Tony Nicklinson is paralysed below the neck and unable to speak following a stroke. He still has mental capacity to consent to treatment. Mr Nicklinson regards his life as intolerable. He wishes to die and to do so at a time and in a manner of his own choosing. He does not want to die by refusing nutrition and hydration, given the suffering that this would entail.

As the law on assisted suicide currently stands, it would be a serious criminal offence for a doctor to assist in ending Mr Nicklinson’s life. He therefore applied to the court, asking it to make three rulings:  

  • for a doctor to end his life, or assist in ending it, once he has asked them to do so, would be lawful on the ground of necessity;
  • that the current laws of murder and assisted suicide are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); and
  • that current laws fail properly to regulate the practice of euthanasia, which breaches his rights under the ECHR.

This is an immensely controversial case. The Ministry of Justice takes the view that these issues should be decided by Parliament using legislation and that the court should not be used to seek such a dramatic development in the law. It therefore applied for Mr Nicklinson’s claims to be struck out (ie, to end the case without a full hearing, on the basis that Mr Nicklinson’s case was unarguable).

The court ruled in favour of Mr Nicklinson on the first two rulings he sought (Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice & Ors [2012] EWHC 304), and in favour of the Government on the third point. His argument that euthanasia is not properly regulated has been thrown out but the first two points remain to be decided.

Mr Nicklinson has won the battle but not the war. The court’s decision in his favour means only that he has an arguable case that needs a full hearing. There will now be a full hearing to decide whether the current laws on murder and assisted suicide should stay as they are and whether a doctor can actively end a patient’s life at their request, relying on the defence of necessity against any threat of criminal prosecution.

We will, of course, update you on the outcome of this difficult case as soon as it has been reported.