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Right to Die fight goes to the Supreme Court

Lawyers for locked-in syndrome man go to Supreme Court in challenge for clearer guidance from DPP

Photo of Supreme Court: istock

16 December 2013

Lawyers for a 49-year-old British man with locked-in syndrome will today to the country’s highest Court  in their legal challenge for clearer guidance from the Director of Public prosecutions (DPP) for people, e.g. carers or health professionals, who assist those people wishing to end their own life.

This latest stage in the legal battle comes after the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling, in May this year, from August 2012 which lawyers argued denied their client the opportunity to take the necessary steps to end his own life.

Nine Supreme Court justices in London will now decide if the CPS should review their guidance on assisted suicide.

Martin’s case will be heard alongside the case of Paul Lamb, who has taken over the legal challenge previously mounted by the late Tony Nicklinson. Mr Lamb is seeking a defence to assisting suicide, which would mean that a doctor involved in a mercy killing would have a defence to a murder charge.   

Martin’s lawyers, Leigh Day, argue that there should be a change to the approach taken to prosecution for assisted suicide as, although it is legal to commit suicide, it is a serious criminal offence to assist someone to take their own life.

Currently the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) guidance makes it clear that friends or family members would be unlikely to be prosecuted. However, Martin’s wife does not wish to be actively involved in the steps necessary to bring about his death and he has no other friends or family willing to assist.

Martin therefore needs the assistance of a professional, most likely a doctor, nurse or a carer, to help him to die. Currently the DPP policy does not make it clear whether such people are unlikely to be prosecuted. Martin is therefore unable to find anyone to take him to Dignitas.

In May 2013 the Appeal Court heard the distinction made between family and friends as  ‘class 1 helpers’ and who were covered by current DPP guidelines, and  ‘class 2’ helpers‘ described in today’s judgment as ‘… individuals with no personal connection with Mr Martin, but who would act out of a sense of compassion and understanding for the position in which he has now found himself.’ (Para 181)

The judgment concluded: “We would uphold Martin’s complaint that the policy of the DPP fails to provide sufficient clarity as to the DPP’s prosecution policy with respect to those persons who fall into what we have termed the class 2 category.” (Para 149)

Rosa Curling, a lawyer from the law firm Leigh Day, who represents Martin, said:

“We hope the Supreme Court will decide that the Director of Public Prosecutions must make his guidance on those helping people to commit suicide much clearer and paves the way for professionals, such as medical professionals and carers, to help those who have chosen when they want to end their life.

Speaking in May this year Martin’s wife, known only as Felicity, said:

“I love my husband very much and whilst I support him in all his wishes I do not want my abiding memory of him to be tainted by the thought I helped him to end his own life. I do believe he should have the right to choose.

Speaking by means of special computer software, Martin commented in response to the May judgment in the Court of Appeal:

"I only want the choice to decide when and how I can end my life. I hope now the DPP will feel able to give those who would assist me, the clarity they need about the risk they would face in regards to prosecution.”

The Martin case will be heard between Monday 16th and Thursday 19th December at the Supreme Court. 

The case is separate to, but being heard at the same time as, the Nicklinson/Lamb case. 

Dignity in Dying will intervene in this case to argue current lack of clarity in DPP's Policy leaves dying people isolated and without access to professional advice on their options for a dignified death. This will be heard during the Martin case, and is likely to be on 19th December.

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