Judgments - R (on the application of Purdy) (Appellant) v Director of Public Prosecutions (Respondent)

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26.  It must be emphasised at the outset that it is no part of our function to change the law in order to decriminalise assisted suicide. If changes are to be made, as to which I express no opinion, this must be a matter for Parliament. No-one who listened to the recent debate in the House of Lords on Lord Falconer of Thoroton’s amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, in which he sought to define in law acts which were not capable of encouraging or assisting suicide, or has read the report of the debate in Hansard (HL Debates, vol 712, 7 July 2009, cols 595-634) can be in any doubt as to the strength of feeling on either side or the difficulties that such a change in the law might give rise to. We do not venture into that arena, nor would it be right for us to do so. Our function as judges is to say what the law is and, if it is uncertain, to do what we can to clarify it.

27.  On one view the law, as it stands, could not be clearer. It is an offence to assist someone to travel to Switzerland or anywhere else where assisted suicide is lawful. Anyone who does that is liable to be prosecuted. He is in the same position as anyone else who offends against section 2(1) of the 1961 Act. As with any other crime, the test that will be applied is that which the Crown Prosecution Service code lays down. He may be prosecuted if there is enough evidence to sustain a prosecution and it is in the public interest that this step should be taken. But the practice that will be followed in cases where compassionate assistance of the kind that Ms Purdy seeks from her husband is far less certain. The judges have a role to play where clarity and consistency is lacking in an area of such sensitivity.

28.  Lord Pannick QC for Ms Purdy directed his argument to section 2(4) of the 1961 Act, which provides that no proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under that section except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and to her right to respect for her private life under article 8(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights. He submits, first, that the prohibition in section 2(1) of the 1961 Act constitutes an interference with Ms Purdy’s right to respect for her private life under article 8(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights; and, second, that this interference is not “in accordance with the law” as required by article 8(2), in the absence of an offence-specific policy by the Director of Public Prosecutions (“the Director”) which sets out the factors that will be taken into account by him and Crown Prosecutors acting on his behalf in deciding under section 2(4) of the 1961 Act whether or not it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution under that section.

29.  As is well known, article 8 of the European Convention provides as follows:

“1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The words which are under scrutiny in this case are the words “respect for his private life” in article 8(1) and “in accordance with the law” in article 8(2). The Director accepts that he is a public authority within the meaning of article 8(2). He is also a public authority for the purposes of section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is unlawful for him to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.

30.  Ms Purdy does not ask that her husband be given a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. An exception of that kind, as Lord Pannick accepts, would be a matter for Parliament. What she seeks is information. It is information that she says she needs so that she can take a decision that affects her private life. A number of other people have already made the journey to countries where assisted suicide is lawful, and those who have assisted them have not been prosecuted. Your Lordships were told that by the time of the hearing there had been 115 such cases. Of those cases only eight had been referred to the Director for a decision as to whether or not the assistants should be prosecuted. In all but two of them the decision not to prosecute had been taken on the ground that there was insufficient evidence. But on 9 December 2008 the Director decided not to prosecute the parents and a family friend of Daniel James, who had sustained a serious spinal injury in a rugby accident and had travelled with his parents to Switzerland to end his life, on the ground that a prosecution was not needed in the public interest. He took this decision personally, he gave his reasons in writing for having done so and he made those reasons available to the public. This was an exception, as the public have not been told what the reasons were in the other cases that have so far been referred to the Director which include one other case which on public interest grounds was not prosecuted. Other cases appear to have been discontinued by the police on public interest grounds. Here too no reasons for the decisions that have been taken are available.

