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Ex top family judge condemns proposals to allow assisted suicide six months before death as “unrealistic” and “unkind”

  • Baroness Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division and a cross-bench peer, says she will oppose proposals when they come before parliament.

  • She also recalls: * “Fathers 4 Justice were a nightmare. They locked me in our house in Devon.” Q: “Did you have any sympathy for their cause?”  A: “Not much.

  • And on being appointed to the Court of Appeal: “I said rather diffidently: are you expecting me to be called Lord Justice? And he looked at me very coldly and said: ‘my wife is the Lord Mayor of London’.”

  • On current politics: “The way in which Theresa May was treated in Parliament, the way that Boris Johnson ran the country, the way that Liz Truss nearly brought us to the brink - if I was a young person just able to vote, I think I’d hesitate to do it.”

A leading former judge has condemned current proposals to allow assisted suicide when people are certified as within six months of death as “unkind” and unworkable. 

Baroness Butler-Sloss, former president of the High Court family division, says: ‘The current proposals are absolutely unrealistic. How can you say six months?”

“If you get motor neurone disease or one of the other locked-in diseases, if we can have [assisted suicide], they should be allowed it much earlier.”

A six-month criterion of time left to live was unworkable. “How can you tell, apart from anything else? Also, that is really unkind…you’re going to have possibly a year or two years to suffer because you get to the point when you can ask for it.”

But Lady Butler-Sloss, a prominent cross-bencher in the House of Lords, made clear she opposes any moves to allow assisted suicide at all because it would put pressure on elderly people to take that route if they felt they were “a burden”.  

She says she would be speaking against proposals for allowing assisted suicide when they come before the House of Lords but predicts the change likely to go through Parliament in the next five years. 

Lady Butler-Sloss makes her comments in an interview with the journalist Frances Gibb in the latest episode of the ground-breaking podcast series, The Judges: Power, Politics and the People, hosted by 69ý. The episode is launched Thursday February 8th.

The criticisms of the former leading family judge come as the Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer has said there are "grounds for changing the law" on assisted suicide.

He recently said that MPs should be given a chance to vote with their conscience on the issue. A bill to legalise assisted suicide in the UK was defeated in 2015 but backed by Sir Keir and several Conservative Cabinet ministers. 

The issue has come back on the agenda after Esther Rantzen, 83, the broadcaster, announced she had joined Dignitas, the Zurich-based clinic where people are helped to end their lives. She is undergoing treatment for stage four lung cancer. Proposals are expected to come before Parliament in a private members’ bill within coming months. 

Lady Justice Butler-Sloss was appointed President of the Family Division in 1999, the first woman to reach that level of the judiciary. 

Also in the interview she recalls her dealings with the campaigning group, Father 4 Justice, when she was padlocked into her home in Devon.

“They were a nightmare.”

She recounts the difficulties of being a trail-blazing woman judge, including being called “Lord Chief Justice” when she entered the Court of Appeal in 1988. 

When she questioned this, the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson, “looked at me very coldly and said: My wife is the Lord Mayor of London.”

She came into the public eye when, as a High Court judge, she was chosen to chair the Cleveland Child Abuse Inquiry.  Her focus on the voice of child led to the central principle of the Children Act in 1989. 

Among her key family rulings were that gay couples could adopt children. 

She also speaks candidly about mistakes, including a case where she ruled that a child should go back to live with her mother but was then badly treated and victimised. Butler-Sloss rescinded the decision. “I said: I have to apologise to you. I shouldn’t never have sent you back to mum.”

Butler-Sloss also says that the public had “very good reason to be very disenchanted” with politics after the last five years, which had been “very depressing.”

“The whole consequences of Brexit, the way in which Theresa May was treated in Parliament, the way that Boris Johnson ran the country, the way that Liz Truss nearly brought us to the brink.

“If I was a young person just able to vote, I think I’d hesitate to do it.”

But she urges young people to exercise their right to vote. “I do think they need to look at the fact that they are the future.” If they do not vote and take an interest, they will “have a much worse future than if they actually try to do something about it.”

You can watch the full episode  or you can listen to the podcast on 69ý channel which is being streamed on all major services including Spotify and Apple.