In Koch v. Germany, the European Court of Human Rights again has ruled on an application regarding an alleged right to assisted suicide.
The Court elaborated on some procedural implications of article 8 in cases in which domestic courts are faced with requests to facilitate a suicide. It also stated, as it had already held in the cases Pretty v UK and Haas v Switzerland, that the right to private life under article 8 ECHR does not entail an obligation for states to assist citizens seeking to commit suicide.
The applicant was the widower of a woman who had been almost completely paralysed and in need of constant care since 2002. Since she wished to put an end to her life, which she perceived as undignified and requested from the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices to be provided with a lethal dosis of a certain substance. The Institute turned this request down, arguing inter alia that article 8 ECHR, on which the wife of the applicant had relied, did not encompass a right to assisted suicide.
The wife of the applicant lodge an appeal against this decision. Before this appeal was decided upon, she had herself transported more than 700 km to Switzerland, where she committed suicide with the help of the Swiss organization ‘Dignitas’ (an organization advocating for a self-determined and dignified death).
After her death, the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices rejected her appeal. The applicant as her widower filed an action with the Cologne Administrative Court. He asked the court to rule that the refusal to procure the requested substance to his late wife had been unlawful.
The Administrative Court ruled that the action was inadmissible, because the applicant could not claim that his own rights had been violated and therefore had no standing. It did not deal with the merits, but briefly mentioned in a so called ‘obiter dictum’, that means in a remark that does not form part of the ruling by the Court that the right to private life and family life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights did not encompass a right to an assisted suicide.
The applicant appealed against the judgment without success and submitted an application to the Constitutional Court. In both cases, the Courts found the action inadmissible and did not enter into an examination of the merits of the case.
The applicant claimed that his rights to private life and family life had been infringed in two ways: First by the refusal of the German Courts to examine the merits of the action he had submitted, second by the failure to provide his wife with the requested substance to commit suicide.
At the outset, the European Court of Human Rights scrutinized whether the applicant’s rights had been interfered with. Pursuant to article 34 of the Convention, only individuals who are personally affected may submit an application to the Court. Since the applicant’s wife had been the one seeking to put an end to her life, the question arose whether the applicant had been affected in his own rights.
In its jurisdiction, the Court has developed criteria to determine whether close relatives may proceed with a procedure pending before the Court in cases in which the actual victim dies during the procedure. The Court stated that these criteria also were relevant to the question whether rights of the applicant had been interfered with. These criteria are
- the existence of close family ties
- the existence of a personal or legal interest
- whether the applicant previously expressed interest in the procedure
Since the applicant and his wife had been married for a long time, had had a very close personal relationship with her and had accompanied her over the entire period of her suffering, the Court found that the applicant had been affected personally by the refusal of the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices to provide the requested substance.
The Court also stated that the refusal of the German courts to examine the merits of the case had interfered with the applicant’s right to private life under article 8. Even though the European Court of Human Rights had never held that article 8 ECHR encompassed a right to assisted suicide, there was still a right to a judicial review of the legal question.
Having established that there was an interference, the Court turned to the question whether this interference had been justified. It found that this refusal had served no legitimate aim as required by article 8 paragraph 2 ECHR. Therefore, held Germany in violation of article 8 ECHR.
The European Court then briefly dealt with the question whether article 8 ECHR granted a right to receive assistance for a suicide in certain cases. As in prior decision, it pointed out that contracting states of the European Convention on Human Rights enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in this area. The decision whether to grant a right to an assisted suicide is largely up to the member states. Therefore, refusing to grant it does not amount to an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights.