Case seeks new approach by the courts on expert evidence
Phil Newby, a 48-year-old man with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a progressive terminal illness, is launching a new challenge to the law criminalising assisted dying.
Dignity in Dying member Phil is determined to live well with his family for as long he can, but he fears that without a change in the law he may be forced to suffer against his wishes as his illness progresses.
His case is different from previous cases challenging the law because it will ask the courts to look at the evidence on assisted dying in more detail than the English courts have ever done before. This would include detailed cross-examination of expert witnesses, allowing judges to test the strength of the evidence. This is the approach that was taken in Carter v Canada, the case that ultimately prompted law change on assisted dying in Canada.
Explaining his decision to launch the case Phil Newby said:
“I’ve come to accept that MND will eventually kill me, but I’m determined to enjoy life and contribute to my family for as long as I possibly can. When the time comes, I would like compassionate medical help to die in peace at home, with my family. Instead, my wife and girls face watching me starve, choke or suffocate to death, because of our inhumane and outdated laws that criminalise assisted dying.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. Other countries have introduced a compassionate and common-sense assisted dying legal framework, with safeguards. I’m bringing this legal case to give our highest courts the opportunity to fully examine the evidence, and make an informed decision on assisted dying.
“I can’t do this alone. I’m asking the public to support me by sharing my story and donating to our legal fund through CrowdJustice. Together, we can make a change.”
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying:
“For too long, terminally ill people like Phil have been denied choice and control over their deaths, despite 84% of the public supporting a change in the law to allow this. Parliamentarians and medical professionals are lagging behind but the balance is shifting away from automatic opposition and towards evidence gathering and careful consideration. The Royal College of Physicians recently moved to neutrality on assisted dying following a survey of its members, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association last week announced that they will survey their members on the issue of assisted dying, and MPs will this week consider the functioning of the current law on assisted dying in a debate in the Commons Chamber.
“Phil picks up the baton from Noel Conway, who also has motor neurone disease and battled in the courts for over two years so that he and other terminally ill people could have the right to die on his own terms. Noel’s case won huge public support and secured important legal gains which will give future cases an easier passage through the courts. Phil’s case will provide an important opportunity for the UK courts to change their approach so they can fully consider the evidence on assisted dying in more depth than ever before.
“Following recent developments in Victoria in Australia and Maine and New Jersey in the US, soon 1 in 4 Australians, 1 in 5 Americans and all Canadians will have access to true choice at the end of life. Yet here in the UK, 0 Britons do. It is clear that this issue is not going away and we hope Phil will get the chance to make his case in court so that the growing body of evidence from overseas on safeguarded assisted dying can be considered.”
Notes to editor:
To arrange an interview with Phil please contact:
Gosia Woods 020 7014 2094 / firstname.lastname@example.org
For interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying please contact:
Tom Davies at email@example.com / 0207 479 7734 / 07725 433 025 or Davina Hehir at firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7479 7738
Phil Newby’s crowdfunder: 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.
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).
- 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. 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. 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.
 Polling conducted by Populus, March 2015.