Judge gives woman right to go abroad for assisted suicide

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The Independent Online

A travel ban on a terminally ill woman who asked her husband to help her commit suicide abroad was lifted in the High Court yesterday. The legal challenge had been brought by her local authority which had discovered that the husband was making plans to assist his wife to travel to Zurich where she wanted to commit suicide in a clinic specialising in euthanasia.

A travel ban on a terminally ill woman who asked her husband to help her commit suicide abroad was lifted in the High Court yesterday. The legal challenge had been brought by her local authority which had discovered that the husband was making plans to assist his wife to travel to Zurich where she wanted to commit suicide in a clinic specialising in euthanasia.

Lawyers for the authority, who had care of the woman, wanted to know whether they were under a civil duty to try to stop the husband committing an offence under Suicide Act 1961.

The woman, identified as Mrs Z, has an incurable and degenerative illness, diagnosed in 1997, and is too ill to travel without assistance. But yesterday Mr Justice Hedley ruled that the authority, which cannot be named, had fulfilled its legal obligations by informing police of the couple's intentions.

The judge said he had granted an injunction last week so Mrs Z's legal capacity to make free decisions regarding her own life could be fully investigated. He said: "The evidence clearly establishes that she has legal capacity and her decision is her own, freely arrived at with full knowledge of its consequences.

"The court is not entitled to test that decision against what the court thinks is right. The right and responsibility for such a decision belongs alone to Mrs Z. The court should not frustrate indirectly the rights of Mrs Z. The role of Mr Z is a matter for criminal justice agencies."

The local authority said it had no wish to pursue its application for a civil court injunction against Mr and Mrs Z, although it might have power to do so. Deborah Annetts, the chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said after the ruling yesterday: "This is a very important judgment, a watershed. It means the Suicide Act is on its last legs."

The judge had told the court: "The local authority had known for some time that she wished to commit suicide. They have now learnt that Mr Z has made arrangements for her to go to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. In making these, Mr Z has arguably committed an offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961."

Mark Everall QC, representing the local authority that provides care for the woman in her home, told the judge the husband had at first refused to help his wife. But as her condition worsened, he made inquiries about assisted suicides in Switzerland where it is legal.

Helping a person commit suicide in Britain is punishable by up to 14 years in jail but the police had not been clear on whether helping someone travel to a country where it was legal constituted aiding a suicide, Mr Everall said.

"The husband has stated his view about it, that he will now comply with his wife's wishes. The adult children of the family are in a similar position; while clearly not wishing such a thing to happen, they support their mother in the decision she has taken."

It is believed that 22 Britons have managed get round UK euthanasia laws in the past two years by using a Zurich-based clinic run by a not-for- profit organisation called Dignitas, founded in 1998.