Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 18:20 UK

Q&A: Assisted suicide ruling

Some campaigners want the law on assisted suicide changed

A woman suffering from multiple sclerosis has won her legal battle at the House of Lords to clarify the law on assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy, aged 46 from Bradford, wants a guarantee her husband will not face prosecution if he helps her go to the Swiss centre Dignitas.

What was the court case about?

Ms Purdy, who was diagnosed with MS in 1995, has suggested that in the future she may want to travel abroad to the Swiss Dignitas centre to die.

She wants her husband by her side but wanted clarification on whether he will be prosecuted on his return home.

In 2008, the High Court ruled that the current guidelines were adequate and did not require clarification, prompting Ms Purdy to take her case to the House of Lords.

Her legal team argued that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had acted illegally by not providing guidance on how decisions over prosecutions are made.

And that her right to respect for her private and personal life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was being breached because of lack of clarity in the law.

What did the House of Lords decide?

The Law Lords agreed the law was not as clear and precise as it should be.

They said the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) must prepare an "offence-specific policy" identifying facts and circumstances which he would take into account when deciding whether or not to prosecute in cases like Debbie Purdy's.

The court also ruled she did have the right to choose how she died, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What does the current law say?

The 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales.

Anyone doing so could potentially face 14 years in prison

The law is almost identical in Northern Ireland.

Suicide is not illegal in Scotland but the law on assisted suicide is not clear and there is continuing uncertainty.

To date more than 100 UK citizens have travelled to the Swiss Dignitas centre to end their life.

Although cases have been investigated by the DPP, no relative has been prosecuted.

So what happens now?

The DPP, Keir Starmer, has said he would issue an interim policy by the end of September before putting the issue out to public consultation.

Permanent policy will then be published next spring.

Ms Purdy said she would like the policy to distinguish between "what is acceptable and what isn't" so that people in situations like hers could make decisions about what to do.

Has anyone else tried to challenge the law?

In 2001, Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease, failed in her bid to get immunity from prosecution for her husband if he helped her to die in the UK.

There have also been several attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain but these have been rejected.

The most recent, in 2006, was defeated in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100.

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