues raised by Tony and AM’s cases are conspicuously matters which must be adjudicated upon by parliament and not judges or the DPP as unelected officers of state.’
London firm Bindmans partner Saimo Chahal, who acted for Nicklinson, said: ‘We always knew that there was a legal mountain to be climbed and the judgment leaves open grounds for appeal. Tony has already confirmed to me when I visited him yesterday that he wants to appeal the judgment and all parties in the case now know that this will now be happening.
‘Tony’s legal team are ready to fight on and anticipate that the case will go to the Supreme Court via the Court of Appeal.’