Director of public prosecutions reveals assisted suicide policy

The director of public prosecutions (DPP) has revealed his interim policy on the prosecution of people for assisting suicide in an attempt to clarify a long-standing legal grey area.

The policy, which comes into effect today, provides some guidance for those contemplating suicide as to whether relatives or friends who help them to die will be prosecuted.

Factors that may discourage prosecutions

In the document the DPP, Keir Starmer, emphasises that he cannot provide immunity from prosecution but does identify several key factors which would encourage prosecutors to refrain from taking action against someone suspected of assisting suicide, including:

• The victim’s wish to commit suicide was settled and unlikely to change.
• The victim had a terminal illness, severe disability or degenerative condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.
• The victim had expressed unequivocally to the suspect that they wished to commit suicide.
• The victim asked for assistance on their own initiative.
• The suspect had no motive other than compassion, and did not stand to gain from the victims death.
• The suspect did not pressure the victim into committing suicide.

Greater risk of prosecution

People who assist the suicide of those under 18 or those who lacked the capacity to make an informed decision about their suicide still run the risk of prosecution.

The policy also identifies a number of other factors that will be taken into account by prosecutors deciding what action to take but which will not carry the same weight as the key factors outlined above.

These included whether the suspect had actively discouraged the victim from committing suicide, whether the victim was unable to carry out the tasks the suspect did and the closeness of the relationship between the suspect and the victim.

Door left open

It also leaves the door open for the prosecution of those not directly involved in the suicide itself but who have provided specific information on assisting suicide through websites or other publications.

The interim policy will remain in effect until a final policy is published in spring 2010 following consultation, which is due to close on 16 December.

The DPP is unable to guarantee immunity from prosecution as long as Section 2 (1) of the Suicide Act 1961 is unchanged but following a High Court ruling in July this year the DPP was ordered to make public the criteria for prosecution of assisted suicide suspects.

Policy cautiously welcomed by all sides

The policy was broadly welcomed by campaigners on both sides of the assisted suicide debate. Chief executive of Dignity in Dying Sarah Wootton said: “This policy courageously seeks to allay fears of creating a duty to die whilst not imposing a duty to suffer.”

Care Not Killing, which has campaigned against the loosening of assisted suicide law, also welcomed the move but expressed concern over wording which stated terminal illness or severe disability would be mitigating factors on a decision to prosecute.

It said: “Not only does this classification cover a very wide swathe of medical conditions, including such illnesses as chronic heart disease and most kinds of physical disability, but it also implies that the lives of a whole group of people – those who are seriously ill or disabled – are less deserving of the law’s protection than are others.”

Law is rarely enforced

The debate on assisted suicide has been raging because the law outlawing assisting someone to commit suicide has not yet resulted in prosecutions for the relatives of over 100 Britons who have chosen to die at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

The case of Debbie Purdy, who has primary progressive multiple sclerosis, and has fought since 2007 to be able to die without fear of her husband being prosecuted, resulted in the High Court ordering the DPP to produce today’s policy.

• Read Outside Left on how the Swiss may thwart Debbie Purdy’s victory.

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