Parliament or the Courts?

Changing the law on assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament

A few weeks ago former Justice of the Supreme Court Lord Jonathan Sumption delivered his five Reith Lectures.  They were concerned with the relationship between the law and politics and with the question of whether the courts might be encroaching on Parliament’s legislative function.

In the first of his lectures [] Lord Sumption responded to a view expressed by a member of the audience that “the current law on assisted dying is not working and a huge majority of the public wants to see a change”.  In his response Lord Sumption analysed the issues involved and the respective roles of Parliament in addressing them.  He put it to those present that “we need to have a law against it [assisting suicide] to prevent abuse” but that there might be exceptional circumstances in which assisting another person to take his or her own life, though contrary to the criminal law, might not need to be punished with prosecution and that in such circumstances individuals might – and occasionally do – feel justified in breaking the law.  “Ultimately”, he said, “it is something that each person has to decide within his own conscience”.

It was perhaps inevitable that the ‘assisted dying’ lobby would distort what Lord Sumption said to suit their own purposes.  They claimed that “for one of our most senior judges to say it is preferable for the law to be repeatedly broken than for it to be reformed cannot inspire confidence in our legal system”.  This is, of course, a misunderstanding on what Lord Sumption had said. To set the record straight Living and Dying Well has published the full text of what the former Justice of Supreme Court said and explained its meaning.

Lord Sumption suggested that reconciling different and often strongly-held positions on this controversial subject is a matter for Parliament.  Returning briefly to the subject in the third of his Reith Lectures, entitled Human Rights and Wrongs, he stated that “over the years Parliament has considered proposals to change the law but always decided against it”.

There are respectable arguments to be heard on both sides of this difficult and controversial debate.  What is important, if intelligent debate is to take place, is that those who engage with it should establish and present the evidence and their analysis of it clearly and fairly.  Sadly, all too often this is not taking place.