Posted on 12 February 2010.
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 â€œimprove 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 offlineâ€. In line with the Law Commissionâ€™s recommendation, s.59 also replaces the â€œold-fashioned languageâ€ with what the Ministry of Justice considers â€œthe 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 prohibitsâ€. 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 Inglisâ€™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 Gilderdaleâ€™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 â€œsome kind of strictly non-Âaggressive 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 â€“ horrible word â€“ 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 Âinfluence of a third partyâ€. Death, as a character, Âappeared in the first of his splendid Discworld novels, and he said that â€œhe 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 starsâ€. But death always has the last word.
The full text ofÂ 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