Today saw two important rulings in the Court of Appeal.
Mickey Charouneau is the press support officer at Dignity in Dying
Today saw two important rulings in the Court of Appeal. Firstly, a 48 year old man known only as ‘Martin’ had his legal challenge, calling for greater clarity from the director of public prosecutions (DPP) on whether carers and medical staff who assist someone to end their life out of compassion will be prosecuted, upheld.
This is a welcome development. The director of public prosecutions has challenged this ruling, so the case will now move to the Supreme Court.
This judgment comes four years after campaigner Debbie Purdy, who is living with MS, won a case in the House of Lords which resulted in the DPP issuing guidelines relating to the factors he took into consideration when deciding whether to prosecute in cases of assistance to die.
In the initial guidance the DPP indicated that healthcare professionals were likely to be prosecuted for assisting in the death of a patient, but went into no detail about what constituted assistance.
This new ruling will hopefully result in far greater clarity for healthcare professionals who, motivated by compassion, help a patient who wants to control their death. Currently without an Assisted Dying law, some terminally ill people are taking drastic decisions in fear of the repercussions for those left behind.
We already know that terminally ill people are obtaining potentially dangerous and illegal drugs behind closed doors; not knowing if the drugs will have the desired effect of leave them suffering further. The Court of Appeal also ruled on the case of Paul Lamb, who is severely disabled, and wanted a change in the murder law so a doctor could end his life, and use necessity as a defence.
It is impossible not to feel great sympathy for Mr Lamb, but his case falls outside of Dignity in Dying’s remit, and is challenging the law of murder by asking for a third party to directly end his life. I would only advocate a law whereby the person choosing to die took the final action to end their lives, with support if necessary.
These cases have led many to question where do you draw the line. Dignity in Dying campaigns for a change in the law on assisted dying – the choice for terminally ill, mentally competent people to be able to choose the manner and timing of their death.
Crucially this would be for those who are within six months of death and have had their mental competence verified by two separate doctors. Life ending medication would have to be administered by the patient, not a doctor as is the case with Mr Lamb’s legal challenge.
These are some of the stringent safeguards in Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, similar to the law that has been working in Oregon for the last fifteen years, and will be debated in the House of Lords in the near future.
Assisted Dying is overwhelmingly supported by the public with opinion polls constantly putting support around 80 per cent. This support dramatically decreases when the criteria around a change in the law broadens to those who are not terminally ill, and focuses on suffering rather than dying.
How do you determine what counts as legitimate suffering when people are not dying? I understand that this position may frustrate some people, but Dignity in Dying will continue to argue for people to have the right – when dying – to die well.
The Court of Appeal recognised that people need greater clarity on the guidelines surrounding this issue and it’s not going to go away. Lord Falconer’s Bill will give terminally ill people the right to choose an assisted death under a strict and safeguarded system, it’s time to make this Bill law.
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