Lords will rule on paralysed woman's right-to-die appeal

By Stephen Howard,John Aston
Friday 02 November 2001 01:00

The House of Lords agreed yesterday to hear a plea by Diane Pretty, who is terminally ill, for the right to commit suicide with the help of her husband.

Mrs Pretty, 42, who has two children, successfully petitioned a committee of three law lords for the right to appeal to the House of Lords against a High Court ruling on 18 October that the law did not allow a family member to help a loved one to die.

She was challenging the refusal of the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, to rule out taking criminal proceedings against her husband of 25 years, Brian, if he helps her to take her own life.

Mrs Pretty, from Luton in Bedfordshire, is paralysed from the neck down because of motor neurone disease and was sitting in her wheelchair in the committee room to hear the law lords' decision.

Philip Havers QC, for Mrs Pretty, told Lord Bingham, Lord Hope and Lord Scott that his client was no longer alone in contending that her human rights were breached by the state's refusal to allow her husband lawfully to assist her to commit suicide.

Asked by Lord Bingham whether a member of the medical profession had been asked to assist in the suicide, Mr Havers said neither her GP nor her main specialists had indicated any willingness to do so even if it was lawful.

Jonathan Perry, for the DPP, said Mr Calvert-Smith had the "most profound sympathy for Mrs Pretty and her family", but said there was no power for him to grant immunity before the commission of a criminal act.

Lord Bingham asked whether the DPP could give an undertaking that he would be unlikely to prosecute if an assisted suicide took place in a prescribed manner.

Mr Perry said this would mean the DPP would have to make a decision that would amount to him saying whether he thought sections of the Suicide Act were good or bad law.

Giving the decision, Lord Bingham said the law lords were aware of the importance of the matter to Mrs Pretty and the public interest that the case "understandably arouses. It raises issues courts in this country have not had a previous occasion to deal with," Lord Bingham said.

He said he was granting leave and was "conscious of the pressures of time".

The two-day hearing is likely to be held within the next two weeks.