The High Court has today (Tuesday 19 November 2019) rejected a judicial review on assisted dying brought by a terminally ill man with motor neurone disease. Phil Newby, a 49-year-old father-of-two from Rutland, asked the Courts to undertake a “detailed examination of the evidence” to determine whether the blanket ban on assisted dying is compatible with his human rights. Following a hearing at the High Court on 22 October 2019, a decision was handed down today denying the case permission to proceed. Phil and his legal team will now assess their options for appeal.
This is the first time assisted dying has been addressed by the Courts since Noel Conway’s case was rejected by the Supreme Court in November 2018. Phil Newby is asking High Court Judges to examine a large body of evidence and to cross-examine experts, which is departure from the norm, but Phil and his legal team believe that this method is the only way that the legal stalemate on this sensitive issue will be overcome.
The decision comes as new research from YouGov finds that more than seven in ten (73%) people with an advanced or terminal illness would support a change in the law on assisted dying. The survey also found that around two-thirds (64%) would be pleased to have the option of assisted dying for themselves alongside good end–of-life care, and two-fifths (39%) say they have or would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death. The findings are published in full in a report out today: ‘What Matters to Me: People living with terminal and advanced illness on end-of-life choices’.
The Royal College of General Practitioners is currently surveying its members on assisted dying for the first time since 2013. This follows the Royal College of Physicians’ survey earlier this year, which resulted in the College dropping its longstanding opposition to a change in the law on assisted dying in favour of neutrality. The British Medical Association has also committed to surveying its members in the coming months.
Overseas, an assisted dying bill in New Zealand passed third reading on 13 November 2019 and will now go to a public vote in 2020. Earlier this year Victoria became the first Australian state to introduce assisted dying, and Western Australia is currently considering a similar bill. Assisted dying is now available in 10 American jurisdictions, with legislation passing in Maine, New Jersey and Hawaii in 2019.
“The High Court’s decision not to hear our case and not to test the evidence for and against assisted dying is disappointing to me and the many hundreds of others who have helped to fund it. We will be fighting on to bring down a law that is widely thought to be cruel, so that it can be replaced by something more humane and compassionate”.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“If Phil lived in Melbourne or Los Angeles, he could have the choice of an assisted death and he should be able to have that same choice here. Research out today shows that the vast majority of terminally ill Brits agree that there should be a change in the law in this country to allow assisted dying as an option alongside palliative care.
“As high profile cases like Mavis Eccleston’s and Ann Whaley’s have demonstrated, the current blanket ban on assisted dying simply does not work. It denies dying people meaningful choice over their death, criminalises loved ones for acts of compassion and fails to protect vulnerable people.
“A growing body of evidence from the US and Australia shows that it would be far safer for all involved to introduce a transparent assisted dying law that provides choice and control to terminally ill people, takes agonising decisions away from their families, and offers robust protection to the rest of society. We wish Phil success in his appeal so that this evidence may be examined in full.”
Notes to Editor:
For further information and interview requests please contact Ellie Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025 or Tom Davies at email@example.com / 0207 479 7734.
Phil Newby is raising funds for his case through Crowdjustice: www.crowdjustice.com/case/right-to-die-test-case
YouGov’s report ‘What Matters to Me: People living with terminal and advanced illness on end-of-life choices’ can be accessed here: https://cdn.dignityindying.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/What-matters-to-me-Dignity-in-Dying-Nov-2019.pdf
All figures from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 502 adults in the UK aged 18+ who have been diagnosed with advanced cancer, Parkinson’s, motor neurone disease (MND), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), multiple system atrophy (MSA) or progressive supra nuclear palsy (PSP). Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th August – 22nd September 2019. The survey was carried out online. The sample was drawn from a combination of the YouGov panel and open links shared externally by Dignity in Dying, Pancreatic Cancer UK, Parkinson’s UK and Fight Bladder Cancer UK.
The law on assisted dying in the UK
Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison.
There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
In a House of Commons in a debate in July and at Justice Questions in October, MPs have called on the Government to initiate a call for evidence on the damage being done to dying people, their families and public services.
Mavis Eccleston and Ann Whaley
Dennis Eccleston, a former miner from Staffordshire, was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2015 at the age of 79. In February 2018, Dennis and his wife of almost 60 years, Mavis Eccleston, attempted to end their own lives. Dennis died two days later in hospital and Mavis, 80, made a full recovery following treatment. Following a trial at Stafford Crown Court, a jury found Mavis not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter on Wednesday 18 September 2019.
Diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease, Geoffrey Whaley, 80, made the decision to travel to Switzerland for an assisted death accompanied by his wife Ann, 76, in February 2019. Weeks before his scheduled journey, an anonymous call was made to social services, alerting the police of his plans. Geoffrey and Ann were subjected to a police investigation which risked stopping him from travelling and carried the possibility of prosecution for her. On the day of his death, Geoffrey released an open letter to MPs urging them to legalise assisted dying as an option for dying Brits.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has launched a survey of its 53,000 members following an announcement in June 2019.
The College last consulted its members on the issue in 2013. The result, announced in February 2014, was that the College should not change its stance, and as such, its current position is that it is opposed to any change in the law on assisted dying.
The British Medical Association announced in June 2019 that it will survey its 160,000 members on assisted dying for the first time. The BMA is currently opposed to a change in the law on assisted dying. Its policy is decided at its Annual Representative Meeting, which voted on 25th June by 193 votes to 113 in favour of the survey.
The Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in March 2019 following a survey of its 36,000 members.
Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in ten US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine (June 2019).
Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. In Western Australia the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was recently passed by the state’s Lower House and will now be considered by the Upper House (Legislative Council).
Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016. As a result of the Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in Carter v Canada in February 2015, the Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.
New Zealand will put an End of Life Choice Bill to a public referendum in 2020 after the legislation passed third reading on Wednesday 13 November 2019.
About Dignity in Dying
Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).
Dignity in Dying does not provide practical assistance or advice in ending life, nor does it provide enquirers with the contact details of organisations who do so.