Who is bringing the case?
Noel Conway is a 67-year-old man from Shropshire who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in November 2014. He is a retired adult education lecturer, is married to Carol and has a son, a daughter, a stepson and grandchild.
Dignity in Dying is supporting Noel’s case. With Dignity in Dying’s support, Noel has instructed lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to seek a judicial review.
What is being argued?
Noel believes the current law is broken and that the blanket ban on assisted dying should be changed. He believes that terminally ill, mentally competent adults should have the right to request an assisted death. Since 1961, all forms of assistance to die have been punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.
Noel’s case is a judicial review to ask for a declaration of incompatibility. This means that Noel’s legal team will ask the courts to declare that the blanket ban on assisted dying under the Suicide Act 1961 is contrary to his rights under the Human Rights Act. They will argue that as a terminally ill, mentally competent adult, Noel’s right to a private life – which includes the right to make decisions on the end of his life – is unnecessarily restricted by the blanket ban in the 1961 Act.
How does this relate to the Nicklinson case?
In the Tony Nicklinson case the Supreme Court’s judgment, in June 2014, rejected the case by a margin of 7-2. Two of the judges – Baroness Hale and Lord Kerr – believed that the blanket ban on assisted suicide was incompatible with human rights law. Three of the judges did not agree, suggested that it could conflict with human rights law, but that Parliament should have the opportunity to address the issue before any decision to change the law was made by the courts. By a 5-4 majority, therefore, the Supreme Court judged that it may be possible in the future to declare the blanket ban on assisted dying as unlawful.
Noel’s case is different to the Nicklinson challenge in that Noel has a terminal illness and his legal team are setting out a strict criteria and clear potential safeguards to protect vulnerable people from any abuse of the system.
- that the adult is suffering a terminal illness diagnosed with six months or less to live
- medical evidence confirms the individual has mental capacity to make the decision
- evidence that the person’s decision is informed, clear, settled and voluntary
- medical professionals involved would report the assistance given to an appropriate person or organisation
- a High Court judge could be asked to confirm the eligibility criteria has been met
Why is the case being brought?
Noel Conway and Dignity in Dying believe that the current law breaches his human rights, that a new legal framework with strict criteria and clear safeguards can be put in place safely, and that dying people should have the right to choose the manner and timing of their own death.
According to a poll by Populus of 5,000 people in March 2015, 82% of the British population believe assisted dying should be legalised.
In the last Parliament, following the Nicklinson judgment in the Supreme Court, the House of Lords spent over 20 hours considering Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. Supporters of the Bill won two crucial votes in January 2015. In September 2015, however, the House of Commons voted against an almost identical Bill, introduced by Rob Marris MP.
The defeat of the Marris Bill showed that the House of Commons is out of touch with the vast majority of voters, who support assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. In the year-and-a-half since the vote in the Commons, dying people have continued to suffer unnecessarily at the end of life.
People like Noel who want choice and control over their deaths face stark options: either take their own lives in violent ways, travel overseas (at great expense) to places like Switzerland, or ask someone to break the law by helping them. Our politicians have failed to provide a compassionate response to the unnecessary suffering that many dying people face.
The concerns expressed by a majority of the Supreme Court in June 2014 have still not been addressed by the government, over two-and-a-half years later. Given that Parliament has had the opportunity to legislate on assisted dying but has refused to do so, it is necessary to ask the courts again to make a declaration that the blanket ban on assisted dying cannot be justified.
Evidence from overseas, particularly in the USA, shows that safeguarded, compassionate assisted dying laws can be introduced that allow people like Noel to have choice and control, while protecting vulnerable people.
What will happen if the courts rule in Noel’s favour?
If the courts agree that the blanket ban on assisted dying contravenes Noel’s right to a private life they would make a declaration that the current law on assisted dying is incompatible with Human Rights law. Depending on the detail of the judgment, it would require Parliament to give detailed consideration to how the law could be changed on assisted dying to bring it into line with human rights law.
A declaration by the Canadian Supreme Court following a similar case (Carter v. Canada) was the key driver of law change in Canada. As a result of the Supreme Court’s judgment in February 2015, the new Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.
How can I support Noel’s case?
Dignity in Dying is asking for people to donate to a legal fund supporting Noel’s case, 100% of your gift will be used to fund the costs of the legal challenge to change the law on assisted dying.
You can donate to the legal fund using the crowdfunder website.