Assisted suicide - the law has not changed

Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions has now published his interim policy on assisted suicide.

This interim policy comes after the Law Lords backed multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy's call for a policy statement on whether people who help someone commit suicide should be prosecuted.

Relatives of people who kill themselves will not face prosecution as long as they do not maliciously encourage them and assist only a "clear settled and informed wish" to commit suicide, the Director of Public Prosecutions said today.

Keir Starmer QC outlined guidance to make it easier for those helping someone commit assisted suicide to know if they will face prosecution.

Today's statement comes after multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy's battle in the courts calling for a policy statement on whether people who help someone commit suicide should be prosecuted.

Mr Starmer has been reported as saying : "There are no guarantees against prosecution and it is my job to ensure that the most vulnerable people are protected while at the same time giving enough information to those people like Mrs Purdy who want to be able to make informed decisions about what actions they may choose to take."

Adding: "Assisting suicide has been a criminal offence for nearly 50 years and my interim policy does nothing to change that."

Will this interim policy help?  One of its purposes is to make it much easier for people to know if they will be prosecuted or not.

The guidelines are divided into factors,  those weighing in favour of prosecution and those against, as well as factors that are normally considered when deciding whether to prosecute under the general Code for Prosecutors.

There are 16 factors to be taken into account in favour of prosecution.  Of these eight will have particular weight, including the lack of a clear wish and of unequivocal indication on the victim’s part that they intended to commit suicide.

Factors against prosecution included that the victim had a "clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide" and that the victim "indicated unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide".

Factors in favour of prosecution included that the victim was under 18 and did not ask personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect.

Another factor in favour of prosecution was that a relative "persuaded, pressured or maliciously encouraged the victim to commit suicide".

There will no doubt be many who feel they have something to say on this point.  Some may argue that that this is a further step along a slippery path.  Others may be convinced that clinics will spread throughout this country.  But what is Debbie Purdy's reaction to the policy statement?

Debbie Purdy has been reported as saying "We believe that us dying is very much a last measure and it shouldn't be considered a casual choice and I think these guidelines put in place, they codify, that people should consider alternatives but that if those things are considered and somebody assists them, they won't necessarily be prosecuted and that they will know what they must have done, they will know what they should make sure of before they assist, and that will hopefully give people confidence not to make such a decision until the last possible minute," she said.

Ms Purdy has acknowledged that  the judiciary showed "courage" to look into the issues surrounding the law of assisted suicide, while politicians were "terrified of taking up the issue".

"The judiciary has had the courage to at least consider in the 21st century what are things that matter, and they are differentiating very clearly between malicious encouragement of people to end their lives and support for somebody who has made the considered and informed decision, which, maybe, can make them leave it longer to end their life."

Ms Purdy speaking about her situation and the effect on her Cuban husband added: "We want to live our lives, not plan my death, and we can't do that while there is a huge cloud hanging over us that if I don't make a decision while physically able to do it myself, he could face prosecution. Now the DPP has put in black and white and is opening up for discussion with the public under what conditions people should or shouldn't be prosecuted."

Ms Purdy has some concerns about the guidance but is on record as saying she  hopes that  these would be addressed during the consultation.

Finally, it is slightly chilling to read about 'friends and family' as being 'suspects'!  How will these carers and loved ones feel about the consultation document? They will be the ones that are left behind.

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