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Ethics briefing
  1. Sophie Brannan,
  2. Ruth Campbell,
  3. Martin Davies,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather
  1. Medical Ethics, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Mr Martin Davies, Medical Ethics, British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}bma.org.uk

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Assisted dying

Nicklinson Supreme Court judgement

In June 2014 the Supreme Court ruled on the joint appeals of the late Tony Nicklinson, Paul Lamb and a person identified only as Martin, on the status of UK law on assisted dying.1

As previously reported here,2 ,3 Tony Nicklinson had a catastrophic stroke in 2005, which left him with locked-in syndrome. Unable to end his life himself, he had for many years sought a declaration that it would be lawful for someone to assist him to do so. He died in 2012 from pneumonia, a week after an unsuccessful appeal to the High Court. His widow pursued his appeal to the Court of Appeal with Paul Lamb, who had been severely paralysed in a car accident in 1990. Their contention that UK law was incompatible with the right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was rejected by the Court of Appeal in July 2013 and the appeal was dismissed.

The Supreme Court, by a majority of seven to two, also dismissed the appeal. Although the majority ruled that the courts do have constitutional authority to make a declaration that UK law is incompatible with the ECHR, only two justices said they would exercise that authority in this case. Assisted dying was deemed to be a matter for Parliament, as the democratically elected legislature, owing to the complex issues of social policy and moral value-judgement involved.

While unwilling to make a declaration of incompatibility, many of the judgements indicated broad support for possible reform. In the leading judgement, Lord Neuberger noted that the ‘grave and significant’ interference with Article 8 rights could not necessarily be justified by the complete prohibition on assisted dying. He further noted that the arguments in favour of the current law were far …

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