31.  Ms Purdy’s request for information is to be seen in the light of that background. As has been said, she does not seek an immunity. Instead she wants to be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not to ask for her husband’s assistance. She is not willing to expose him to the risk of being prosecuted if he assists her. But the Director has declined to say what factors he will take into consideration in deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute those who assist people to end their lives in countries where assisted suicide is lawful. This presents her with a dilemma. If the risk of prosecution is sufficiently low, she can wait until the very last moment before she makes the journey. If the risk is too high she will have to make the journey unaided to end her life before she would otherwise wish to do so. Moreover she is not alone in finding herself in this predicament. Statements have been produced showing that others in her situation have chosen to travel without close family members to avoid the risk of their being prosecuted. Others have given up the idea of an assisted suicide altogether and have been left to die what has been described as a distressing and undignified death. It is patently obvious that the issue is not going to go away.

32.  The Court of Appeal expressed very considerable sympathy for the predicament in which Ms Purdy and Mr Puente now find themselves. But it held that it was unable to find in Ms Purdy’s favour on either branch of her argument. In R (Pretty) v Director of Public Prosecutions (Secretary of State for the Home Department Intervening) [2002] 1 AC 800, the House held that article 8 was directed to the protection of personal autonomy while the person was alive but did not confer a right to decide when or how to die. The European Court of Human Rights disagreed. In Pretty v United Kingdom (2002) 35 EHRR 1, para 67, the court said:

“The applicant in this case is prevented by law from exercising her choice to avoid what she considers will be an undignified and distressing end to her life. The Court is not prepared to exclude that this constitutes an interference with her right to respect for private life as guaranteed under article 8(1) of the Convention. It considers below whether this interference conforms with the requirements of the second paragraph of article 8.”

Nevertheless the Court of Appeal held that it was bound to follow the decision of this House and was not at liberty to apply the ruling of the Strasbourg court. No other course was open to it: see Kay v Lambeth London Borough Council [2006] UKHL 10, [2006] 2 AC 465, paras 28, 42-45, per Lord Bingham of Cornhill; R (RJM) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2008] UKHL 63, [2009] 1 AC 311, para 64, per Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury.

33.  As for the question whether the requirements of article 8(2) were satisfied, the Court of Appeal said that the absence of a crime-specific policy relating to assisted suicide did not make the effect of section 2(1) of the 1961 Act unlawful or mean that it was not in accordance with the law: para 79. The statute itself was sufficiently clear to satisfy the requirements of article 8(2) as to certainty. What Ms Purdy was seeking was in reality a guarantee that her husband would not be prosecuted. She could not achieve that objective without his being given what amounted to an immunity from prosecution or the promulgation of a case-specific policy which recognised exceptional defences to the offence which had not been enacted by Parliament. The Director was not in dereliction of his statutory duty in declining to do this.

Article 8(1): respect for private life

34.  The House is, of course, free to depart from its earlier decision and to follow that of the Strasbourg court. As Lord Bingham said in R (Ullah) v Special Adjudicator [2004] UKHL 26, [2004] 2 AC 323, para 20, it is ordinarily the clear duty of our domestic courts to give practical recognition to the principles laid down by the Strasbourg court as governing the Convention rights as the effectiveness of the Convention as an international instrument depends on the loyal acceptance by member states of the principles that, as the highest authority on the interpretation of those rights, it lays down. Practice Statement (Judicial Precedent) which was issued on 26 July 1966 states that, while the House will still treat its former decisions as normally binding, it would depart from a previous decision when it appeared right to do so: [1966] 1 WLR 1234. In Lewis v Attorney General of Jamaica [2001] 2 AC 50, 88, Lord Hoffmann drew attention to the evil which would follow if the power to overrule previous decisions of the Privy Council were exercised too readily: see also R v Kansal (No 2) [2001] UKHL 62, [2002] 2 AC 69, paras 20-21, per Lord Lloyd of Berwick. But it is obvious that the interests of human rights law would not be well served if the House were to regard itself as bound by a previous decision as to the meaning or effect of a Convention right which was shown to be inconsistent with a subsequent decision in Strasbourg. Otherwise the House would be at risk of endorsing decisions which are incompatible with Convention rights.

