Who ‘owns’ an individual’s body?
We should have the right to choose what is done to our bodies. The difficulty arises when what we ask is that someone else assists us in ending our lives. The law which criminalised suicide was only abolished in 1961 and many still fear that if assistance in suicide or euthanasia was legalised it would diminish the importance that, as a society, we place upon life. This might put older and disabled people under pressure to end their lives in order not to be a ‘burden’ to their families and encourage unscrupulous individuals to ‘assist’ a vulnerable relative to end their life for financial reasons. Another fear is that to relax the laws on assisted dying will undermine the trust between doctors and their patients. These are all rational fears, but they are not borne out by the evidence. In those countries where assisted suicide or euthanasia is lawful and suitable protective mechanisms are in place (the Benelux countries and the US states of Washington and Oregon) there is no evidence that vulnerable people are at greater risk. It tends to be better-educated – and usually better-off – individuals who make the choice to end their lives. The trust placed by patients in their doctors is not undermined: in the Netherlands, doctors enjoy approval ratings that exceed those of their counterparts in the UK. And euthanasia already takes place on a significant scale here, but it is underground and unregulated - and therefore unsafe. So I see no justification for forcing those suffering from conditions which make their lives unbearable, and for which there is no prospect of relief by any other lawful means, to remain in that state until carried off by a ‘natural death’. The challenge is to persuade the courts that – if Parliament continues to ignore it - this is an issue that only they can remedy.
What have been some of the highlights in your career?
Cases that have gone on to set a precedent like Debbie Purdy’s are the main highlights, and there have been a number of those. My work on behalf of people with mental disorders led to landmark judgments here and in Europe and significant legislative changes. And I have been involved in several leading cases involving those who die in custody and the rights of their loved ones. But sometimes the cases that mean the most are the small ones that nevertheless make a real difference to someone’s life. Debbie Purdy’s case of course meant an awful lot to her, and many others. But I will always treasure one early victory in a discrimination claim for a young woman with learning disabilities who was barred from a pub because she was ‘putting off the customers’. I still have the thank-you note she sent me afterwards. It is just as important – because it is so prevalent - to combat small-scale, thoughtless injustice as it is the large-scale and the malicious, which is thankfully much rarer.
To what do you credit your success?
Doing something I love, with a lot of freedom, a bit of showmanship and a sense of occasionally making a difference - and a very supportive wife who sustained us financially during several lean years. My parents instilled a strong public service ethic, but with a non-conformist and critical edge. Volunteering at Brixton Law Centre after University showed me that I could make a difference to people’s lives. And finding a home among like-minded colleagues at Doughty Street has been crucial.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My immediate ambition is to be involved in shaping the law in my core areas of mental health and capacity law, police actions and deaths in custody, equality law and health law, with an eye to the future in other areas such as appellate and public law crime, national security and international law. But I am very worried about the impact of Government legal aid reforms on access to justice for vulnerable people and the future viability of the publicly funded legal profession. So if in ten years I can still represent those clients, I have a healthy practice and some kind of work life balance, with time to spend with my family and do the other things that I love – that would suit me fine.
Paul Bowen QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah.