The High Court gives doctors permission to challenge the Royal College of Physicians' conduct concerning a shift to neutrality on assisted suicide
The Royal College of Physicians' announcement in January that they would consult members and fellows on the College's stance on assisted suicide - and that the College would move to neutrality unless a particular stance received more than 66% support. This unprecedented supermajority was reduced to 60% as the College sought to respond to a slew of negative feedback concerning the poll's organisation. The row, and backlash from many hundreds of doctors, received significant media attention. The College ultimately announced that it would move from opposition to neutrality when the supermajority was not met. The most favoured stance remained opposition - 43.4% - and only 25% backed neutrality, but the stance nonetheless changed.
Legal action was commenced by members and fellows in the Spring, on the contention that RCP had broken charity law. A statement released on behalf of cardiologist Dr Dermot Kearney MRCP, Retired Palliative Medicine Consultant Dr Kathy Myers FRCP and Renal Medicine Registrar Dr David Randall MRCP notes that:
'Despite agreement from the Charity Commission that it was a legally sustainable claim, the charities regulator withheld permission to allow the doctors to progress legal action, as they had already raised their concerns with the RCP and warned them not to repeat these mistakes. Today, in the High Court, this decision by the Charity Commission has been reversed, giving the doctors a green light to take further action against the RCP.'
'The doctors contend that realising there was no appetite within the membership to support assisted suicide legislation, a small but influential group within the RCP sought to change the stance of the College to 'neutral' without consulting its members and then structuring a survey that required an unprecedented 60 per cent supra-majority in favour on continuing opposition to assisted suicide legislation.
'Supra-majorities are usually used to prevent long-term constitutional changes being implemented by small but temporary majorities and thus they should always default to the status quo - in this instance opposition to legal change. Using a supra-majority in this consultation [made] it almost inevitable that the College will drop its historic opposition to assisted suicide.'
Dr Randall commented:
'Today's judgement is good news for doctors and for society.
'We believe that it is vitally important that doctors' voices are heard on the issue of assisted dying, which if legalised would represent the single biggest change in the ethics and practice of medicine for a generation. The unsatisfactory way in which the College has approached this matter, ignoring the advice of its own ethics committee, has left it with a position of neutrality on assisted dying that prevents it from engaging in the public debate on this important issue. We expect the College to be active in championing key concerns such as the protection of vulnerable patients, the promotion of palliative care and hospice services, and the defence of conscientious objection for all healthcare practitioners.
'Doctors are not neutral about assisted dying, and neither should the College be.'
Paul Conrathe, Human rights solicitor from Sinclairslaw commented:
'Today the court expressed its concern that the decision of the Royal College of Physicians to change its position to neutrality was unlawful and irrational. It was concerned that the College had adopted as its public position the least favoured option in its recent poll.
'The College has suppressed the report of its own ethics committee into the results of the poll and adopted a supra-majority criteria that effectively pre-judged the outcome of that poll. Today the court has paved the way for the College to be brought to account.'
To help fund this legal challenge, the doctors behind the legal challenge launched a crowdfunder. They have made it clear any excess funds will be used at their discretion for related campaigns in opposition to assisted suicide. If there are remaining funds 12 months after the conclusion of this case, they will go to the Association for Palliative Medicine.