Social work and end-of-life care

Social work is important in end-of-life care

Supreme Court judgment: rights arguments do not justify helping people to die

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Introduction to the Supreme Court judgement

The Supreme Court judgement on assisted dying (heard last December) was published on 25 June 2014, just in time for everyone to go on holiday and forget.

Link to the judgment

It was given by a galaxy of the most important Law Lords, and the main judgement is by the President of the Court himself, it contains many interesting points. However, although there is one overall judgement, expressed at length by the president of the Court, Lord Neuberger, that the Court should not intervene, and the matter be left to Parliament, it contains extensive and complex discussion. I am not competent to cover it all, and to discuss it at length would not be appropriate to a blog, so I have selected several points that I cover in a series of posts over the next few days.

The cases considered

It covers the cases of Paul Lamb and Tony Nicklinson, both of whom have had a lot of press publicity, and an applicant called Martin. It represents the final legal position from UK law on assisted dying until they go to the European Court of Human Rights, or Parliament changes the position.
My Nicklinson was completely paralysed after a stroke in his fifties, and felt his life to be dull and pointless; he wanted to die, but was physically unable to do so without help. Eventually, he starved himself to death. Mr Lamb was virtually in the same position after a car crash in 1990. Martin, in a similar position, wanted to be helped in finding out about Dignitas, the clinic in Switzerland used by many British people to achieve assisted dying, and in travelling to it is he decided to use it. His argument was that the 2010 policy on assisted dying was ‘insufficiently clear’ about the position of health and social care professionals. I have commented on this before, and there are further useful points made in this judgement, so, in my next post I have, I have looked at these points about ‘professional assisters’, which would include social workers.

Link to my previous post on the position of social workers.

Much of the comment on the case has been about people’s ‘right’ to commit suicide based on their autonomy in making decisions about their own bodies. Many people object to the ‘blanket ban’ on assisted suicide, not recognising situations in which many people would regard it as reasonable. In a very comprehensive analysis of the human rights arguments, on this issue, Penney Lewis, in her 2007 book Assisted Dying and Legal Change (Oxford University Press) argues that there are many legal and moral points on both sides, and the disagreement between them is never going to be resolved satisfactorily.

These cases are an example of this academic finding: much of the argument put forward is found logically and practically wanting in these very detailed judgements.

In the next post, I look at the information about the statutory basis for prohibiting helping other people to die.

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Written by Malcolm Payne

24 September 2014 at 11:00 am

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