First Ever Right-to-Die Case Under Human Rights Act

20 August 2001

Liberty is going to court in support of the right of a terminally ill woman to have assistance to die because of unbearable suffering. This Human Rights Act case is the first of its kind ever to be brought. We lodged papers on Monday (20th August); the Court has granted us an early permission hearing on Friday 31st August.

Mrs Diane Pretty suffers from Motor Neurone Disease, which has so impaired her quality of life that she wants to die at a time of her own choosing. She believes the Government's decision not to allow her this choice, subjects her to inhuman and degrading treatment, in breach of article 3 of the Human Rights Act. Liberty is challenging the Director of Public Prosecutions' refusal to rule out criminal prosecution of her husband if he helps Diane take her own life.

Diane Pretty, a 42-year-old mother from Bedfordshire, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 1999. Her condition has deteriorated rapidly since; she is now able to do virtually nothing for herself. She wishes to die at home, with her family around her at the time of her choosing, rather than be condemned to suffer both physically and emotionally.

Mrs Pretty is entirely clear about her decision; but she is physically unable to take her own life without assistance. Under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, if her husband of nearly 25 years were to help her, he could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a suicide. Liberty is challenging the application of the Suicide Act in the exceptional circumstances of this case - using Articles 3 and 8 of the Human Rights Act.

On 27th July Liberty wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions, asking for his assurance that Mr Pretty would not be prosecuted under the Suicide Act if he were to help his wife take her own life. On 8th August the DPP wrote back saying that they were not able to give that assurance, despite conceding that Mrs Pretty and her family are having to endure "terrible suffering".

Although the Legal Services Commission have admitted that the case is one of great public interest, they have refused Mrs Pretty legal aid.

Mrs Pretty says: "I want the court to know that I want the right to die at the time of my choosing, with dignity, now that I have lost all function apart from my mind. I hope the courts will give me the opportunity to fulfil this last request".

Mona Arshi, the Liberty solicitor who has taken the Prettys' case, says: "This case is all about Mrs Pretty's right to live and die with dignity. It seems terribly unfair that Mr Pretty could be exposed to criminal liability in this way simply for trying to carry out his wife's wish to have a dignified end to her life".

Deborah Annetts, Director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society says: "The Government has failed Mrs Pretty and condemned her to extreme physical and mental suffering in breach of Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. We ask that they now take steps urgently to meet their obligation and allow Mrs Pretty the dignified death she is entitled to. Having met Mrs Pretty and heard her express her wish to die at a time of her choosing, it is difficult to understand how this government can turn its back on her request. Their failure to act is an act of inhumanity".

NOTE TO EDITORS: Motor Neurone Disease (extract from Black's Medical Dictionary 38th edn, 1995): "a disorder of unknown origin. Certain cells in the neurological system's motor nerves degenerate and die. Upper and lower motor neurones may be affected but sensory cells retain their normal functions... the disorder affects about seven people in every 100,000. Those affected usually die within three to five years and the average age of death is 60 years. There is no medical treatment".