Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Legal challenge made to a poll on assisted dying

A legal challenge has been submitted regarding a poll by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) on its official position on assisted suicide. 

The RCP asked its members where they stand on assisted dying but for the first time said they would adopt a neutral stance unless there was a 60% majority either way. 

Until now, the group have been officially opposed. 

Four doctors have now launched a crowdfunding page to fund a legal challenge to the poll, saying a small minority within the College who do support assisted dying are trying to change the RCP's default position in an unfair way and that: "it means that even if 59% of members vote to maintain opposition to a change in the law, the College will change to a neutral position anyway."

Dr Dermot Kearney MRCP, a consultant cardiologist; Dr Kathy Myers FRCP, a retired consultant in palliative medicine; Dr Adrian Treloar FRCP, a consultant old age psychiatrist and Dr David Randall MRCP, a registrar in renal medicine argue: "Using a supra-majority to change a policy is, as far as we are aware, entirely without precedent in matters of this kind.

"Such mechanisms 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 case opposition to legal change."

The doctors believe Dignity in Dying, the campaign group for assisted dying, have influenced the move. A recent blog on the Dignity in Dying website by Dr David Nicholl states: "I think it is wrong for the medical profession to place itself in direct conflict with the wishes of the people we care for."

The doctors who are against changing the default position continued: "This consultation therefore appears to be a tactical move to give a powerful boost to the Parliamentary campaign to change the law on assisted suicide. If the College adopts a position of neutrality, a key voice representing doctors' legitimate opposition to assisted suicide will have been silenced.

"We have been advised that there are good legal grounds on which to challenge the College's handling of the poll, including a breach of legitimate expectation, unfairness and irrationality."

 Currently, the Suicide Act 1961 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 make it an offence to encourage or assist the suicide of another person. There is no specific prohibition of assisting a suicide in Scottish law, but anyone doing so could be charged with murder or culpable homicide.

The RCP, which represents 35,000 doctors last voted on this issue in 2014 where 57.5% voted against assisted suicide legislation.

The results of the poll are due to be released later this month.

More than 1,500 doctors have signed an open letter to Professor Andrew Goddard, the President of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and 10,820 non-doctors have signed a petition against the way the RCP enacted the poll. 

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