Diane Pretty v Director of Public Prosecutions [2001] UKHL 61 (HL)

Human rights – right to life – assisted suicide – inhuman and degrading treatment

Mrs Pretty, who suffered terminally from motor neurone disease, appealed against the dismissal of her application  for judicial review of the DPP’s refusal to give an undertaking not to prosecute her husband under s2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, were he to assist in her suicide. Mrs Pretty claimed that the DPP’s refusal was a breach of articles 2, 3, 8, 9 and 14 of the European Convention (right to life, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, right to respect for private life, freedom of conscience and freedom from discrimination, respectively).

Upholding that dismissal, the House of Lords held that the DPP did not have power to decide not to prosecute where the offence had yet to be committed and that section 2(1) Suicide Act 1961 was compatible with the Convention. The right to human dignity enshrined in article 3 was a right to live with dignity – not to die with dignity – and taking active steps to bring life to a premature end was very different from not taking futile and undignified steps to prolong life beyond its natural end. Whilst some Convetion rights had been interpreted as conferring rights which were the antithesis of that which there was an express right to do (eg the right to freedom of association in art. 11 confers a right not to join an association), article 2 could not be interpreted in that way, so as to give a right to die.

Further, the protection of human life was a legitimate social aim which justified interference with the rights to respect for private life and freedom of thought and conscience under articles 8 and 9. Further, art. 8 was expressed in terms directed to the protection of personal autonomy while individuals were living their lives and there was nothing to suggest that it had any reference to the choice to live no longer. Mrs Pretty’s contention that she had suffered discrimination in the enjoyment of her Convention rights because of her physical incapacity could not be sustained as article 14 was not free standing and was only applicable in cases where other Convention rights were in play.  In any event, the Suicide Act did not give a right to commit suicide: it merely abrogated the rule of law whereby it was a crime for a person to commit suicide.

Mrs Pretty’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was unsuccessful.

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