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Page last updated at 09:46 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 10:46 UK

Law on assisted suicide to remain

On Sunday 20 September Andrew Marr interviewed Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions.

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, says that the law on assisted suicide will remain though guidance will be published.

ANDREW MARR:

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions

This week, the Director of Public Prosecutions is going to publish important, new guidance on the law relating to assisted suicide. More than 100 Britons have ended their lives at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, but until now friends or relatives who accompany them haven't known whether they're going to face prosecution. Many other people have asked why they should have to make that rather bleak, final journey at all. After a Lords ruling, the DPP, Keir Starmer, was ordered to bring clarity to the situation, but will that lead to an increase in what you might call planned deaths? He joins me now from our London studio. Good morning and welcome, Mr Starmer.

KEIR STARMER:

Good morning.

ANDREW MARR:

Now I understand of course you're not changing the law, but you are clarifying the law, and I suppose the first thing that people will want to know is whether those who for instance accompany loved ones to a clinic or a hospital where they decide to take their lives are going to be prosecuted?

KEIR STARMER:

Well we're certainly not changing the law. Assisted suicide is an offence; it'll remain an offence. What we're doing this week when we publish the guidance on Wednesday is to clarify when individuals are more likely to be prosecuted or more likely not to be prosecuted. And the general approach we've taken is to try to steer a careful course between protecting the vulnerable from those that might gain from hastening their death, but also identifying those cases where nobody really thinks it's in the public interest to prosecute.

ANDREW MARR:

So in clear terms, is this going to make it less likely that for instance somebody who procures a medicine or a drug which helps somebody else perhaps with a terminal illness to kill themselves, that person is going to be prosecuted or not?

KEIR STARMER:

Well what we've done is to list the factors that are likely to lead to a prosecution and list those that aren't. Now there are a number of complicating factors. You have to look at each case on its merits, but the idea is to bring clarity, so that people can look at the policy, consider their conduct and have a much better idea about whether they're going to be prosecuted. So it's about clarity and it's about people being able to understand the basis on which we take decisions.

ANDREW MARR:

So how do you start to bring that clarity. For instance, do you look at things like whether or not the person involved in aiding and abetting or helping is going to make some money out of the other person's death? Do you look at whether they have encouraged the other person to take their own life? Is that the kind of thing you're looking at?

KEIR STARMER:

That is the sort of thing which will feature in the policy. Obviously I'm not going to go through all the factors, but if you take a case I decided last year, the Daniel James case, the most important factors in that case were that Daniel James had a clear, settled intention to commit suicide. His parents were acting purely out of compassion; and whilst assisting him weren't encouraging him, and they had nothing to gain. Now it's obvious that those factors are going to feature fairly heavily in the policy we're publishing on Wednesday.

ANDREW MARR:

And do you think that this policy will make it less likely that people feel they have to go to Switzerland to do this and will be able instead to remain at home in this country and do what they want to do?

KEIR STARMER:

Well let me be clear about the policy. It applies to any act in England and Wales. It does not depend on the suicide being in Switzerland or anywhere else. So where the suicide takes place is not something which will alter the approach that we take. We'll take the same approach whether the suicide is in England and Wales or whether it's in Switzerland. So it covers any act within England and Wales.

ANDREW MARR:

And what do you say to those many people who look at this and say it's going to make it much likelier that people commit suicide towards the end of their lives and it's going to make it likelier, therefore, that other people encourage them to do so - perhaps because they can't be bothered to look after them or don't want to pay the financial price for looking after them?

KEIR STARMER:

Well there are two parts to the answer of that. First, we have been very careful to draft a policy which will protect the vulnerable, and I hope that's clear and you'll see that on Wednesday. But more generally on the question of whether there'll be an increase in numbers, I think really we'll have to wait and see. I have reviewed a number of the files for the last few years and I have to say most of these cases are tragic, are individual, and I really don't get the impression that many people make a decision based on whatever the DPP may or may not think.

ANDREW MARR:

And yet the original 1961 Suicide Act remains on the statute book with I think 14 years imprisonment as the ultimate sanction. Do you think you've been left really as the fall guy because politicians haven't been prepared to face up to changing the law?

KEIR STARMER:

Well I mean we need to be clear about this. Parliament has made a law. It made it in 1961 and politicians have chosen to stick with that. That, the way it's drafted at the moment, is a very broad offence, but there's a discretion whether to prosecute. That's a discretion that I have to exercise. I've always said that that's a workable model - in other words broader fence, discretion down to the Director of Public Prosecutions (that's obviously me at the moment). And with clarity, which I hope we'll give on Wednesday, I do think that's a workable model.

ANDREW MARR:

And do you feel that because of the changes in medicine people are living a lot longer and people are able to be kept alive with some appalling and debilitating illnesses really life has moved on a little bit from the early 1960s and that is the core of the problem that you're trying to address?

KEIR STARMER:

I certainly think things have moved on since the 1960s, and I think the public attitude to assisting suicide has changed in the intervening period. Because the decision whether to prosecute or not has to be one based on the public interest, obviously it's important to take those factors into account.

ANDREW MARR:

Mr Starmer, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.

KEIR STARMER:

Thank you.

INTERVIEW ENDS


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.


NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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