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Paul Lamb right-to-die: The history of assisted suicide in the UK

As Paul Lamb and the family of Tony Nicklinson lose a right-to-die challenge at the Court of Appeal, Yahoo! takes a look back at the history of a highly controversial issue

The tragic story of Paul Lamb, the 'right-to-die' campaigner who today lost his Court of Appeal bid to end his own life, has brought assisted suicide in the UK back into the spotlight.

Mr Lamb, who was severely injured in a car accident in 1990, is campaigning for the right to die with the help of a doctor, saying he would like to be able to choose when to 'call it a day'.

Paralysed Mr Lamb, who took up the legal fight started by Tony Nicklinson, was the latest Briton to campaign in favour of assisted dying.

Since the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic opened in Switzerland, more than 180 Britons have gone there to legally end their lives.

Dignitas was founded in 1998 by Swiss lawyer Ludwig A. Minelli, allowing people to take their own lives as long the decision is made of their own free will.

Britons travel there as the 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide attempt in England and Wales.

Reg Crew, the first Briton to publicallty go to Dignitas, with his wife Win in 2002. (PA)

Since 2002, Dignitas has seen an average of 18 Britons a year coming through its doors, wishing to end their lives on their own terms.

On October 25, 2002, a British man with terminal cancer became the first UK citizen to travel to Dignitas. He drank a lethal solution of barbiturates, and died with his wife and daughter by his side.

Reg Crew, a former soldier with Motor Neurone Disease, became the first Briton to publicly go to Dignitas in 2003. His wife Win Crew was threatened with legal action when she returned to the UK, but was not charged.

MS sufferer Debbie Purdy in 2010, after her landmark legal victory. (PA)As Britons travelled to Switzerland to die on their own terms, several attempts were made in the UK to legalise assisted suicide.

One of the first bids, in 2006, was rejected in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100.

The issue of assisted dying has always been a divisive one in Britain. A 2006 survey of members of the Royal College of Physicians found that more than 70 per cent were against a change in the law.

By 2008, 92 Britons had travelled to Dignitas to legally end their lives, and none of their relatives have faced prosecution.

Also in 2008, multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy, 45, launched a High Court bid to force the Crown Prosecution Service to clarify exactly what actions would lead to a friend or relative being charged under the 1961 Suicide Act.

Meanwhile in the US, a referendum in Washington in November passed a law allowing physician-assisted dying to adult residents.

In December 2008, 23-year-old Daniel James became the youngest Briton to die at Dignitas, in a procedure paid for by his parents.

The former schoolboy rugby international was paralysed from the chest down in a training accident, and said he had endured a 'second class existence' ever since.

Mark and Julie James did not face criminal charges after it emerged that they had pleaded with their son 'relentlessly' to change his mind. The CPS said it was 'not in the public interest' to press criminal charges against them.

In 2009, a second attempt was made by Lord Falconer to legalise assisted suicide in Britain, but it was again outvoted in the House of Lords, this time by a 194-141 margin.

In July 2009, Debbie Purdy scored a significant legal victory, forcing the Department for Public Prosecutions to clarify assisted suicide circumstances.

In February 2010, Director for Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, outlined 16 factors which would tend to lead to prosecution of those who help with a suicide.

Dan James (centre), pictured with his parents Julie and Mark, went to Dignitas after a rugby accident left him …

His guidance ruled that charges would be unlikely if the suspect gave only minor assistance, or if they tried to persuade the victim to live.

Also in February 2010, the government was asked what consideration had been given to holding an independent inquiry into examining assisted suicide.

In July 2010, locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson launched his landmark legal case to ensure his wife would not be prosecuted for murder if she helped him end his life.

Mr Nicklinson, who was previously healthy and active, suffered a severe stroke in 2005 which left him unable to move anything apart from his head and eyes.

Campaigner: Tony Nicklinson with wife Jane (left) and daughters Beth (right) and Lauren in August 2012, days before …

In Scotland, Independent MSP Margo Macdonald, who has Parkinson's Disease, saw his attempt to legalise assisted suicide defeated by an overwhelming 85-16 vote.

In November 2010, the Commission on Assisted Dying launched an inquiry into whether the current legal and policy approach on assisted dying in England and Wales was fit for purpose.

Tony Nicklinson took his legal fight to the High Court in January 2012, but Ministry of Justice lawyers opposed his action on the grounds that allowing doctors to end his life would 'distort the settled law'.


The Commission on Assisted Dying, after extensive research, concluded that 'the current legal status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent'.

In July 2012, the British Medical Association insisted that assisted suicide is 'never justified', despite right-to-die campaigners urging them to take a neutral stance on the issue.

The same month, a Draft Bill Consultation was launched in partnership with the charity Dignity in Dying, which will be presented to the House or Lords by Lord Falconer.

In 2010, Keir Starmer outlined 16 factors which may leadto prosecution for those who assist with suicide. (PA) …

One month later, Tony Nicklinson was left 'absolutely heartbroken' after losing his High Court bid.

Lawyers ruled that only Parliament can change the law of murder so that doctors or helpers can assist someone to die.

Mr Nicklinson died at home six days later from pneumonia, having refused to eat for several days.

Lord Falconer's Draft Bill Consultation is due to be presented before the House of Lords in May 2013.