Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Assisted suicide legal guidance due

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Debbie Purdy and her husband, Omar Puente, who have campaigned for the law to be clarified
Debbie Purdy won her battle for legal guidance in the House of Lords

Full guidance aimed at clarifying what factors might mitigate against someone being prosecuted for helping another person to die is due to be released.

A Law Lords ruling on an MS patient who wanted clarification on the possible prosecution of her husband forced the Director of Public Prosecutions to act.

The guidance for England and Wales is not a law change on assisting suicide, which can carry a 14-year jail term.

But campaigners against euthanasia fear vulnerable people could be put at risk.

'Important distinctions'

Writing in the Times, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said it was important to clarify what factors would be considered when considering whether or not to prosecute cases.

He wrote: "In the light of recent discussion about so-called mercy killing, it is important to be clear about what the policy does not cover. It does not cover murder or manslaughter.

"Assisted suicide involves assisting the victim to take his or her own life. Someone who takes the life of another undertakes a very different act and may well be liable to a charge of murder or manslaughter.

"That distinction is an important one that we all need to understand."

He said each case would be considered on an individual basis and prosecutors would "have to make professional judgements about difficult and sensitive issues".

We know that many disabled people are genuinely frightened about any changes which risk weakening the protection offered by existing law and which could effectively create legislation by the backdoor
Richard Hawkes, of Scope

"The assisted suicide policy will help them in that task."

More than 100 Britons with terminal or incurable illnesses have gone to the Swiss centre Dignitas to die and, to date, none of the relatives or friends involved in the cases has been prosecuted.

This is because the authorities have the power to use their discretion under the terms of the 1961 Suicide Act.

But in July the House of Lords ruled that Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis patient from Bradford, West Yorkshire, who is in her mid-40s, had the right to know under what circumstances her husband Omar Puente would be prosecuted if he helped her travel abroad to die.

In September, Mr Starmer published draft advice which set out a range of factors that would be taken into account.

He said he hoped his guidance would bring greater clarity to the issue, although he added all cases would still be investigated by the police.

Among the factors mentioned in his draft guidance that would determine a prosecution were:

  • Whether a person stood to benefit financially from assisting a suicide or if they were acting out of compassion
  • If the individual wanting to die was deemed competent enough and had a "clear and settled" wish to make such a decision. Particular attention would be paid to issues such as the individual being under 18 or having a mental illness
  • Whether the person was persuaded or pressured into committing suicide or if it was their own decision

The framework came into force immediately, even though they were only in draft form. Mr Starmer will now update the guidelines following a consultation which received more than 4,500 responses.

'Right balance'

Ms Purdy welcomed the advice at the time, saying it would give people confidence when making difficult decisions.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of the Dignity in Dying campaign group, which has been supporting Ms Purdy, said: "We were pleased with the draft guidance.

"It struck the right balance between helping someone who is acting compassionately, but making it clear that malicious, self-serving acts will not be tolerated."

But she also said she still wanted to see a change in the law to make assisted suicide legal under certain circumstances so people could get upfront guarantees.

However, critics have warned having such detailed guidance could make prosecutions less likely and put vulnerable people at risk.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: "We know that many disabled people are genuinely frightened about any changes which risk weakening the protection offered by existing law and which could effectively create legislation by the backdoor."

But Mr Starmer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme this was not the case.

"We were required to clarify the law and it's impossible to do that without setting out factors - that's what the court ordered us to do.

"But every case will be fully investigated and each of these factors carefully considered."

Similar guidelines are expected in Northern Ireland. Scotland does not have a law on assisted suicide.

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