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High Court to hear first assisted dying case since Noel Conway

The High Court on Tuesday will hold a permissions hearing for a terminally ill man with motor neurone disease who is seeking to challenge the blanket ban on assisted dying. Phil Newby, 49, from Rutland, is asking the Court to undertake a “detailed examination of the evidence” to determine whether the current law is compatible with his human rights. Asking High Court Judges to examine a large body of evidence and to cross-examine experts is an unusual legal approach, but Phil & his legal team believe that this method is the only way that the legal stalemate on this sensitive issue will be overcome.

The hearing on Tuesday will be the first time that assisted dying has been addressed by the Courts since Noel Conway’s case was rejected by the Supreme Court in November 2018. Since that time, there have been significant developments in the UK and overseas that must now be examined by the Court:

  • In March, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to a position of neutrality on assisted dying, following a survey of its membership. The Royal College of General Practitioners and British Medical Association are also soon to survey their members.
  • High-profile stories in the media have demonstrated that the law on assisted dying is not working. In February, Ann Whaley spoke of her experience of being interviewed under caution by the local police domestic violence team for helping her husband Geoffrey to have an assisted death at Dignitas. In September, Mavis Eccleston was finally cleared after 18 months of investigation and a two week trial at Stafford Crown Court of the murder and manslaughter of her husband Dennis, who took his own life when dying of bowel cancer.
  • More jurisdictions across the world have implemented assisted dying legislation, including Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine in the USA and Victoria in Australia. Western Australia and New Zealand are also currently debating proposals.

Please note that Phil Newby will unfortunately be unable to attend Court on Tuesday or speak to the media. Spokespeople for Dignity in Dying and Phil’s legal team will be in attendance and available for comment. A statement from Phil Newby and from Dignity in Dying will be issued once a decision from the courts is announced. A decision is expected within a few weeks of the hearing.

***ENDS***

Notes to Editor:

Full background on Phil’s case can be found in the press release regarding the launch of the case: https://www.dignityindying.org.uk/news/terminally-ill-man-phil-newby-launches-new-assisted-dying-case/

For interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying please contact Tom Davies at thomas.davies@dignityindying.org.uk / 0207 479 7734 / 07725 433 025 or Davina Hehir at davina.hehir@dignityindying.org.uk / 020 7479 7738

For legal comment or interviews with Phil Newby’s legal team at Bindmans LLP please contact Saimo Chahal QC (hon) s.chahal@bindmans.com or Gosia Woods 020 7014 2094 / g.woods@bindmans.com

Phil Newby has raised funds for the case through Crowdjustice: www.crowdjustice.com/case/right-to-die-test-case

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 February 2010, following the Debbie Purdy case, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued the prosecuting policy on cases of ‘Encouraging or Assisting Suicide’. It covers actions that happen in England and Wales, even if the death happens abroad. The policy includes a list of public interest factors that will influence whether or not someone is prosecuted for assisting suicide. The policy states that in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, prosecutors must apply the public interest factors in making their decision about whether or not to prosecute. A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are sufficient public interest factors against it.
  • A prosecution is less likely if the person made a voluntary, informed decision to end their life, and if the assister was wholly motivated by compassion.
  • A prosecution is more likely if the person ending their own life was under 18, lacked capacity to make an informed decision about ending their life or was physically able to end their life without assistance. The assister is more likely to be prosecuted if they had a history of violence or abuse against the person they assisted, were unknown to the person, were paid by the person ending their own life, or were acting as a healthcare professional.
  • In the 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 servants who have to enforce the law.

Noel Conway’s legal case

  • The High Court judgment on Noel Conway’s case (Oct 2017) asserted that the Courts do have the authority to decide assisted dying cases – a decision which was affirmed in the Court of Appeal’s judgment (June 2018).
  • The Courts’ judgments on Noel’s case confirmed that “all are agreed” that the blanket ban is “an interference with the right to respect for private life” protected by the Human Rights Act. This is the clearest statement of the engagement of the Human Rights Act we have to date.
  • Although the Supreme Court declined to give Noel’s case permission to have a full hearing, that decision acknowledged that assisted dying is an “issue of transcendent public importance” and “touches us all” (November 2018).

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in eight US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado and Hawaii (January 2019). New Jersey (April 2019) and Maine (June 2019) voted to introduce assisted dying laws which will come into effect in the coming months.
  • Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. In Western Australia a 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 is currently considering an End of Life Choice Bill which having passed a second recoding on Wednesday 26 June 2019 will now go to a Committee stage.

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.
  • 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.