Assisted Suicide Policy

Assisted Suicide Policy

Debbie Purdey was told by the law lords that she was entitled to clarity over whether her husband would face prosecution should he help her to take her life in Switzerland. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, quickly produced an interim policy. Yesterday he unveiled his definitive policy guidelines.

This followed a consultation exercise which produced an unprecedented 4800 responses, including 4000 from individuals. The Summary of Responses has led to a significant change of emphasis from the interim policy. Introducing the new policy, the DPP said that “there was a strong view that the factors against prosecution should not focus on the behaviour and characteristics of the victim, but should more properly be centred on the actions and role of the suspect. I agree with that approach and the Policy has been refocused. As a result of this change, factors relating to the health and disability of the victim have been removed from the Policy. In addition, the factors relating to the relationship of the suspect to the victim – namely that the suspect was the spouse, partner, relative or close personal friend of the victim – have also been removed…But that does not mean prosecutions are more or less likely. The policy has not been relaxed or tightened but there has been a change of focus.”

The new policy identifies sixteen public interest factors in favour of prosecution. These include: ‘victims’ under 18 years of age; or who did not have the capacity to reach an informed decision to commit suicide; had not reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide; and had not clearly and unequivocally communicated his or her decision to commit suicide to the ‘suspect’. Other factors include: the ‘suspect’ was not wholly motivated by compassion; or pressured the victim to commit suicide; did not take reasonable steps to ensure that any other person had not pressured the victim to commit suicide; or had a history of violence or abuse against the victim. The six public interest factors against prosecution include: the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide; the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion; and the actions of the suspect, although sufficient to come within the definition of the crime, were of only minor encouragement or assistance.

Keir Starmer stressed that the policy does not in any way decriminalise the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide, which remains a serious criminal offence under the Suicide Act 1961 (as amended by s.59 Coroners and Justice Act 2009) and is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. “Nothing in the Policy can be taken to amount to an assurance that a person will not be prosecuted if he or she does an act that encourages or assists the suicide or the attempted suicide of another person”. So the debate now lies with the criminal law itself. An end to the criminal prohibition on assisting suicide is what Debbie Purdy and others really want, just as suicide itself has ceased to be a criminal offence. Whether parliament, with deeply divided opinion among MPs and their constituents, will grasp that nettle is another matter.

For the full text of “Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide” go to: http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/prosecution/assisted_suicide_policy.html For the “Summary of Responses” go to: http://www.cps.gov.uk/consultations/as_responses.html

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 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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