Page last updated at 20:01 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 21:01 UK

Suicide law to apply domestically

Debbie Purdy
Debbie Purdy is concerned her husband could be prosecuted

Guidelines on the issue of assisted suicide will apply domestically as well as overseas, the Director of Public Prosecutions has confirmed.

Keir Stamer QC spoke after a woman with multiple sclerosis won her battle to have the law clarified.

Debbie Purdy wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her end her life in Switzerland.

Commons leader Harriet Harman has said MPs could debate the subject when they return from their summer break.

It had been assumed that new guidance would affect only those who go abroad to die.

Court decision

More than 100 people from the UK have gone to the Swiss clinic Dignitas to die, but no-one has been prosecuted so far.

But under the 1961 Suicide Act covering England and Wales, those who aid, abet, counsel or procure someone else's suicide can be prosecuted and sentenced to serve up to 14 years in jail.

This policy is going to cover all assisted suicides
Keir Stamer
Director of Public Prosecutions

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.

Ms Purdy, from Undercliffe in Bradford, West Yorkshire, took her case to the highest court in the country after the High Court and Court of Appeal held that it was for Parliament, not the courts, to change the law.

'Broad principles'

Last week the Law Lords agreed that changes were a matter for Parliament, but upheld Ms Purdy's argument that the DPP should put in writing the factors that he regarded as relevant in deciding whether or not to prosecute.

Mr Starmer told the Daily Telegraph: "This policy is going to cover all assisted suicides. The same broad principles will apply. They've got to apply to all acts, in the jurisdiction or out of it.

"We won't have separate rules for Dignitas."

He said a political decision had to be made on whether some assisted suicide is legal.

"That decision needs to be made by Parliament."

He denied that any new interpretation of the law would lead to a large increase in assisted suicides.

Ms Harman told the BBC: "There might well be a debate when the House of Commons gets back but it's not a party political matter or even a government matter, it's actually on a conscience, on a free vote issue."

Last month peers voted against a move to allow assisted suicide.

The campaign group Dignity in Dying says parliamentarians will come under increasing pressure to provide a proper solution, which "doesn't involve exporting it abroad."

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