35.  The difference between the House and the Strasbourg court on the application of article 8(1) to Mrs Pretty’s case was on a narrow but very important point. Lord Steyn expressed the view of the majority most clearly when he said that the guarantee under article 8 prohibits interference with the way in which an individual leads his life and it does not relate to the manner in which he wishes to die: [2002] 1 AC 800, para 61. It is clear from Lord Bingham’s opinion, paras 19 to 23 that he was strongly influenced by the fact that the right to liberty and security in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which was held by the majority in Supreme Court of Canada in Rodriguez v Attorney General of Canada [1994] 2 LRC 136 to confer a right to personal autonomy extending even to decisions on life and death had no close analogy in the European Convention, and by the absence of Strasbourg jurisprudence on this point, when he said in para 23 that there was nothing in article 8 to suggest that it had reference to the choice to live no longer.

36.  I describe this as the view of the majority because, although I did not expressly dissent from it, the view which I expressed on this point in para 100 of my own opinion was directly to the contrary:

“Respect for a person’s ‘private life', which is the only part of article 8(1) which is in play here, relates to the way a person lives. The way she chooses to pass the closing moments of her life is part of the act of living, and she has the right to ask that this too must be respected. In that respect Mrs Pretty has a right of self-determination. In that sense, her private life is engaged even where in the face of a terminal illness she chooses death rather than life.”

The Strasbourg court referred to this passage in my opinion in para 64 of its judgment with approval, and the rest of its reasoning is consistent with it. In para 65 the court said:

“The very essence of the Convention is respect for human dignity and human freedom. Without in any way negating the principle of sanctity of life protected under the Convention, the Court considers that it is under article 8 that notions of the quality of life take on significance. In an era of growing medical sophistication combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity.”

37.  Mr Foster for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, intervening, pointed to the Strasbourg court’s observation in para 67 that it was not prepared to exclude that the fact that Mrs Pretty was prevented by law from exercising her choice to avoid what she considered to be an undignified and distressing end to her life constituted an interference with her right to respect for private life as guaranteed by article 8. He said these words showed that it had refrained from committing itself to a decision on this point. As the Court of Appeal noted in para 49 of its judgment, the Divisional Court found the choice of language by the Strasbourg court in para 67 to be “curious” and “elliptical". He also drew attention to the importance that the Strasbourg court had attached in para 40 of its judgment to the right to life which is protected absolutely by article 2. He said that, as the Strasbourg court’s position on the question whether article 8 was engaged was unclear, the House should follow its own decision in Pretty and that it should not be deflected from doing so by what had been said about this in Strasbourg.

38.  I would reject Mr Foster’s submission, for two reasons. The first is that it is plain, when its judgment is read as a whole, that the Strasbourg court did find that Mrs Pretty’s rights under article 8(1) were engaged. It said so in terms in the first sentence of para 87, where it referred in a footnote to its discussion of the issue in paras 61 to 67. That sentence removes any doubt that the words used in para 67 might give rise to. The second is that, even if there was a doubt as to whether article 8(1) was engaged in Mrs Pretty’s case, the same cannot be said in the case of Ms Purdy. It seems to me that her situation is addressed directly by what the Strasbourg court said in para 65 of its judgment. Mrs Pretty, who could no longer do anything for herself, was seeking an undertaking that her husband would be immune from prosecution if he assisted her in the very act of committing suicide. Unlike Ms Purdy, she was not contemplating travelling to another country for this purpose. Nor was there any question, in Mrs Pretty’s case, of her being forced by lack of information about prosecution policy to choose between ending her life earlier than she would otherwise have wished while she was still able to do this without her husband’s assistance. The difference is a subtle one. But, if there was any room for doubt as to what the position was in Mrs Pretty’s case, I would not find any room for doubt in the case of Ms Purdy.

39.  I would therefore depart from the decision in R (Pretty) v Director of Public Prosecutions (Secretary of State for the Home Department Intervening) [2002] 1 AC 800 and hold that the right to respect for private life in article 8(1) is engaged in this case.

