Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Q&A: Assisted suicide

Assisted suicide is still illegal in England and Wales

The director of public prosecutions has set out new guidelines on assisted suicide.

Keir Starmer has already published draft advice, but has now updated that following a public consultation.

He has said he hopes his intervention will bring greater clarity to the thorny issue of prosecution.

Why has he taken action?

Law Lords ruled last summer that there was a need for greater clarity after hearing an appeal from someone with multiple sclerosis.

Debbie Purdy, from Bradford, had gone to the House of Lords after losing her court case seeking clarification on whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her go abroad to die.

Her legal team argued that the DPP had acted illegally by not providing guidance on how decisions over prosecutions were made.

They agreed, saying she deserved to have some information about what was taken into account in such cases.

However, Mr Starmer was not asked to change the law - indeed he does not have the power to do that.

What does the current law say?

The 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales.

Anyone doing so could face up to 14 years in prison.

The law is almost identical in Northern Ireland.

There is no specific law on assisted suicide in Scotland, creating some uncertainty although in theory someone could be prosecuted under homicide legislation.

To date, more than 100 UK citizens have travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to end their lives.

Although some cases have been considered by the DPP, no relative has yet been prosecuted.

What has the DPP published?

He published draft guidance in September, although it came into affect immediately.

Mr Starmer set out a range of factors that might influence whether or not a person would face prosecution.

This has now been updated following a consultation which got nearly 5,000 submissions.

The advice lists a range of factors that will be taken into account when deciding if a prosecution is appropriate or not.

These include whether the victim reached a "voluntary, clear, settled and informed" decision.

There is also particular emphasis on the motivation of the suspect. They would be expected to have acted "wholly compassionately" and not for financial reasons.

The idea is it will give people who were asking their loved ones to help them die an indication of whether they would then face charges.

However, Mr Starmer stopped short of saying he would offer guarantees as the individual circumstances of each case would still need to be investigated.

Did this change anything?

Not the law. The legislation on assisted suicide remains the same.

And Mr Starmer was also quick to point out that this does not affect the legality of euthanasia - whereby someone kills an individual who wants to die but is not able to take their own life.

Such actions are considered to be acts of murder or manslaughter.

However, the DPP said he hoped it would bring greater clarity for people in situations such as those Britons who have travelled to Dignitas.

Campaigners believe it does but, at the end of the day, prosecutors will still be exercising discretion.

All individuals who help someone to die still face a police investigation during which the factors spelt out by Mr Starmer will be taken into account.

Will this lead to a Dignitas-style clinic being set up here?

It seems inconceivable that it will.

The factors set out by the DPP put a strong emphasis on a suspect having to know the person and for it to be a one-off occurrence in order to avoid a prosecution.

This would seem to exclude an organisation or business like Dignitas offering a suicide service.

That organisation is only allowed to operate because of Switzerland's liberal laws on assisted suicide, which suggest that a person can be prosecuted only if they are acting out of self-interest.

In theory someone could help someone buy a drug to commit suicide in this country - a barbiturate solution is used in Switzerland - but this is far from easy to obtain.

Is it possible there could be a change in the law?

There have already been several attempts to legalise assisted suicide, but these have been rejected.

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

It is likely the issue will come before parliament again in the future.

However, public opinion is not easy to gauge. Surveys show mixed results, depending on who is asking the question and how it is asked - although there is certainly an appetite for more debate.

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