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Widow allowed to pursue husband’s right-to-die appeal

Court of Appeal grants Jane Nicklinson right to challenge ruling rejecting her late husband’s assisted suicide application

7 January 2013

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Jane Nicklinson, the estate administrator of locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson, has been allowed by the Court of Appeal to challenge a High Court decision against her late husband’s bid for assisted suicide.

Tony Nicklinson was left almost completely paralysed and needing round-the-clock care following a stroke in 2005. He decided to end his own life. Physically incapable to do so, he wanted the help of others, who would fall foul of section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, which makes assisted suicide a criminal offence.

The father of two took his right-to-die claim to court. He sought assurances that it was legal for his doctor to help him end his life, on the grounds of necessity.

Similar arguments were raised in the Debbie Purdy case, where the multiple sclerosis sufferer asked the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to issue offence-specific guidelines that would protect her husband from prosecution if he escorted her to the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic.

Hearing the case on final appeal, the House of Lords ruled in her favour, saying the DPP should issue offence-specific regulation in assisted suicide cases.

Unlike Debbie Purdy, Tony Nicklinson, who could only move his head and eyes, was unable to take his own life and would have required assistance from family members or from his doctor.

This would have put any family member helping him outside the scope of the DPP’s February 2010 guidelines on assisted suicide issued after the Purdy case.

Tony Nicklinson also claimed English law breached his rights to private life, arguing his case under article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The article protects the private life of individuals against arbitrary interference by public authorities and private organisations. The law defines private life based on the notion that the state should not intrude without strict justification.

Parliamentary matter

The Nicklinson case was heard by a divisional court in London in June 2012 and judgment was handed down on 16 August 2012 dismissing both claims.

Lord Justice Toulson concluded: “To do as Tony wants, the court would be making a major change in the law… 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.”

Tony Nicklinson died less than a week later. His family continued the campaign, which has drawn interest from others facing a similar plight. London-based Bindmans, the firm representing Jane Nicklinson, said it is possible a second claimant will ask to join the case shortly.

Jane Nicklinson has also been granted a protective costs order so if she loses the appeal she will not be liable for the costs of her opponents.

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