Categorized | Case Law

Assisted suicide, part 2

Assisted suicide, part 2

Debbie Purdy did not ask the law lords for the right to die. She did not ask that her husband be allowed to help her die. But she did ask for clarity over whether her husband would face prosecution should he help her to take her life in Switzerland. While not able to give her that clarity, the law lords ruled last week that she was entitled to it. That is a significant move forward from the situation as reported in last October’s blog ‘Assisted suicide’.

In giving their unanimous decision the law lords emphasised that it was no part of their function to change the law in order to decriminalise assisted suicide. That was a matter for parliament. Indeed Lord Hope said that “the law, as it stands, could not be clearer. It is an offence to assist someone to travel to Switzerland or anywhere else where assisted suicide is lawful. Anyone who does that is liable to be prosecuted”. But Article 8 of the European Convention provides that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, with no interference by a public authority except in accordance with the law. Ms Purdy did not ask that her husband be given a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. What she sought was information so that she can take a decision that affects her private life. There have, to date, been 115 cases of people who have made the journey to countries where assisted suicide is lawful, and those who have assisted them have not been prosecuted. Of those cases only eight have been referred to the Director for a decision as to whether or not the assistants should be prosecuted. None have been prosecuted, either because there was insufficient evidence or on public interest grounds.

Lord Hope acknowledged that decisions in this area of the law are highly sensitive to the facts of each case and are also likely to be controversial. But, he said, “I would not regard these as reasons for excusing the Director from the obligation to clarify what his position is as to the factors that he regards as relevant for and against prosecution in this very special and carefully defined class of case. How he goes about this task must be a matter for him, as also must be the ultimate decision as to whether or not to prosecute”. In an immediate response, Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said “the CPS has great sympathy for the personal circumstances of Ms Purdy and her family. We will endeavour to produce an interim policy as quickly as possible which outlines the principal factors for and against prosecution. To that end, I have already set up a team to work through the summer with a view to producing an interim policy for prosecutors by the end of September”. He added that once the interim policy is published, he will undertake a public consultation exercise in order to take account of the full range of views on the subject. In the “continuing absence of any legislative framework by then” he will publish his finalised policy in the Spring of 2010.

Then it will be for politicians to decide whether this as an ethical issue that can not be left to the CPS alone and revisit the 1961 Suicide Act.
The full text of the law lords’ judgement can be found at:-

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2009/45.html

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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