Assisted dying appeals supported by the BHA dismissed by Supreme Court, Parliament urged to review law

25 June, 2014

A majority of judges in the Supreme Court has today dismissed the appeals of Jane Nicklinson, widow of Tony Nicklinson, and Paul Lamb. The appeals were seeking a ruling by the Court that current English law, which prevents assisted dying for the terminally ill or incurably suffering, is incompatible with the right to dignity and a private life. Jane Nicklinson is the widow of Tony Nicklinson, who sought and was repeatedly denied an assisted death and Paul Lamb is seeking the right to an assisted death following his near-total paralysis in a road accident. The British Humanist Association (BHA) was also a party in the case, as the only organisation supporting them in court.

Although the Court dismissed the appeals:

  • the judgement was not unanimous, with two judges – Lord Kerr and Lady Hale – expressing support for the arguments made by the appellants and the BHA;
  • despite the majority saying that at this stage they did not have the jurisdiction to change the law, the lead judge Lord Neuberger and others took the opportunity of the judgement to say that they were looking to Parliament to reconsider the question of assisted dying in order to resolve what is clearly a pressing public issue: the future treatment of people who have made a settled and informed decision to end their life, but because they are incapable, need the assistance of a third party in order to do so;
  • the judgment made clear that it would not be incompatible with human rights for Parliament to make assisted dying legal and that the fundamental principles to be discussed in such cases are to do with individuals’ freedom of choice.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, commented ‘It is clear that the Supreme Court went as far as it was able in urging Parliament to take action on the vital issue of assisted dying. Over 80% of the public agree that people in Tony and Paul’s situation should have their dignity and right to choose protected. After today, it is up to Parliament to hear and respect the voice of that overwhelming majority – a majority unequalled in almost any other major national debate.

‘So long as there are strict safeguards, it is our moral duty as a society to give assistance to mentally competent adults who are suffering incurably, permanently incapacitated, and have made a clear and informed decision to end their life but are unable to do so independently. We will continue our work to see this happen at last, and are proud to support the brave individuals who continue to bring these cases, overcoming great personal tragedies in order to advance justice and bring about a more humane society.’

Yogi Amin, a Partner in the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell, representing the BHA said: ‘This is a very important judgment signalled by the fact that the case was heard by a full panel of nine Justices in the Supreme Court, headed by the most senior Lord Neuberger. The majority of judges rejected the appeal from the families but gave a strong signal to Parliament to review and potentially bring new legislation forward.

‘It’s worth remembering that there are no real winners in this tragic situation and that the longer Parliament takes to address the concerns and the issues about the present state of affairs raised by the judiciary in this recent judgment, the longer their suffering will be. The individuals involved feel that they have been left with no choice and were seeking help from the courts in being able to carry out their final wish, or to allow others to do the same in future.

‘The judges are split in their belief as to whether matters should be referred to Parliament for the laws on assisted suicide to be re-examined at this present moment in time. Lady Hale and Lord Kerr have clearly expressed support for this, whereas the majority of the other Justices have only gone as far as expressing their concerns about the present state of affairs but have not called into question their lawfulness.

‘There is now a clear guide from the Court that they see it as Parliament’s duty to move the debate forward and hopefully enact appropriate legislative change to allow people to exercise their autonomy with appropriate safeguards for all in place.’

The BHA’s evidence to the Court focused on the concepts of dignity, autonomy and self determination and these were echoed in much of the judgement handed down today. Specifically referred to by the Court was evidence given by BHA Vice President and moral philosopher Simon Blackburn, who had said, ‘True respect for life means respect for the persons whose lives are in question – refusing assistance, when their plea is settled and uncoerced discounts and demeans their personhood. We do not normally walk by when asked for help.’

The BHA evidence also included witness statements from prominent humanist moral philosophers Professors AC Grayling, John Harris, Richard Norman as well as BHA member Sir Terry Pratchett, well known for his advocacy of the right to die with dignity, who said in his evidence, ‘an individual’s personal decision, should I think be honoured, if it’s clearly been made by them, when they’re in a state of compos mentis and in full control of their faculties.’ He went on to say that, ‘Either we have control over our lives, or we do not.’

The BHA’s principal evidence was given by its Chief Executive Andrew Copson, who argued that dying with dignity is part of living with dignity and as such should be understood as a human right. In his evidence, he said, ‘The choice of an assisted death should not be instead of palliative care for terminally ill people, but a core part of comprehensive, patient-centred approached to end of life care.’


For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at or on 0773 843 5059.

The case was heard before nine Supreme Court judges. The judges decided whether the law which prevents assisted suicide contravenes Article 8 of the ECHR which states that everyone “has a right to respect for private and family life.”

The British Humanist Association (BHA) was represented by Yogi Amin and Marcelo Masri (Irwin Mitchell), and Heather Rogers QC, Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Maria Roche (Doughty Street Chambers) on the side of assisted dying.

BHA submissions included evidence from:
•Simon Blackburn, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
•A C Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities.
•John Harris, professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester.
•Richard Norman, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at the University of Kent.
•Professor John A Lee, Professor of Pathology at Hull York Medical School and Consultant Histopathologist at Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust

Polling showing 81% of public support assisted dying:

Previous BHA news article – ‘L’ waives right to anonymity in assisted dying court case:

Previous BHA news article – Court of Appeal allows ‘L’ to join Tony Nicklinson Claim:

Previous BHA news article – New case to test rules on assisted dying in UK:

The BHA’s campaign on Assisted Dying:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.