Article 8(2): in accordance with the law

40.  The Convention principle of legality requires the court to address itself to three distinct questions. The first is whether there is a legal basis in domestic law for the restriction. The second is whether the law or rule in question is sufficiently accessible to the individual who is affected by the restriction, and sufficiently precise to enable him to understand its scope and foresee the consequences of his actions so that he can regulate his conduct without breaking the law. The third is whether, assuming that these two requirements are satisfied, it is nevertheless open to the criticism that it is being applied in a way that is arbitrary because, for example, it has been resorted to in bad faith or in a way that is not proportionate. I derive these principles, which have been mentioned many times in subsequent cases, from Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979) 2 EHRR 245, para 49 and also from Winterwerp v The Netherlands (1979) 2 EHRR 387, pp 402-403, para 39, Engel v The Netherlands (No 1) (1976) 1 EHRR 647, p 669, paras 58-59 which were concerned with the principle of legality in the context of article 5(1), Silver v United Kingdom (1983) 5 EHRR 347, paras 85-90; Liberty v United Kingdom (2008) 48 EHRR 1, para 59 and Sorvisto v Finland, Application No 19348/04, 13 January 2009, para 112.

41.  The word “law” in this context is to be understood in its substantive sense, not its formal one: Kafkaris v Cyprus (2008) 25 BHRC 591, para 139. This qualification of the concept is important, as it makes it clear that law for this purpose goes beyond the mere words of the statute. As the Grand Chamber said in that case in paras 139 -140, it has been held to include both enactments of lower rank than statutes and unwritten law. Furthermore, it implies qualitative requirements, including those of accessibility and foreseeability. Accessibility means that an individual must know from the wording of the relevant provision and, if need be, with the assistance of the court’s interpretation of it what acts and omissions will make him criminally liable: see also Gülmez v Turkey, Application no 16330/02, 20 May 2008, para 49. The requirement of foreseeability will be satisfied where the person concerned is able to foresee, if need be with appropriate legal advice, the consequences which a given action may entail. A law which confers a discretion is not in itself inconsistent with this requirement, provided the scope of the discretion and the manner of its exercise are indicated with sufficient clarity to give the individual protection against interference which is arbitrary: Goodwin v United Kingdom (1996) EHRR 123, para 31; Sorvisto v Finland, Application No 19348/04, 13 January 2009, para 112. So far as it goes, section 2(1) of the 1961 Act satisfies all these requirements. It is plain from its wording that a person who aid, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another is guilty of criminal conduct. It does not provide for any exceptions. It is not difficult to see that the actions which Mr Puente will need to take in this jurisdiction in support of Ms Purdy’s desire to travel to another country where assisted suicide is lawful will be likely to fall into the proscribed category.

42.  The issue that Ms Purdy raises however is directed not to section 2(1) of the Act, but to section 2(4) and to the way in which the Director can be expected to exercise the discretion which he is given by that subsection whether or not to consent to her husband’s prosecution if he assists her.

43.  This is where the requirement that the law should be formulated with sufficient precision to enable the individual, if need be with appropriate advice, to regulate his conduct is brought into focus in this case. In Hasan and Chaush v Bulgaria (2000) 34 EHRR 1339, para 84, the court said:

“For domestic law to meet these requirements [that is, of accessibility and foreseeability] it must afford a measure of legal protection against arbitrary interferences by public authorities with the rights safeguarded by the Convention. In matters affecting fundamental rights it would be contrary to the rule of law, one of the basic principles of a democratic society enshrined in the Convention, for a legal discretion granted to the executive to be expressed in terms of an unfettered power. Consequently, the law must indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of any such discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise.

The level of precision required of domestic legislation - which cannot in any case provide for every eventuality - depends to a considerable degree on the content of the instrument in question, the field it is designed to cover and the number and status of those to whom it is addressed.”

That was a case where the complaint was that there had been an unlawful and arbitrary interference with the applicants’ religious liberties where decisions were taken about the organisation and leadership of their religious community for which no reasons had been given. But there is here a clear statement of principle. The question is to what extent it is applicable to this case.

