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Paralysed Frenchman at centre of 11-year legal battle dies after life support withdrawn

Vincent Lambert, a severely brain-damaged French patient at the heart of a right-to-die case, died on Thursday morning more than a week after doctors took him off life support, his family told AFP.

Paralysed Frenchman at centre of 11-year legal battle dies after life support withdrawn
Vincent Lambert in hospital. Photo: AFP

“Vincent died at 8:24 this morning,” his nephew Francois Lambert told AFP. 

Lambert was involved in a near-fatal car crash in 2008 that left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage which doctors had long said was irreversible.   

Since then he has been the subject of a legal battle between his deeply-Catholic parents and two of his eight siblings – who fought to keep him alive – and his wife, his doctors, six other brothers and sisters and a nephew who argued that allowing him to die was the more humane option. 

READ ALSO: The story of Vincent lambert, the man at the centre of France's bitter right-to-die case

The legal battle raged for many years and involved the French court system, the European court and even the UN, but finally last week after all appeals were exhausted doctors at a hospital in the northern city of Reims took him off life support.

The case rekindled a charged debate over France's right-to-die laws, which allow so-called “passive” euthanasia for severely ill or injured patients who are being kept alive artificially with no chance of recovery. 

In May, even Pope Francis got involved, tweeting that it was necessary to “always safeguard life, God's gift, from its beginning until its natural end”.

Lambert's wife Rachel, who is his legal guardian under French law, had said her husband made clear even before his accident that he would not want to be kept alive artificially, though this was never put in writing.

Multiple medical assessments ordered by the courts over the years found that the former psychiatric nurse, who became a father shortly before his accident, had no chance of recovering.

But his parents, devout Catholics who between them have nine children, had over the years successfully challenged five different attempts by doctors to halt his life-support.

The last time they tried to do so was in May, but it was quickly overturned by a Paris appeals court.

That ruling was then taken to France's top appeals court, the Cour de Cassation, which on June 28 said doctors could legally end his life support in what was hailed as a definitive final judgement by lawyers for his wife. 

With their efforts spurned by the highest courts in France as well as by the European Court of Human Rights, Lambert's parents have threatened to file charges of “murder” when their son dies. 

On July 1, his mother Viviane turned to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in a last-ditch plea for help. 

“Without your intervention, my son, Vincent Lambert, will be euthanised because of his mental handicap,” she said. 

“He is in a state of minimal consciousness but he is not a vegetable.”

But by Monday, the couple had accepted that the death of their son was now “unavoidable”.

“We have nowhere else to turn and now it's too late. Vincent is dying,” they said in a statement through their lawyers sent to AFP, saying that his condition was now “medically irreversible”. 

In early May, the UN committee on disabled rights also asked France to keep Lambert alive while it conducted its own investigation into his fate, but the government said it was not legally bound to abide by its request. 

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MARRIAGE

The divorce law pitfalls in France that foreigners need to be aware of

France now has an out-of-court divorce option designed to make the process simpler and less expensive, but as Paris-based lawyer Caterina Guidiceandrea warns, it has some pitfalls for non-French people.

The divorce law pitfalls in France that foreigners need to be aware of
Happy ever after? Maybe not. Photo: AFP

In France it is now possible for couples to divorce without going through a long and sometimes expensive court process by signing a divorce agreement – but this may not be ideal for couples where one or both person is not French.

What is an out-of-court divorce and how does it work?

On January 1st 2017, the divorce par consentement mutuel (divorce by mutual consent) was created, allowing couples to acknowledge their consent to divorce in an extra-judicial contract without a court proceeding.

To divorce by mutual consent, it is essential that couples agree on all aspects of their divorce with the help of their respective lawyers. They especially need to settle the consequences of the divorce on their children (custody and residence), on their assets and all financial measures (alimony and compensatory allowance).

READ ALSO


The consent reached by the couple is then set out in a divorce agreement, prepared by the parties’ lawyers. Following a 15 day cooling-off period, the divorce agreement is signed by the spouses and countersigned by each lawyer.

Once signed, the agreement is submitted to a French notaire for registration. Registration is what makes the divorce agreement enforceable in France.

How long does it take to get a get an extra-judicial divorce?

Signing a divorce agreement is the quickest way to divorce in France.

Whilst the duration clearly depends on how the negotiations between the couple progress, it is technically possible to sign and register a divorce agreement in France within approximately one month.

Can I sign the divorce agreement remotely?

No, it is not possible to sign the divorce agreement remotely. Both spouses and their respective lawyers need to be physically present on the day of signing.

The French National Bar Association clearly indicated, on February 8th 2019, that “the divorce agreement by mutual consent without a judge must be signed in the physical presence and simultaneously by the parties and the attorneys mentioned in the agreement, without substitution or possible delegation”.

This requirement has not changed since Covid-19.


I am not French, can I sign a divorce agreement?

Yes, you can sign a divorce agreement even if you are not French. However you must have a sufficient connection to France, based on your habitual residence or on your spouse’s French nationality.

International couples should however be very careful when signing a divorce agreement as not all countries recognise this type of divorce.

As the divorce agreement is entered into out of court – except when a minor child requests to be heard in court – public authorities from certain countries do not recognise and enforce this type of divorce. This is for instance the case in certain States in the USA.

In practice, this means that, a couple having signed and registered a French divorce agreement, would be considered as divorced in France, however still be married in their home country/countries if local authorities refuse to register and enforce the contract.

Enforcing a divorce agreement outside of France could also be problematic for expats who move countries on a regular basis.

It is essential to assess the possibility of signing a divorce agreement with your lawyer to ensure that it is enforceable and will be registered outside of France.

Should the French out-of-court divorce not be recognised by the authorities in your country of origin or should it not be appropriate, it will be necessary to take the matter to court.

Caterina Giudiceandrea is a registered lawyer in Paris, France www.legal-gc.com
 

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