June 25, 2014 / 12:03 PM / 6 years ago

Britons lose right-to-die case but campaigners see progress

LONDON (Reuters) - A paralysed car crash victim and the widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome lost a legal bid at Britain’s highest court on Wednesday for the right to assisted suicide - but some of the judges signalled parliament should now tackle the issue.

Right-to-die campaigner Paul Lamb poses for a photograph as he leaves the Supreme Court in central London December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The justices ruled seven-to-two against the appeal brought by Paul Lamb, who has only been able to move his right hand since his accident in 1990, and Jane Nicklinson, whose husband Tony was paralysed after a stroke, court documents showed.

Tony Nicklinson, who was conscious but unable to communicate verbally, refused food and medication after he lost an earlier legal bid to end his life with a doctor’s help in 2012 and died a week later.

Both appeals had argued Britain’s bar on the men getting help to commit suicide infringed the European Convention on Human Rights.

The legal battle has grabbed headlines in Britain and fuelled a debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Lord Neuberger, president of the court, said it had not been “appropriate” to rule if the ban on assisted suicide breached the convention in these cases, given the way they were presented and the fact that the House of Lords was going to debate the issue in the near future.

“Parliament now has the opportunity to address the issue of whether [the bar on assisted suicide] should be relaxed or modified, and if so how, in the knowledge that, if it is not satisfactorily addressed, there is a real prospect that a further, and successful, application for a declaration of incompatibility may be made,” he added in his judgement.

The complex moral and religious arguments that would be involved in any parliamentary debate on changing Britain’s current suicide law meant that “the courts should, as it were, take matters relatively slowly,” he said.

He and four other judges went as far as declaring they had the legal authority to rule that an overarching ban on assisted suicide breached individuals’ rights.

Dignity in Dying, which supports assisted dying, said the judges had in effect told parliament they would act if MPs failed to change the legislation.

The ruling put “Parliament on notice that the Suicide Act is under pressure and may be declared incompatible with human rights law,” the group said on its website.

Care Not Killing, a group that campaigns against euthanasia, welcomed the judges’ overall ruling.

“The law in England and Wales remains unchanged, with the Court recognising that it exists to protect vulnerable, elderly and disabled people,” said spokesman Andrew Fergusson.

Suicide itself is not a crime in Britain but anyone who helps another person to kill themselves commits the offence of assisted suicide and can be jailed for up to 14 years, the court documents said.

A person who carries out euthanasia can be prosecuted for murder.

Reporting by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Andrew Roche

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