Categorized | Case Law

Assisted Suicide

Assisted Suicide

Suicide is no longer a criminal offence in Britain, but assisting in someone else’s suicide most certainly is, with the possibility of a draconian sentence.

Complicity in suicide.
(1) A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be [guilty of an offence] …

Enabling Provision: s.2 Suicide Act 1961.
Triable Status: Indictable only.
Max. Sentence on Indictment: 14 years.

(See Criminal Offences Handbook (Anya Publishing) p.229)

All court cases concerning this subject are highly emotive, and the latest is no exception. Debbie Purdy is suffering from multiple sclerosis and facing the dilemma of when to take steps to kill herself or whether to wait until she needs help from her husband and risk his prosecution. According to ‘The Times’ she is considering going to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, if her pain becomes unbearable, although “having to go to another country will be adding to my own grief and distress”. Her husband has said that he would assist her “and if necessary face a prison sentence, but I am not prepared to put him in this position.”

The DPP is making decisions to prosecute anyone who assists with a UK suicide, although no relative of the 100 UK citizens who have gone abroad to Dignitas clinics to die has been prosecuted. There is no written public guidance informing these decisions. Ms Purdy wants UK law clarified, and successfully appealed in June for a judicial review in the High Court on the grounds that the DPP had acted illegally by not providing such guidance. That appeal is now in progress. Her QC, David Pannick, accused the DPP of breaching Ms Purdy’s right to respect for her personal and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to publish a policy making clear the circumstances in which he would, or would not, allow a prosecution to proceed. Lawyers for the DPP said that the clear legal provisions of the Suicide Act 1961 provide sufficient information when coupled with the guidance contained in the Code for Crown Prosecutors. The case continues.

Last month, Justice Minister Maria Eagle made a statement on clarifying the law on assisting suicide to deal with the misuse of the internet, in particular about suicide websites and the influence they may have over vulnerable people, especially young people. The Minister accepted that “the complexity of the law in this area stems from the unusual nature of the offence in section 2 of the Suicide Act which provides accessory liability in respect of something which is not of itself criminal.” She went on to say “we have concluded that the scope of the current law should not be extended but that the existing statutory language of section 2 of the Suicide Act should be simplified and modernised in a way which will make it clearer for everyone to understand.” Legislation to update the Suicide Act in this respect was promised “as soon as Parliamentary time allows.”
So no change in the law, just making it all clearer.

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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