There are times when our courts have to deal with the most difficult issues of life and death.
That is certainly the situation in a Case which is before the High Court as we speak. This is the tragic case of Tony Nicklinson. He was an active and healthy businessman until he suffered a devastating stroke in 2005. This has left him with a terrible condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’.
He is paralysed from the neck down and is unable to speak. He can only communicate by blinking or head movements. But he has no intellectual injury and is fully aware of his situation. He does not wish this to continue. He is asking the court to declare that if a doctor assists him in ending his life that such doctor will not be prosecuted.
As the law stands it is a criminal offence to assist a person in taking their own life.
In a document read to the court he says that he has had many years to consider his decision and –
"Legal arguments are fine but they should not forget that a life is affected by the decision they come to; a decision going against me condemns me to a 'life' of increasing misery."
His application is opposed by the ministry of Justice on the grounds that to change the law in such circumstances is a matter for Parliament and not for the courts.
This is one of those classic dilemmas which our courts are called upon to resolve. Should a person who is fully competent be able to say – ‘enough is enough’? It is self evident that he cannot take his own life as even that is dependant on help from others. Or should the judges retain the status quo and declare that, despite his clear wishes, it would still be an offence for a doctor to assist him.
My own view is that in these extreme circumstances a person’s wishes should be respected. This is not a case of the courts making a decision for him. It is his own choice.
But equally it is a massive responsibility for the judges and it would be equally understandable if they left it to Parliament. It will be interesting to see the result. Watch this space..