Terminally ill man challenges right-to-die law in high court
The case of a terminally ill former lecturer will come before high court judges this week in the first substantial legal challenge for several years to the UK’s ban on assisted dying.
Noel Conway, 67, from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in November 2014. His condition is incurable and he is not expected to live beyond 12 months.
The high court hearing, involving three senior judges, is expected to last five days. Conway is supported by Dignity in Dying and other organisations campaigning to change the 1961 Suicide Act. As things stand, people seeking help to end their lives are forced to travel to a clinic in Switzerland.
Last week, several hundred supporters staged a protest on a river boat outside the Houses of Parliament. Afterwards, Conway said: “In the past months, I have been struck by the number of people who, like me, want the right to choose how we die. Today has shown the huge strength of feeling of people who want the right to a dignified death.”
Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “The British public overwhelmingly support a change in the law to give terminally ill, mentally competent adults like Noel the choice of an assisted death. [The high court hearing] will consider detailed evidence and legal arguments about whether the current law breaches Noel’s human rights.”
Conway’s lawyers will ask the courts to declare that the blanket ban on assisted dying under the Suicide Act is contrary to the Human Rights Act. They will argue that as a terminally ill, mentally competent adult, his right to a private life – which includes the right to make decisions on the end of his life – is unnecessarily restricted.
The case has been brought against the Ministry of Justice. Conway is represented by the law firm Irwin Mitchell. Humanists UK, of which Conway is a member, has been given permission to intervene in the case. The aim is to bring about a change in the law that would legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people assessed as having six months or less to live.
Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “It is completely wrong that people who are of sound mind but terminally ill or incurably suffering are denied the choice to die with dignity.”
The last time a right to die case was considered in detail by the courts was in 2014 when the supreme court asked parliament to reconsider the issue. Parliament debated the subject but rejected making any changes to the law.
Earlier this year, Conway explained why he was fighting the case: “I am going to die, and I have come to terms with this fact … The option of an assisted death should be available to me, here in this country, in my final six months of life – this is what I am fighting for. It would bring immense peace of mind and allow me to live my life to the fullest, enjoying my final months with my loved ones until I decide the time is right for me to go.”
Noel Conway, 67, has motor neurone disease. His lawyers will argue the ban on assisted dying is contrary to the Human Rights Act