Legal aid victory for woman in fight to die

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A terminally ill woman who is waging a legal campaign for the right to be helped to die has been granted legal aid to continue fighting her case.

Diane Pretty, 42, who has motor neurone disease, won public funding yesterday after the Legal Services Commission reversed its previous refusal to back the case. The commission had rejected four previous applications by Mrs Pretty for legal aid.

The victory for Mrs Pretty, a former cook from Luton, Bedfordshire, means she can go ahead with having her case judicially reviewed. Without legal aid, the case – which could cost £40,000 – would have collapsed.

Mrs Pretty is trying to overturn a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, that her husband, Brian, would not be immune from prosecution if he helped her to die.

Under the Suicide Act 1961, assisted suicide is a criminal offence. But Mrs Pretty, who has no use of her limbs and is facing death by suffocation, claims that the law breaches her human right to protection from inhuman treatment.

At a High Court hearing last week, Mr Justice Silber ruled that her case was sufficiently compelling to warrant being judicially reviewed at a full hearing, which may take place this month. He said: "It appears desirable to me that this matter should come on for a full hearing as soon as possible so the interesting and far-reaching submissions that have been made by counsel can finally be adjudicated."

Lawyers acting for Mrs Pretty had hoped that the judge's acknowledgement of the public importance of the case would ensure that she would be immediately granted legal aid. The commission had rejected her previous applications on the basis of merit, arguing that although the case was "of overwhelming importance to the client ... the prospects of success are poor".

But after last week's court victory, Mrs Pretty's advisers were astonished to receive a response from the commission that questioned the validity of her claim on the ground of means. In a letter dated 4 September, the commission's lawyers wrote that although "the merits criteria are now satisfied" they had "concerns" over Mrs Pretty's access to funds.

Mrs Pretty's case has been supported by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) and the human rights group Liberty. Two barristers, including the silk Philip Havers, have worked on the case without charging a fee.

The commission's letter suggested the VES would be able to fund any litigation. But a spokesman for Liberty said: "The idea that Diane Pretty should be dependent on finding a pressure group with the resources to support her is absurd and in no way supports justice."

After high-level discussions, the commission changed its position yesterday and granted public funds for the case.