The Director’s discretion

44.  It has long been recognised that a prosecution does not follow automatically whenever an offence is believed to have been committed. In Smedleys Ltd v Breed [1974] AC 839, 856, Viscount Dilhorne made these comments on the propriety of instituting a prosecution under the food and drugs legislation in that case:

“In 1951 the question was raised whether it was not a basic principle of the rule of law that the operation of the law is automatic where an offence is known or suspected. The then Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, said: ‘It has never been the rule in this country - I hope it never will be - that criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution.’ He pointed out that the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions only intervene to direct a prosecution when they consider it in the public interest to do so and he cited a statement made by Lord Simon in 1925 when he said:

‘… there is no greater nonsense talked about the Attorney-General’s duty than the suggestion that in all cases the Attorney-General ought to decide to prosecute merely because he thinks there is what the lawyers call a case. It is not true and no one who has held the office of Attorney-General supposes it is.’

Sir Hartley Shawcross’s statement was indorsed, I think, by more than one of his successors.”

45.  The purpose of section 2(4) of the 1961 Act must be understood in the light of this background. It was submitted for Ms Purdy that it was clear that Parliament did not intend that all those who might be guilty of an offence under section 2(1) should be punished or even prosecuted for the offence. In Dunbar v Plant [1998] Ch 412, 437, Phillips LJ said that this was the logical conclusion to be drawn from the provision in section 2(4). But I would accept the view of the Court of Appeal that this observation does not fully reflect the purpose of the requirement for his consent. As it said in para 67, the better approach is to be discerned in the Law Commission’s Report, Consents to Prosecution (No 255), para 3.33, where it quoted from the Home Office Memorandum to the Departmental Committee on section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 (The Franks Report, 1972, Cmnd 5104, vol 2, p 125, para 7), in which the point was made that the basic reason for including in a statute a restriction on the bringing of prosecutions was that otherwise there would be a risk of prosecutions being brought in inappropriate circumstances.

46.  Among the five reasons that were given by the Franks Committee were to secure consistency of practice, to prevent abuse of the kind that might otherwise result in a vexatious private prosecution, to enable account to be taken of mitigating factors and to provide some central control of the use of the criminal law where it has to intrude into areas which are particularly sensitive or controversial. All these factors are in play where consideration is being given to the question whether someone who is suspected of having committed an offence against section 2(1) should be prosecuted. Consistency of practice is especially important here. The issue is without doubt both sensitive and controversial. Many people view legally assisted suicide as an appalling concept which undermines the fundamental human right to life itself. On the other hand there are those, like Ms Purdy, who firmly believe that the right to life includes the right to end one’s own life when one can still do so with dignity. Crown Prosecutors to whom the decision-taking function is delegated need to be given the clearest possible instructions as to the factors which they must have regard to when they are performing it. The police, who exercise an important discretion as to whether or not to bring a case to the attention of the Crown Prosecutors, need guidance also if they are to avoid the criticism that their decision-taking is arbitrary. Important too is the general policy of the law that the Attorney General and the Director only intervene to direct a prosecution when they consider it in the public interest to do so.

47.  Steps have been taken to provide a measure of consistency. The Director, as the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, has the duty, under the supervision of the Attorney-General, to institute and conduct the prosecution of offences in England and Wales, and every Crown Prosecutor has all the powers of the Director which he must exercise under the Director’s direction: Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, section 1. Section 10 of that Act provides that the Director shall issue a Code for Crown Prosecutors giving guidance on general principles to be applied by them in determining, in any case, among other things whether proceedings for an offence should be instituted and that he may from time to time make alterations to the Code. This document is available to the public. In my opinion the Code is to be regarded, for the purposes of article 8(2) of the Convention, as forming part of the law in accordance with which an interference with the right to respect for private life may be held to be justified. The question is whether it satisfies the requirements of accessibility and foreseeability where the question is whether, in an exceptional case such as that which Ms Purdy’s circumstances are likely to give rise to, it is in the public interest that proceedings under section 2(1) should be instituted against those who have rendered assistance.

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