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Dignity in Dying comments on Nicklinson and AM judgments

“A clearer understanding of what health professionals can do when their patients ask for help to die is essential for the comfort and security of both patients and doctors, so it is important that the legal arguments are heard.”

Two cases of patients with locked-in syndrome who would like the option of medical assistance to die; AM and Mr Tony Nicklinson, were heard in the High Court in June, and the judges ruled this afternoon that neither case had been successful.

The summary judgment stated ‘The Court recognised that the cases raise profoundly difficult ethical, social and legal issues, but it judged that any change to the law must be a matter for Parliament to decide.’

As a result of a stroke, AM is unable to end his life without assistance. His legal team launched a High Court challenge to clarify whether medical and legal staff, acting out of compassion, would be prosecuted if they assisted AM with his wish to die, for example, by providing him with information on what care might be available if he were to stop eating and drinking, or by providing assistance in making the arrangements to be assisted to die in Switzerland.

The policy of the Director of Public Prosecutions on assisted suicide indicates that people assisting loved ones to die in an amateur capacity are unlikely to be prosecuted, whereas healthcare professionals will be. The Policy does not clarify what constitutes assistance.

AM lost his case and has not been granted the clarity he needs in order for his lawyers and doctors to provide him with information about the end-of-life choices he may wish to take.

Mr Tony Nicklinson, 58, who is severely disabled following a stroke, wants a doctor to directly end his life (voluntary euthanasia). Mr Nicklinson is unable to directly end his own life due to the nature of his disabilities. Any doctor who acceded to Mr Nicklinson’s request would be liable to life imprisonment for murder. Mr Nicklinson’s legal case asked the High Court to consider whether there should be a defence of necessity available to a doctor who directly helps him to die.

Mr Nicklinson was also unsuccessful, but has vowed to appeal the judgment.

Commenting on both judgments, Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said:

“These cases raise difficult legal and ethical issues which divide society more evenly than whether we should allow assisted dying for terminally ill people. A clearer understanding of what health professionals can do when their patients ask for help to die is essential for the comfort and security of both patients and doctors, so it is important that the legal arguments are heard.

“AM’s lawyers asked the High Court for more clarity on what medical professionals can do to support their patients in making difficult end of life decisions. At present there is a real lack of clarity in this area, which causes genuine problems for patients and their doctors. People are taking control at the end of their lives, often in desperate and dangerous ways because they cannot talk openly to professionals about their desire for assistance to end their lives. We believe that the courts have missed an opportunity to make things better for healthcare professionals and their patients.

“While Mr Nicklinson has not been successful at this stage I have no doubt that he will continue to fight for assistance to die. Dignity in Dying campaigns for dying people to die well, not for the right to die for all, and this does not include the change in the law that Tony Nicklinson would need to be helped to die.

“While it’s important these cases are in court, it’s equally important that Parliamentarians don’t leave this to the courts. Ultimately, Parliament will have to decide how our laws change to give us a legal framework that is more appropriate to the 21st century.”

In partnership with the APPG on Choice at the End of Life, Dignity in Dying is consulting on a draft assisted dying Bill. The consultation will conclude in November and report early in 2013.


Notes to editor:

About Dignity in Dying:

  • Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
  • Dignity in Dying has over 25,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.

About the draft Bill Consultation:

This consultation is being run by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Choice at the End of Life in partnership with Dignity in Dying.

The APPG on Choice at the End of Life exists to promote greater patient choice at the end of life, particularly over where, when and how one dies. The group believes that mentally competent adults should have the right to refuse treatment, and provided sufficient legal safeguards are in place, the right to an assisted death. Dignity in Dying is a campaigning organisation which supports the aims of the APPG and provides the secretariat to the group.

The APPG and Dignity in Dying will welcome responses from stakeholders, experts, MPs and the general public.

Responses can be submitted at

Media Contacts:

For all Dignity in Dying media enquiries please contact Jo Cartwright on 020 7479 7737 / 07725433025 or at