You are here

We need a compassionate law that can safeguard choice

Parliament can provide both greater choice and greater protection, says Davina Hehir at Dignity in Dying

18 July 2014

Add comment

The Suicide Act is over 50 years old and is out of touch with the problems facing dying Britons in the 21st century.

Public opinion is resolutely in favour of change and just a few weeks ago in the cases of Nicklinson, Lamb and Martin, the Supreme Court indicated that if parliament is unwilling to address the issue, then ultimately the courts will - it is only a matter of time before the law is reformed.

Today, parliament has a chance to start the process of changing the law, as members of the House of Lords debate Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill. The bill would allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults the option of an assisted death within upfront safeguards. With an unprecedented number of speakers (133 at the last count) peers clearly understand the importance of the issuers at stake, and are keen to have their say.

Dignity in Dying campaigns to change the law on assisted dying along the lines proposed in Lord Falconer's bill. We hope that the bill will proceed through the second reading debate today, and onto a committee of the whole house, where it could be debated in detail, clause by clause.

Several prominent opponents of the bill wrote to The Times this week stating that despite their concerns they would not seek to stop the bill getting to committee stage. In doing, so they acknowledged the Supreme Court judgment, which issued a clear warning that the issue of assisted dying needs to be given a full and considered debate in parliament.

The cases were heard by a nine justice panel of the Supreme Court back in December 2013. After, in the words of Lord Wilson "six months in which all the members of this court have deliberated upon these appeals with an intensity unique in my experience" the court unanimously concluded that the question whether the current law on assisted suicide is incompatible with article 8 - the right to private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights - lies within the UK's margin of appreciation.

A majority of the court (five of the nine justices) held that the court has the constitutional authority to make a declaration that the general prohibition on assisted suicide in section 2 of the Suicide Act is incompatible with article 8.

Lord Neuberger, Lord Wilson and Lord Mance accepted that, in the right case and at the right time, it would be open to the Supreme Court to make a declaration that section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with the right to respect for private life protected by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, they would prefer that parliament have an opportunity of investigating, debating and deciding upon the issue before a court decides whether or not to make such a declaration. Lady Hale and Lord Kerr would have made a declaration of incompatibility.

Robust and fair

Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, said in his judgment: "Parliament now has the opportunity to address the issue of whether section 2 [of the Suicide Act] should be relaxed or modified, and if so how, in the knowledge that, if it is not satisfactorily addressed, there is a real prospect that a further, and successful, application for a declaration of incompatibility may be made..."

In essence, today's debate gives parliament the opportunity to take heed of the warning issued by the Supreme Court. Parliament can and should provide a robust, fair and compassionate law that can be applied with rigour and force.

The recent activity from the courts reflects ongoing public support for the legalisation of assisted dying for terminally ill people and a desire for lawmakers to provide clarity and explore a safeguarded means so that imminently dying people can have choice and control at the end of life.

Ultimately, a law passed by parliament, with clear criteria and upfront safeguards is preferable to decriminalisation by stages. Parliament can provide both greater choice and greater protection; we need a compassionate law that can safeguard choice for those at the end of life.

Davina Hehir is director of legal strategy and policy at Dignity in Dying

Follow @SJ_Weekly #assisteddying

Categorised in:

Vulnerable Clients