Andrea Williams
Andrea Williams

Alison Davis is seeking to challenge the House of Lords ruling on Debbie Purdy's assisted suicide case today in the Supreme Court. The decision was made at the end of July and required the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to publicise his policy on prosecuting cases of assisted suicide. It came in response to the legal challenge by Debbie Purdy, multiple sclerosis sufferer, who wished to ensure that her husband would not face prosecution for helping her to travel to Zurich to commit suicide there. The House of Lords' decision overturned the judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal and required Mr Starmer "to prepare an offence-specific policy identifying the facts and circumstances which he will take into account in deciding whether or not to consent to a prosecution".

The deadline for Alison Davis to challenge the House of Lords' decision is today. Alison Davis's challenge claims that Lord Phillips, senior Law Lord at the time and now President of the Supreme Court was biased in favour of assisted suicide when he and the other four Law Lords made the decision that the law on assisted suicide was "unclear" and required offence-specific guidance for prosecutors concerned with deciding whether to prosecute a suspect for assisting the suicide of another person. Miss Davis's evidence centres on Lord Phillips' comments in The Daily Telegraph on 10th September 2009, in which he expressed "enormous sympathy" for terminally-ill patients who want to commit suicide, but need assistance to do so.

Lord Phillips said in his interview with The Daily Telegraph: "I have enormous sympathy with anyone who finds themselves facing a quite hideous termination of their life as a result of one of these horrible diseases, in deciding they would prefer to end their life more swiftly and avoid that death as well as avoiding the pain and distress that might cause their relatives."

Alison Davis of No Less Human will present a petition arguing that Lord Phillips' personal sympathy invalidates the House of Lords' last decision, as did Lord Hoffman's links to Amnesty International when he gave a judgment in the case regarding the immunity from prosecution of General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. The legal challenge states that the Purdy ruling is "vitiated by the principle of apparent bias", and that "the decision of the former House of Lords is 'unconstitutional' and usurps the powers of Parliament". It calls for the Supreme Court to be convened "to reconsider and hear fresh argument on the case of Purdy". The argument continues: "the expression of the private 'political' view of Lord Phillips in The Daily Telegraph after the judgement clearly raises a question in the minds of reasonable and informed people of apparent bias".

Miss Davis, wheelchair-bound and suffering from spina bifida, hydrocephalus, emphysema, osteoporosis and arthritis, wrote a letter to accompany her case papers. She said: "The DPP's guidelines are unfair, unjust, and fatally discriminatory against suffering people, who deserve the same presumption in favour of life as any able bodied person would automatically receive. They have no place in a civilised society."

Campaigners, argue that Lord Phillips's personal sympathy for those who wanted to commit suicide means that the proposed interim prosecution policy should not be finalised. The changes made by the interim policy could make it easier for people to coerce their family members, friends or the people for whom they care into killing themselves.

Andrea Williams, Director of Christian Legal Centre which is backing Miss Davis's legal challenge, said: "This is an extraordinary action for extraordinary times. Disabled people have always had the protection of the law and disabled people are now appealing to the highest court in the land in an attempt to retain this protection."

Peter Saunders, Director of Care Not Killing Alliance commented: "The Law Lords' decision in July, overturning earlier Judgments in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, was an unusual one to say the least-that those contemplating breaking the criminal law in this area should be advised how far they might go without risking prosecution.

"Having seen the prosecution guidelines that have been issued in response by the Crown Prosecution Service - and in particular their suggestion that helping a severely disabled person to commit suicide might be regarded more leniently than helping someone else to kill themselves-we are not surprised to hear that the Law Lords' decision is now being questioned.

"It is not difficult to see why many disabled and seriously ill people should now perceive that they are not to be afforded the same protection that the law gives to the rest of us. "We look to the Supreme Court to consider this case very carefully and to reflect on the potentially serious consequences of the Law Lords' Judgment."

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, proposed a new "even-handed" approach for prosecutors deciding whether or not to prosecute someone for assisting with a suicide, omitting the presumption in favour of prosecution in the Code for Crown Prosecutors. The interim policy risks encouraging prosecutors to refrain from enforcing the law and adopts the stereotypes publicised by pro-euthanasia campaigners. The policy makes naïve assumptions about the nature of close personal relationships and implies that the lives of chronically sick or disabled people are less worthy of the protection of the law.

The Director of Public Prosecutions published his interim policy on 23rd September 2009 and a consultation on the guidelines continues to run until 16th December. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.