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Locked-in syndrome sufferer challenges government over euthanasia

20 July 2010

A locked-in syndrome sufferer is the latest applicant to challenge the government over right-to-die laws.

Tony Nicklinson, 56, is only able to move his eyes and head after suffering a stroke while on a business trip to Athens in 2005.

Five years on, the paralysed father of two is considering ending his life with the assistance of his wife.

Last month the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) rejected his request to issue specific guidelines for mercy killing cases.

Yesterday Tony Nicklinson applied for permission to start judicial review proceedings over the DPP’s refusal, arguing that this was an unlawful interference with his right to private life under article 8 ECHR.

The application comes just over a year after MS sufferer Debbie Purdy won her case in the House of Lords, forcing the DPP to publish an offence-specific prosecution policy on assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy envisages that she would end her life with the assistance of her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente. The couple would go together to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich where Ms Purdy would take her own life herself.

By contrast, Tony Nicklinson would be unable to take his own life and would need the help of a third party. This would put any family member outside the scope of this February’s assisted suicide guidelines.

Under the CPS code, prosecution will only be started if it passes a two-stage test. First, whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, and second, whether it is in the public interest.

English law doesn’t currently distinguish between euthanasia and murder, so that assisting a person in Tony Nicklinson’s case would qualify as murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

In practice, the more severe the punishment, the more likely it is that the CPS will prosecute, but each case will always be assessed on its individual merits.

Mr Nicklinson’s solicitor, Saimo Chahal, said that charging Mr Nicklinson’s wife with murder if she were to accept her husband’s request to terminate his life, at his instigation and with his consent, was wrong and placed her “in the same category as a bomber who intends to maim or kill as many people as possible”.

Chahal said the law of murder was “inflexible” and that it should be reviewed particularly in the context of mercy killing to distinguish consensual killing from unlawful killing.

The CPS said there were several important distinctions between assisted suicide, euthanasia and so-called mercy killing.

“Suicide, whether assisted or not, and murder are very different acts in that the former requires a person to take their own life, whereas the latter involves a person doing an act that ends the life of another,” a spokesperson said.

“This remains a fundamental distinction even if that act is done on the basis that the person is simply complying with the wishes of the other individual concerned.

“The Director of Public Prosecutions considers that the public interest factors set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors and the advice provided in the CPS legal guidance are sufficient to ensure that both prosecutors and members of the public know what factors will be taken into account when prosecutors decide whether to prosecute a case of murder or manslaughter involving a so-called mercy killing. It follows that the DPP does not consider that specific public interest factors tending in favour of or against a prosecution for murder or manslaughter in these circumstances are required.”

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