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Locked-in sufferer starts high court battle for right to die

Tony Nicklinson wants a declaration from the court that any doctor ending his life will be protected from murder charge

25 January 2012

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The case of a severely-disabled 57-year-old man who wants a judge to allow a doctor to “lawfully” end his life reaches the high court today (23 January 2012). Locked-in sufferer Tony Nicklinson is seeking a guarantee from the court that any doctor terminating his life will have a “common law defence of necessity” against any murder charge.

Nicklinson, a former rugby player who is paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke in 2005, communicates through the use of a perspex board or an Eye-Blink computer. The married father of two from Wiltshire cannot speak, is fed liquidised food and is dependant on carers. He describes his life as “dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable”.

He is seeking declarations that it is lawful for a doctor to terminate his life, with his consent and with him making the decision with full mental capacity.

Solicitor Saimo Chahal said: “This will be a test case and raises many difficult legal, moral and ethical questions about euthanasia.”

Nicklinson’s disability means that he cannot take his own life other than by slow starvation. He is seeking the right to die at home surrounded by his family, rather than travelling to Switzerland, where medically assisted suicide is legal. “What I have to look forward to is a wretched ending with uncertainty, pain and suffering while my family watch on helplessly,” said Nicklinson. “Why must I suffer these indignities? If I were able bodied I could put an end to my life when I want to.”

The case is listed to be heard by Mr Justice Charles for a pre-trial review.

Nicklinson’s case comes at a time of renewed debate over the right to die.

Figures released recently by Swiss assisted dying group Dignitas reveal that it had 893 members from the UK by the end of last year, up 14 per cent on the figure for 2010. In total, 182 people from this country have now ended their lives with the group’s help since it was set up in 1998, although the annual figure fell from 26 in 2010 to 22 last year.

At the beginning of January the Commission on Assisted Dying published a report calling the current ban on assisted suicide “inadequate and incoherent” and calling for a review of the law (see www.privateclientadviser.co.uk/news/vulnerable-clients/assisted-suicide-...).

MPs are due to debate the issue in March.

At the preliminary hearing the Ministry of Justice’s lawyer, David Perry QC, argued that the court case should not go ahead as the issue is for parliament to decide. “There are compelling reasons why the court should not intervene,” said Perry. “[Nicklinson] is saying the court should positively authorise and permit as lawful the deliberate taking of his life. That is not, and cannot be, the law of England and Wales unless parliament were to say otherwise.” Appropriate safeguards and conditions could only be introduced by parliament, rather than courts deciding on a case-by-case basis, he added.

The case was adjourned until 8 February.

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