Director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer has defended his interim policy on prosecutions for assisted suicide against charges it would put vulnerable people, including the disabled, at risk.
Speaking to Community Care, Starmer said the policy, which set out a series of factors that would make a prosecution more or less likely, needed to be read as a whole, rather than by isolating particular factors for criticism.
Anti-assisted suicide coalition the Care Not Killing Alliance said a number of factors against prosecution would leave vulnerable people at particular risk.
It cited the inclusion of cases where the suspect was a close family member or friend of the victim in the context of a supportive relationship, which the alliance warned would leave people at risk from abusive relatives.
However, Starmer pointed to one of the factors favouring prosecution – that the suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion – saying any malicious motive would weigh heavily against a family connection providing protection against prosecution.
The interim policy came into force in September, but the DPP also launched a consultation on whether it should be enforced permanently.
In its response, Care Not Killing also criticised the decision to make prosecutions less likely where victims had a severe and incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition, as well as those where terminal illness was involved.
It warned the policy could be applied to “a substantial proportion of people who are disabled”, with years of life in front of them.
Starmer denied that the policy would devalue the rights of disabled people. He said disability was “a factor to be taken into account” and needed to be considered alongside the issue of whether the victim had a “clear and settled intention to commit suicide” – another factor against prosecution.
He cited the case of Daniel James, a man paralysed following a rugby accident whose parents were not prosecuted for taking him last year to Switzerland to die by assisted suicide.
“I don’t think anyone will argue that the only way you respected disabled people’s rights in the Daniel James case was to prosecute Daniel James’ mother,” said Starmer.
He said the interim policy had generated a lot of response and a final document would be published in spring 2010.
The consultation closes on 16 December.