On the 20th of
August 2012, news broke out that Tony Nicklinson had died just six days after he
lost his high court case; he wanted to be allowed to end his life with the help
of a doctor as he had been paralysed from the neck down following a stroke. 1 This is an example of how
assisted suicide is regularly featured in the public eye. The case of Nicklinson and others in 20142, like many similar cases,
has illustrated the UK’s desperate need for the reformation of the law in the
area of assisted suicide. The case of Tony Nicklinson highlights the importance
of this moral issue to the public and the incapacity of English judges to
deliver this much sought after reform.
There is mounting pressure from
the public for the law on assisted suicide to be developed and clarified. In
this essay I will explore whether English judges are ‘too willing to impose
artificial and undesirable limits on their own power to change the law,’ or is
the reformation of this law entirely down to Parliament?
The current law on Assisted
Although the Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalised suicide,
assisted suicide remains an incredibly serious crime where ‘a person who aids, abets,
counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit
suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term
not exceeding fourteen years.’ 3 However, to date there have been no
prosecutions under this statute although arguably the case of R v Hough4
should have been prosecuted under the Suicide Act rather than attempted murder.
This therefore suggests that English judges do indeed impose unnecessary limits
on their own power. If they had prosecuted this case as an assisted suicide
case then this case law would better equip both lawyers and the public with
further clarity on the law. However, they chose to prosecute under another less
controversial crime, which shows their reluctance to use their powers.
Under Section 2(4) of the Suicide
Act 1961, ‘no proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this section
except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.’ Although this is incredibly important,
as the cases that fall under this act are incredibly sensitive in their nature,
many citizens yearned for clarity on how the DPP would exercise this