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West Bromwich man leads assisted dying campaign debate

By Dayna Farrington | West Bromwich | Health | Published: | Last Updated:

A West Bromwich man who was investigated by police for six months for accompanying his partner to Dignitas has backed a new national campaign calling for an urgent review into the country's assisted dying laws.

Helen Johnson and James Howley in Switzerland before her death

James Howley has echoed calls for a review of the existing legislation after his partner Helen, chose to have an assisted death – to avoid a painful death from a terminal lung condition.

The national campaign by Dignity in Dying, Compassion is Not a Crime, calls on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to launch an inquiry into functioning and the impact of the current legislation.

Assisted dying is currently banned under Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, which states that a person found guilty of "assisting a suicide" can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

James Howley from West Bromwich pictured with partner Helen Johnson who chose to have an assisted death

MPs are set to debate the topic of assisted dying in Westminster today.

In 2016, 59-year-old James Howley travelled to Dignitas with his partner of 33 years Helen Johnson, so she could end her life to avoid a traumatic death from a terminal lung disease. The couple made the journey to Switzerland after Helen realised she would not be able to have the peaceful, dignified death she wanted in the UK.

But rather than being allowed to grieve for his partner, on his return to England, James was investigated by police for the crime of assisting suicide.

While in Switzerland, their family home was burgled and a neighbour inadvertently informed West Midlands Police where the couple had hone and why. James was questioned under caution by detectives and had to endure a six-month wait for a Crown Prosecution Service decision on whether to charge him, before the case was finally dropped.

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James Howley is campaigning for a review into assisted dying laws

James said: "The stress and worry of being investigated by police – that I might end up in jail for doing right by the person I loved most in the world – was unbearable.

"I was at rock bottom and there were times when I thought I wouldn’t get through it. All Helen wanted was to avoid the agonising and undignified death that awaited her, and as her loving partner I was determined to support her decision.

"I knew that there may be a legal issue with my going with her, but it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t spend Helen’s last hours by her side.

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“For six months, whilst grieving for Helen, I was treated like a potential criminal for showing compassion for my beloved partner.

“After meeting me, my former MP Tom Watson admitted he had changed his mind on this issue and he committed to supporting a change in the law.

"I hope my new MP, Nicola Richards, will listen to those of us who have suffered under our cruel laws and have a similarly open mind. It’s time for the Government to launch an urgent review into our outdated assisted dying laws.”

Mavis Eccleston leaving Stafford Crown Court where she was on trial accused of murdering her husband Dennis in a "mercy killing"

The national campaign has also been backed by Mavis Eccleston, from Staffordshire, and her family.

Mavis was charged with the murder and manslaughter of her husband Dennis, 81, after he ended his own life at home in February 2018 while dying of bowel cancer.

Mavis, who had attempted to overdose at the same time, was resuscitated and later charged in connection with her husband's death.

Devoted couple Mavis and Dennis Eccleston lived together in Huntington, near Cannock

A jury at Stafford Crown Court unanimously found her not guilty on both counts, following a trial in September 2019.

Mavis' daughter, Joy Munns said: "My mom would have done anything for her husband, but she had no idea that her actions, motivated purely by love, would land her in the dock.

"On top of losing dad, we were terrified we would lose mom to life in prison. Under an assisted dying law, this would never have happened.

Dennis and Mavis, centre, with son Kevin and daughters Joy and Lynne on their 50th wedding anniversary

"Politicians have to face facts – a law is clearly not working if it makes criminals of innocent great-grandmothers.”

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, added: "An inquiry would enable the views of those most affected to be heard - terminally ill people, their loved ones, the police and other public services.

"We call on the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, to launch a call for evidence as a matter of urgency. Our outdated assisted dying laws deserve to be scrutinised, not dying people or their loving families."

Dayna Farrington

By Dayna Farrington
Senior reporter based at Wolverhampton

Reporter for the Express & Star based at Wolverhampton.

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