Assisted suicide: Social workers warned by DPP

Social care workers may run the risk of prosecution by discussing suicide with their clients under a new policy released today clarifying the definition of assisted suicide.

Explaining the guidance, director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer said social care workers should take legal advice before discussing suicide with clients to avoid breaking the law as he outlined the 16 public interest factors in favour of prosecution.

The policy widens the types of professionals barred from helping a person to die. These range from care workers to doctors and nurses and anyone in a position of authority who has the person in their care.

The guidance follows a consultation and the publication of initial guidelines for prosecutors launched last September.

Starmer was forced to draw up the guidelines after a ruling in the case of Debbie Purdy who has a degenerative condition and has fought since 2007 to be able to die without fear of her husband being prosecuted should he accompany her to an assisted suicide clinic.

Starmer said he had crafted his final policy to focus more on the suspect than the person with the condition, who is still required to have capacity to make the decision to die under the Mental Capacity Act.

As part of this policy, family members are no longer considered less likely to warrant prosecution and all reference to disabled people has been removed in an attempt to ensure they are not singled out as group.

Caring Not Killing, an organisation which campaigns against the legalisation of assisted suicide, welcomed the change. Chair Lord Carlile said: “Our main concern was that the interim guidelines singled out as a group those who were disabled or ill, affording them less protection than other people under the law. We are glad this has been removed.”

Key factors tending against prosecution remain that the suspect acted wholly from compassion for a person who has reached a clear and settled decision and that they did not stand to gain from their death.

Starmer instructed prosecutors to take a “common sense decision” on whether the assistee stood to gain because many were likely to be close family members or friends who would have financially gained from the person’s death.

The DPP received 4,710 responses to the consultation. Starmer described it as “the most extensive snapshot of public opinion on assisted suicide since the 1961 Suicide Act”.

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