A paralysed former builder – and the widow of man who had locked in syndrome – today lost a right-to-die fight in the UK’s highest court but said they were hopeful that change would come.
Supreme Court justices ruled against Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson by a seven-two majority following a hearing in London.
Mr Lamb and Mrs Nicklinson, whose husband Tony died nearly two years ago, wanted the court to rule that disabled people should have the right to be helped to die with dignity.
Nine justices had been asked to decide whether a prohibition on assisted suicide – outlined in the 1961 Suicide Act – was compatible with the right to respect for private and family life enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Five of the nine justices concluded that the court had the “constitutional authority” to declare that a general prohibition on assisted suicide was incompatible with the human right to private and family life. Two of those five said they would have made such a declaration.
And Mr Lamb and Mrs Nicklinson, both 58, said those conclusions were a “positive” step in the fight for change.
Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, said of the ruling: “This is good news for the many vulnerable people who would have been at risk if the attempt to weaken the law on euthanasia and assisted suicide had been allowed by the Supreme Court.
”The murder law is there to set the highest priority on the importance and value of life and to protect it.
“While we have immense compassion for the Nicklinsons, Paul Lamb and ‘Martin’, their individual requests to end their lives by medical intervention would have been disproportionate to the safety of many.”
She said:“Parliament needs to continue to resist the repeated attempts by a small and determined lobby group to legalise assisted suicide.
“The issue has been comprehensively aired over many years in parliament and bills to introduce it have been resoundingly rejected.
“Parliament should continue to make clear the paramount importance of the protection and value of life for the most vulnerable in our society.”
“I am very proud of myself,” said Mr Lamb, from Bramley, Leeds, who was left paralysed after a road accident more than 20 years ago. “I know it is going to change.”
Mrs Nicklinson – who comes from Melksham, Wiltshire, and whose husband Tony died aged 58 in August 2012 after starting the legal fight – added: “I am disappointed that we lost. But it is a very positive step. Parliament will have to discuss this. I think Tony would be very pleased at how far we have come.”
Their solicitor, Saimo Chahal, went on : “Whilst this is not exactly the result we were hoping for, and it does not provide an immediate remedy, it is nonetheless very welcome as we have succeeded in showing that the issue, despite the controversy surrounding it, is one that the courts can adjudicate on and indeed must, if Parliament does not take action soon to consider the plight of people like Paul
“Jane and Paul can be very proud of the fact that they have made legal history in establishing what the courts should do when fundamental human rights are engaged, no matter how sensitive and difficult the moral and legal arguments are.”
The Supreme Court ruled today after a hearing in December.
Justices also dismissed a separate challenge by another disabled man after analysing guidance given by Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
That issue had been raised by a disabled man who was identified only as “Martin”.
He argued that a “policy statement” setting out “public interest factors to be considered in the exercise of discretion to prosecute” was an unlawful interference with the right to respect for private and family life.
His challenge was dismissed unanimously.
Lawyer Rosa Curling, from the human rights team at law firm Leigh Day, which represents Martin, said: “We welcome today’s judgment as it clearly indicates that the DPP should now revise her policy.
“We await her new guidance and hope she will now make clear that those, family members or otherwise, who wish, out of a sense of compassion, to help those unable to help themselves to end their lives can now do so without real fear of prosecution.”
Using an adapted computer operated by sight, Martin said in a statement: “Today’s judgment takes me one step closer to being able to decide how and when I end my life. I welcome it for this reason.
“But this whole process has been excruciating, slow and tedious. I would implore the DPP to amend her written guidance as a matter of absolute priority.
“People in my situation, who have the right to choose how to end their lives, should be able get the assistance they need from people outside their family.
“The DPP has said as much to the court. She must now do the same to the public in general so there is no confusion.”
Richard Hawkes, of disability charity Scope, said: “Many disabled people will be reassured by this ruling. The current law against assisted suicide works.
”It sends a powerful message countering the view that if you’re disabled it’s not worth being alive, and that you’re a burden. It’s a view that is all too common.
“We are deeply concerned that a change in the law will lead to disabled people feeling under pressure to end their lives.
“Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?
“Many disabled people strongly oppose a change in the law.”