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Victory in ‘Right to Die’ case at the Court of Appeal

A 48-year-old British man with locked-in syndrome has won his legal challenge at the Court of Appeal

Martin at home in his specially adapted bed. Picture courtesy of the Guardian

31 July 2013

Lawyers for a 48-year-old British man with locked-in syndrome have welcomed the judgment in the Court of Appeal which has upheld their legal challenge for clearer guidance from the Director of Public prosecutions (DPP) for people assisting those wishing to end their own life who are carers or health professionals.

The judgment follows a hearing in the Court of Appeal in May this year, where law firm Leigh Day, representing the man known only as Martin, challenged a High Court judgment from August 2012 which they argued denied their client the opportunity to take the necessary steps to end his own life.

Martin’s case was heard alongside the appeal of Paul Lamb, who has taken over the legal challenge previously mounted by the late Tony Nicklinson. Mr Lamb was seeking to create a new defence to murder, which would mean that a doctor involved in a mercy killing would have a defence to a murder charge. This appeal was not upheld at the Court of Appeal today.

Martin’s lawyers, Leigh Day, argued 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 the ruling the three judges found 2:1 in favour of Martin and upheld his appeal against the August 2012 ruling.

In May 2013 the 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)

Richard Stein, a partner from the law firm Leigh Day, who represented Martin, said:

“This is a crucial victory for Martin and those other people who find themselves in this tragic position. He is unable to do anything for himself and without a willing family member or friend he requires assistance from a professional to be able to end his own life.

“This case has been all about giving people the choice to decide when and how they can end their own life. This is a right all able-bodied people have but is denied to Martin because of his condition. This is a hugely significant moment in allowing people control. They will be able to seek help from people with no personal connection to them but acting in good faith (most likely to be carers or health professionals) to be able to die with dignity in a manner and at a time of their choosing.

Speaking by means of special computer software, Martin commented in response to today’s judgment:

"I am delighted by the judgment today. It takes me one step closer to being able to decide how and when I end my life. I am only unable to take my own life because of my physical disabilities. Almost every aspect of my daily life is outside of my control. I want, at least, to be able to control my death and this judgment goes some way to allow me to do this"

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