'Ecstatic' Debbie Purdy wins House of Lords assisted suicide appeal

Multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy has won a landmark court battle. Are campaigners fears that this ruling could lead to more people ending their lives in foreign "suicide clinics" justified? What will be the implications closer to home?

Terminally ill Miss Purdy fought to find out whether her husband, Omar Puente, would be prosecuted if he helped her die at an organisation such as Dignitas in Switzerland.

She has demanded that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, should state when he would bring cases for assisting suicide abroad. Currently this is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.  No one has been convicted of the crime even though an estimated 115 Britons have committed suicide at Dignitas.  The concern is that those people who assist persons travelling abroad to die, or help them in assisted deaths in this country, could be prosecuted, but the circumstances and the law is too uncertain.  The principle of a review of the law and a clarification of the position appears to be an attractive one.  However, Keir Harmer QC has already said enough to signal that any clarification statement may well be wider than the Dignitas scenario.

In a statement on Debbie Purdy, issued on the 30 July 2009, Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has said:

"This is a difficult and sensitive subject and a complex area of the law. However, I fully accept the judgement of the House of Lords. 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.  In the absence of a legislative framework, cases of this sensitive nature present a significant challenge for prosecutors. I have therefore decided that once our interim policy is published, we will undertake a public consultation exercise in order to take account of the full range of views on this subject. In the continuing absence of any legislative framework by then, I will publish my finalised policy in the Spring of 2010."

Debbie Purdy's case was rejected in the High Court, as was an appeal to the Court of Appeal.

But Ms Purdy took the case to the highest court in the land, and on Thursday afternoon on the 30th July 2009, five Law Lords ruled that the DPP must set out the circumstances in which it would prosecute.

Ms Purdy, 46, said: "I'm ecstatic – I feel like I've been given a reprieve. I want to live my life to the full, but I don't want to suffer unnecessarily at the end of my life.  This decision means that I can make an informed choice, with Omar, about whether he travels abroad with me to end my life because we will know exactly where we stand.  I am grateful to the Law Lords for listening and rising to the challenge that this case presented. I also want to thank other campaigners like Diane Pretty, who is no longer with us, and all those whose efforts created this huge step towards a more compassionate law." 

Speaking outside court she said: "It feels like everything else doesn't matter and now I can just be a normal person. It's terrific.  It gives me my life back.  We can live our lives. We don't have to plan my death."

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