The Right to Die

 

This panel event, chaired by Mishcon de Reya Deputy Chairman Anthony Julius, discussed the ‘right to die’ and asked whether the law on assisted suicide is out of touch with public opinion.

Mishcon Academy:
The Right to Die

The Rt Hon. the Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC

I believe that the Bill is much better than the current law.  The current law makes it a crime for somebody to assist somebody else to commit suicide in any circumstances whether you are dying or not.

The Academy
The Right to Die: Should we have the choice?

Anthony Julius
Deputy Chairman, Mishcon de Reya

There could not be a more important topic for any one of us, all mortal men and women, than the circumstances in which we will face death.  It is the truly common denominator that unites us all.  There is a Bill before the House of Lords, it is being debated, it’s the purpose of the Mishcon Academy to engage with these debates and to offer perspectives and to allow participants to share those perspectives.

The Rt Hon. the Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC

The view I have reached is that the appropriate place for the law to be is that if somebody is dying they should, subject to safeguards, have the option to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs which they can take to end their own life, but only in the context of them dying anyway.  The dangers of a Bill such as that is that there might be people who would be put under pressure to take their own life earlier than they otherwise would.  That is why I think safeguards are incredibly important.

The Lord Carlile of Berriew QC CBE

What Lord Falconer is proposing is a very significant change in the law.  It is that assisting someone to commit suicide, in certain limited conditions, should not be a crime whereas currently it is.  I am against assisted suicide which is what is on offer in Lord Falconer’s Bill.  I am against it because I think the law is perfectly adequate as it is, the Director of Public Prosecutions exercises discretion as to whether or not to prosecute in certain cases and compassion is given a very high prominence.  I think the safeguards that are being offered in Lord Falconer’s Bill are completely inadequate and I fear that disabled people could find themselves making, or being forced to make, some very unwise decisions.

The Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve CBE

Some people call this an Assisted Dying Bill.  I wish with all my heart it were an Assisted Dying Bill because I think there are few nobler purposes than assisting the dying.  I am very much in favour of assisting the dying. When we are dying we all need a lot of help of various sorts.  Unfortunately, I think that the present Bill, although it’s called an Assisted Dying Bill, is really about assisting other people to commit suicide.  There is lots that can be done that would assist the dying, this Bill’s not that.

The Rt Hon. the Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC

My strongly held view is that if you are in the last days, or the last weeks, of your life and all that you have got left is to fight to go on living, for no purpose whatsoever, you should have the option.  Diagnoses about whether or not you have got six months or less to live no doubt will be difficult and there can be no certainty, but I do not believe that the problems of a lack of certainty in relation to diagnosis should mean that we should vacate the field.

The Lord Carlile of Berriew QC CBE

It is absolutely clear from the medical profession that the gateway of less than six months to live is one that completely confounds medical science. Many people live much more than that six month period so I think it is a very weak gateway.

I am interested to know how Lord Falconer believes the judicial process will work and whether there will be a right of appeal, whether it will be on paper or a normal hearing, who will be party to the hearing, which division of the court will deal with it, the cost?  I mean, there are a multitude of issues.

I was just wondering whether you think there is any scope for legislation at any point, given the difficulty in defining, you know, what an autonomous individual is?

How would the mental capacity of the person making the decision be judged?

My issue, that I think is possibly worth discussion with, with leaving it to the DPP, is not in the cases where he decides that he should prosecute, but whether he is the person who is accountable, how we can make him accountable for deciding not to prosecute?

The Rt Hon. the Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC

I think that is an incredibly insightful question.

Anthony Julius
Deputy Chairman, Mishcon de Reya

We are committed to investigating challenges to the rule of law and we undertake that investigation because we think it is interesting and important for our lawyers, and indeed everyone at Mishcon, to engage with this subject. We are a law firm, we are concerned with the law every day but we are not concerned with the law just as it is, we are also concerned with what the law could be, what the law should be, and what role we might play in creating slightly better, better regulated society.