Ex-supreme court justice defends those who break assisted dying law

Lord Sumption
Lord Sumption’s lectures question whether courts and lawyers have over-expanded their role. Photograph: Richard Ansett/BBC

A former supreme court justice has defended people who break the law on assisted dying but urged them to face up to the consequences of their actions.

Delivering the opening speech of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures, Jonathan Sumption QC, who retired from the bench last December, surprised many by declaring there was “no moral obligation to obey the law”.

His lecture series, Law and the Decline of Politics, questions whether courts and lawyers have over-expanded their role and begun to usurp the traditional, legislative function of parliament.

That political tension has been most apparent in a long-running series of judicial review challenges over laws banning assisted dying. Parliament last voted on assisted dying in 2015, rejecting by 330 to 118 a private member’s bill to legalise assistance for those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months.

Last year lawyers for Noel Conway, a retired lecturer paralysed from the neck down by progressive motor neurone disease, argued that the 1961 Suicide Act, which criminalises anyone assisting a death, was incompatible with his human rights. His appeal, an attempt to prevent end-of-life suffering, was dismissed.

Taking questions at Middle Temple Hall in central London, where he gave his opening lecture, Lord Sumption was asked about the state of the law by a widow who had been investigated by police for accompanying her terminally ill husband to a Swiss assisted dying clinic.

Sumption said he understood her concern but did not accept that decisions on such controversial matters had to be taken by judges.

He agreed it was a “major moral issue” but added: “There’s a large a number of people who feel that changing the law to allow assisted suicide would render large numbers of people vulnerable to unseen pressures from relatives … and that the intervention of a person in [ending the] life of another is morally objectionable … We need a political process to resolve it.”

Sumption, who was never afraid of controversy as one of the most highly rewarded barristers in the commercial courts, defended the current legal compromise over the two unreconciled views. “I think the law should continue to criminalise assisted suicide, and I think that the law should be broken from time to time,” he said.

“We need to have a law against it in order to prevent abuse. It has always been the case that it’s been criminal, but it’s also been the case that courageous friends and families have helped people to die. That is an untidy compromise few lawyers would adopt but I don’t believe there’s a moral obligation to obey the law. Ultimately it’s for each person to decide.”

Sumption’s unusual approach is likely to revive the debate over assisted dying. His lectures on the relationship between law and politics, delivered in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Washington DC and Cardiff, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 starting at 9am on 21 May.