Categorized | Civil Liberties, Law Updates

Encouraging or Assisting Suicide

Encouraging or Assisting Suicide

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 has cropped up in these blogs several times before. This grab-bag of an Act covers a wide range of subjects. Apart from coroners and inquests, it deals with murder, indecent photographs, anonymity of witnesses, live links to court, confiscation orders, legal aid, criminal memoirs, and many other matters.

The latest section to be implemented is s.59, which deals with encouraging or assisting suicide. Previously, s.2 of the Suicide Act 1961 comprised two offences. This amendment replaces the substantive offence of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring suicide, and the separate offence of attempting to commit the section 2 offence, with a single offence. The purpose of these changes is to “improve public understanding of the law in this area; and make clear that the law applies to online actions in exactly the same way as it does offline”. In line with the Law Commission’s recommendation, s.59 also replaces the “old-fashioned language” with what the Ministry of Justice considers “the more modern – and equivalent – terms of encouraging or assisting which should make it easier for people to understand the sort of behaviour that the law prohibits”. The scope of the law remains the same, so these changes, which came into effect on 1 February, do not make liable to prosecution anyone who was not liable before.

The subject of assisted suicide is rarely out of the headlines. In recent weeks one devoted mother who helped her sick daughter to end her life with tablets and morphine walked free from court with a suspended sentence. Another was jailed for murder, to serve a minimum of nine years, after injecting her brain-damaged son with a lethal dose of heroin. Both involved a loving parent who could not bear to see a child suffer. But there were key differences. Frances Inglis’s son had never indicated an intention to die. His mother believed him to be in pain and could not accept an encouraging medical prognosis. Kay Gilderdale’s daughter had contemplated going to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. When a first attempt at suicide failed, her mother helped her to end her life. These cases highlight the acute difficulties for prosecutors, judges and juries alike, and add to the pressure for greater clarity in the law.

In his moving and funny Richard Dimbleby lecture the other week, author Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, made a plea for a common-sense solution. He proposed “some kind of strictly non-­aggressive tribunal that would establish the facts of the case well before the assisted death takes place. The members of the tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant – horrible word – to ensure they are of sound and informed mind, firm in their purpose, suffering from a life-threatening and incurable disease and not under the ­influence of a third party”. Death, as a character, ­appeared in the first of his splendid Discworld novels, and he said that “he has evolved in the series to be one of its most popular characters; implacable, because that is his job, he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars”. But death always has the last word.

The full text of  MoJ Circular 2010/03, implementing s.59, can be found at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/circular-03-2010-assisting-encouraging-suicide.pdf

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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