Senior court of appeal judges decided by a majority of two to one that the director of public prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer, should publish guidance explaining the circumstances in which a healthcare professional can help a disabled man to die without risking prosecution.
Starmer immediately said he would seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, of the disabled people’s organisation Not Dead Yet UK, which campaigns against legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide, said such guidance risked a “radical shift” towards the kind of pro-euthanasia culture that exists in the Netherlands and Belgium.
He said such a shift would be “catastrophic” for disabled people and vulnerable older people, who could feel pressured to take the euthanasia option “because it is validated by the medical profession”.
Fitzpatrick said new guidance would “open the door to abuse”, and he warned that as soon as you told a professional that it was allowable in law to help to kill someone, “the genie is out of the bottle”.
He pointed to the speed with which the “well-intentioned” Liverpool Care Pathway – which was intended to lay out palliative care options for patients in the final hours or days of their lives – degenerated into “misuse and abuse”.
And he warned that members of the pro-euthanasia lobby – who believe it is ok to view disabled people and vulnerable older people as “candidates for elimination” – were slowly “chipping away” at the law on assisted suicide.
The disabled man who brought the case, known as Martin, is virtually unable to move following a stroke, and would only be able to end his life with the assistance of a third party.
He wants to travel to die at the notorious Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but his wife does not wish to assist him, so he wants to enlist the help of a care worker, healthcare professional, or a volunteer from a pro-euthanasia group.
Martin’s lawyers said the existing assisted suicide guidelines issued by the DPP – following the successful court action by Debbie Purdy in July 2009 – offered sufficient “clarity” for friends or relatives who helped someone to die, but were not clear enough for those with no emotional ties to the person who wanted to die, such as healthcare professionals.
Lord Dyson, the master of the rolls, and Lord Justice Elias, in their majority judgment, said it would be “constitutionally improper” for the DPP to guarantee immunity from prosecution for any class of “helpers”, but it was not impossible or impractical to improve the guidance as it related to healthcare professionals and other helpers.
But the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, in disagreeing with his two colleagues, said he believed the policy was already “sufficiently clear to enable Martin, or anyone who assists him, to make an informed decision about the likelihood of prosecution”.
The same three judges unanimously dismissed appeals by Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb, who had both challenged the legal ban on voluntary euthanasia.
Nicklinson is continuing the legal battle begun by her husband, Tony, who refused nutrition, fluids and medical treatment after the high court dismissed his case last year. He died less than a week later. Nicklinson had wanted the law to be changed so that a doctor could end his life without facing a murder charge.
Paul Lamb, who was almost completely paralysed after a car crash, is seeking the same change in the law as Nicklinson.
Lord Judge said assisted suicide law “cannot be changed” by judges, and that “if the law is to be changed, it must be changed by parliament”.
Lamb and Nicklinson will also take their fight to the Supreme Court.
1 August 2013