Assisted dying and the law; why you can be disinherited for helping a loved one to die
A court case earlier this year has highlighted an astonishingly cruel quirk of the law, where a wife who helped her terminally ill husband commit suicide in Switzerland, faced criminal prosecution as well as being disinherited on her return to the UK.
Assisted dying is illegal in the UK. It is legally available under various conditions in five European countries including Belgium and Switzerland, as well as in Canada and six US states.
Alexander Ninian who was 86 and terminally ill, went to Dignitas in Switzerland in 2017 to die, accompanied by his wife Sarah Ninian. Mr Ninian had a terminal condition, called progressive supra nuclear palsy. He obtained legal and medical advice beforehand and prepared a statement making it clear that his wife had been opposed to his decision and that he had made the decision of his own free will. Once Mr Ninian had made the necessary arrangements, his wife went with him to Dignitas because he was too disabled by his illness to travel alone. It was clear that theirs was a long and loving marriage and that Mr Ninian had a clear and unambiguous wish to die because of his condition.
Mrs Ninian was aware that she faced potential prosecution on her return to the UK under the Suicide Act 1961 for assisting her husband to commit suicide. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest to do so. But this was not the end of the matter, because the question then arose as to whether or not Mrs Ninian could inherit her husband’s estate.
The Forfeiture Act 1982 lays down a simple rule that an individual cannot benefit from someone’s death if they have ‘unlawfully aided, abetted or procured’ the death.
Mrs Ninian had to apply to the High Court to ask that the ‘forfeiture rule’ be waived in her case. The case (Ninian v Findlay) was decided in February 2019, following a hearing and the judge decided in her favour, so that she inherited her husband’s estate in accordance with the terms of his Will.
The case must have been hugely expensive and traumatic for the widow, at a time when she had just lost her much loved husband.
Such a heavy handed approach by the law is surely anachronistic given that public attitudes towards suicide have changed considerably since the Suicide Act became law more than 50 years ago. To lose your spouse and then to find out that you may be barred from inheriting their estate – even if they have left a will in your favour – seems strikingly harsh.
On 4th July 2019 Parliament reviewed the law related to assisted suicide in a major commons debate. The review followed the case of Ann and Geoffrey Whaley, who were interviewed under police caution, after a tip-off to police that Geoffrey — who was suffering from motor neurone disease — was planning to travel to Switzerland to die at Dignitas. Ann Whaley has launched ‘Acts of Love’, a campaign that brings together families across the country who have been affected by the current law on assisted dying. This Summer also, GPs were consulted on whether the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) should change its position on assisted dying, which it currently opposes.
More generally, the law on assisted dying continues to impact very harshly on families; just last month the family of Mavis Eccleston spoke of their ‘terrible ordeal’ when their mother was cleared of murdering her husband of almost 60 years following a ‘suicide pact’ when both took an overdose of prescription drugs. Dennis Eccleston, 81, was terminally ill with cancer at the time and Mavis didn’t want to live without him but survived the overdose when they were found by family members.
Although the issue of assisted dying is currently in the spotlight, there is no immediate sign that the law is going to change. In the meantime, surely if the CPS decides not to prosecute, the law should be changed so that the forfeiture rule does not apply in cases involving assisted dying.