Noel Conway, a man with terminal motor neurone disease who has spent his final months campaigning for a change in the law on assisted dying, has been awarded a prestigious prize for his efforts. Noel, who was the lead claimant in a judicial review challenging the ban on assisted dying, won the ‘Best Use of Law’ award at the SMK National Campaigner Awards in London yesterday (Wednesday 27 March 2019).
In December 2016, Noel, supported by Dignity in Dying, instructed law firm Irwin Mitchell to bring a case against the Secretary of State for Justice to fight for his right to have the option of an assisted death in his final months. Noel, 69, a former college lecturer from Shropshire, feels, like many terminally ill people, that he is denied choice and control over his death under the current law and that he may be forced to suffer against his wishes.
Over almost two years, Noel’s case won huge public support and made a significant contribution to the assisted dying debate in the UK. The High Court and the Court of Appeal both reaffirmed that cases of this nature can be decided upon by the Courts, enabling future cases to have an easier passage. The Courts also confirmed that the ban on assisted dying is an interference with the right to respect for private life, as protected by the Human Rights Act. Although Noel’s case was denied a full hearing at the Supreme Court in November 2018, the judgment acknowledged that assisted dying is an ‘issue of transcendent public importance’ and ‘touches us all’.
Noel, who was unable to attend the ceremony due to his ill-health, accepted his award via video message. He said:
“I’m very honoured to have been nominated for this award. Without the contribution of so many other people it wouldn’t have been possible, in particular the campaign group Dignity in Dying. Whilst we didn’t achieve the result we all hoped for, nonetheless we have made a considerable contribution to progressing the right for all of us to be able to determine where we die, when we die and how we die. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart, and whilst it might not be something I will benefit from personally, it doesn’t matter. In the end it’s achieving that goal so that many countless thousands of people will not suffer at the end of life – which is what’s happening now and is quite unforgivable.”
Notes to Editor:
For further information and interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying, please contact Ellie Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025
Noel Conway v Secretary of State for Justice
- Noel Conway, 69, from Shropshire, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease, in November 2014.
- His condition is incurable and terminal.
- Noel feels that he is prevented from exercising his right to choice and control over his death under the current law and fears that he may be forced to suffer against his wishes.
- Supported by Dignity in Dying, Noel brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Justice to challenge the law which bans assisted dying, on the grounds that it infringes disproportionately on the human rights of himself and other dying people.
- After being heard at the High Court and the Court of Appeal, Noel’s case was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court on 27 November 2018.
The current 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.
The true cost of the law
- Currently, every 8 days someone travels to Switzerland from Britain for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average and often causes people to die earlier than they would have wanted in order to be well enough to make the journey.
- Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it. A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in the UK every year.
- 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).
- Victoria became the first Australian state to pass a Bill legalising assisted dying for terminally ill people in November 2017. The law will come into effect in June 2019. A similar Bill was defeated in New South Wales by just one vote in November 2017. The Government of Western Australia plan to introduce an Assisted Dying Bill in their state Parliament in the second half of 2019.
- Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016.
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 82% 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.