Pressure Groups and the Courts

The issue of a ‘right to die’ once again returned to UK courts this week, and once again was knocked back by judges. In this case it was at the High Court, with a terminally ill man with motor neurone disease campaigning for his ‘right to die’. This is a useful examples when studying Democracy (1.1) and looking at access points and the role/power of pressure groups.

Firstly, it is useful to show the limited success that pressure groups can have (which is quite common!). This is an issue that has been rumbling for decades – students could look at examples such as Diane Pretty and Tony Nicklinson for much the same story. Pressure group success can therefore be limited due to their ideology – in this case, the moral dilemma over the ‘right to die’ continues to limit the success of campaigners. This could be considered to be an ‘outsider by ideology’ under the (old!) insider/outsider classification.

It is also useful to show the difficulty of achieving success when opposing groups exist. Pressure groups try to create ‘pressure’ on the government or other access points. In the case of government, the ‘pressure’ is a wealth of public support. With sufficient public support, a government is more likely to listen as this represents a vast swathe of votes which they stand to gain (or lose). In this case however, on the one side was Noel Conway and Humanists UK (Dignity in Dying also support this ‘right’) and on the other is Care not Killing and Not Dead Yet UK. With divisions so evident in the public opinion, there is little for a government to gain by taking a stand as they are likely to alienate at least some voters. Therefore where similarly successful opposing groups exist, pressure group success is less likely.

This also shows the increasing use of the ‘courts’ as an access point. Certainly in cases like this, it can be useful to have a pressure group on your side who can help pay for the extensive costs of court battles. It is important to remember however that Parliament remains sovereign. So even if a court ruled that such a ‘right’ was allowed, they have moral authority over Parliament rather than any sort of actual power.  This would be a really useful argument when discussing not just pressure groups, but the extent of democracy in the UK. If pressure groups need money to be successful, that could be said to be elitest. If the courts have no power over Parliament, that could arguably allow for an ‘elective dictatorship’. Either way, the role of pressure groups is up for some serious scrutiny by Politics students!

Finally, this is also useful when studying ‘rights’. Noel Conway argued that the 1961 Suicide Act contravened a right to family and private life as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights. This is useful when considering UK democracy, as it could be argued that the ECHR represents a loss of parliamentary sovereignty (but it is important to remember this is a ‘de facto’ argument, not ‘de jure’!) and Noel Conway’s lawyers could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights – *warning* remember that this has nothing to do with the EU!!! The argument over a ‘rights’ culture and the defence of individual rights is evident in this case and would make an excellent example for the debate over rights in the UK.

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