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France: Grand Chamber hearing for ‘end of life’ human rights battle

Later this week, judges will hear legal arguments in a human rights complaint which pits a family against French medical experts over the ‘end of life’ treatment of a tetraplegic patient.

The Grand Chamber hearing in the case Lambert and Others v. France (application no. 46043/14) is scheduled to start on Wednesday 7 January.

The applicants, who are all French nationals, are Pierre Lambert and his wife Viviane Lambert, who were born in 1929 and 1945 respectively and live in Reims, David Philippon, who was born in 1971 and lives in Mourmelon, and Anne Tuarze, who was born in 1978 and lives in Milizac.

They are the parents, a half-brother and a sister respectively of Vincent Lambert, who was born in 1976. Vincent Lambert sustained a head injury in a road-traffic accident in September 2008, as a result of which he is tetraplegic and in a state of total dependence.

He is hospitalised in Reims University Hospital, where he receives hydration and nutrition which is administered enterally via a gastric tube. His state is characterised as vegetative by the most recent medical expert report.

Following the consultation procedure provided for by the “Leonetti” Act of 22 April 2005 on the rights of patients and the end of life, the doctor treating Vincent Lambert decided, on 11 January 2014, to withdraw the patient’s nutrition and hydration from 13 January.

On that date the applicants filed an urgent application with the Châlons-en-Champagne Administrative Court, seeking an injunction to prevent the hospital and the doctor concerned from discontinuing Vincent Lambert’s nutrition and hydration and an order that he be immediately transferred to a specialist life-support unit in Oberhausbergen (in the Bas-Rhin département).

In a judgment of 16 January 2014, the administrative court suspended the implementation of the doctor’s decision and rejected the request for transfer.

On 31 January 2014 the University Hospital, Vincent Lambert’s wife and one of his nephews appealed against that judgment to the Conseil d’État (the French Supreme Administrative Court).

On 14 February 2014 the Conseil d’État delivered an interlocutory judgment and requested, among other things, that a medical report be drawn up by a panel of three doctors specialising in neuroscience.

On 24 June 2014, relying, in particular, on the medical report, the Conseil d’État held that the decision to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration, taken on 11 January 2014 by the doctor treating Vincent Lambert, had been lawful.

Relying on Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, the applicants submit that withdrawing Vincent Lambert’s artificial hydration and nutrition would be contrary to the State’s obligations under this provision. Having regard to the procedural limb of this Article, they allege a lack of clarity and precision in the law and challenge the process which resulted in the decision of 11 January 2014.

Relying on Article 3 (prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention, they consider that depriving him of feeding and hydration would be ill-treatment amounting to torture.

They also argue that the fact of discontinuing physiotherapy and rehabilitation since October 2012 amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Relying on Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), they allege that the spoken remarks attributed to Vincent Lambert concerning the possible conditions for ending his life could not be taken into account, as they were too general. They consider that withdrawing his nutrition would also amount to interference with his physical integrity, for the purposes of that Article, and with their right to respect for their family life with their son and brother.

Relying on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing), they complain that the doctor who took the decision of 11 January 2014 was not impartial and that the report requested by the Conseil d’État was not adversarial.

The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 23 June 2014 when the applicants filed a request with the Court under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. By their request they were seeking, first, a stay of execution of the Conseil d’État’s decision due on the following day, in the event that it authorised withdrawal of Vincent Lambert’s nutrition and hydration, and second, his transfer to a medical unit in Oberhausbergen or, at least, an indication that he should not be
taken out of France.

On 24 June 2014, having taken note of the judgment delivered by the Conseil d’État, the Chamber to which the case had been assigned decided to indicate to the French Government that, pursuant to Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, in the interests of the parties and the proper conduct of the proceedings before it, they should stay the execution of the Conseil d’État’s decision for the duration of the proceedings before the Court. The Chamber stipulated that as a result of this interim measure Vincent Lambert should not be moved for the purpose of discontinuing his nutrition and hydration.

In addition, the Chamber also decided that the application would be given priority treatment, according to the fastest procedure available.

The case was communicated to the French Government on 24 June 2014. On 4 November 2014 the Chamber to which the case had been allocated relinquished jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber.

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