Assisted suicide guidelines: family can still face prosecution
Top prosecutor removes exemption for family members from guidelines that give six mitigating factors against prosecution
Family members involved in "mercy killings" will still face criminal charges despite the publication today of new guidelines to clarify the rules on assisted suicide.
After one of the most widespread public consultations ever carried out, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has created six mitigating factors against an individual being prosecuted for assisting the suicide of another.
One of the other key changes is the removal of any reference to the condition of the victim – whether they are terminally ill or near death – as a mitigating factor. Instead, the focus has switched to examine the motivation of a suspect when considering whether to prosecute anyone for assisted suicide.
Starmer made it clear that relatives who actively help a terminally ill individual to die are not covered by the guidelines and individuals could be expected to be charged with murder or manslaughter.
"Someone who takes the life of another undertakes a very different act and may well be liable to a charge of murder of manslaughter. That distinction is an important one which we all need to understand."
The distinction means people like Kay Gilderdale – who was prosecuted for the attempted murder of her daughter who had ME – could still face criminal charges. A judge last month criticised the Crown Prosecution Service for charging Gilderdale and a jury found her not guilty in less than two hours.
Crucially Starmer has removed one key mitigating factor from his original draft guidelines published last September – the fact that the person assisting is a family member. Starmer said it had been removed after a public response raised concerns that family members could be "manipulative" or even "antagonistic" towards the individual who was sick.
Debbie Purdy, whose legal challenge led to Starmer being forced to issue the guidelines, welcomed their publication but said the law criminalising assisted suicides needed updating.
"Keir Starmer and the CPS have done the best they can in bringing the 1961 Suicide Act [up to date, and] how it will be interpreted in the 21st century," Purdy told the BBC. "It's 50-years-old, we live in a different world. We need a law that is appropriate for the 21st century world."
Starmer said the law lords' ruling in favour of Debbie Purdy – who has multiple sclerosis and wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to die – did not change the law and the policy was not a change in the law. "Nothing in this policy could be taken to amount to an assurance that a person will not be prosecuted if he assists the suicide or attempted suicide of another person. The policy does not open the door for euthanasia or so-called mercy killings.
"The act of suicide requires the victim to take his or her own life. Euthanasia or mercy killing are where the suspect takes the life of another," Starmer said.
Starmer's policy now lists six key mitigating factors against the prosecution of individuals who assist another's suicide. His original draft policy contained 13 factors. One key point is the focus now on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim.
He also lists 16 public interest factors in favour of prosecution.
The six factors which could mitigate against a prosecution for assisted suicide are:
• the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide,
• the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion,
• the actions of the suspect although sufficient to come within the definition of the crime, were of only minor encouragement or assistance,
• the suspect had sought to dissuade the victim from taking the course of action which resulted in his or her suicide,
• the actions of the suspect may be characterised as reluctant encouragement or assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to commit suicide, and
• the suspect reported the victim's suicide to the police and fully assisted them in their inquiries into the circumstances.
Starmer said the 4,800 public responses were the "most extensive snapshot of public opinion on assisted suicide since the 1961 Suicide Act was passed".
Asked if he could have been swayed by groups or individuals involved in an orchestrated campaign, he said: "We carefully considered all of the responses. Nearly 5,000 is an extraordinary response and it is clear from our analysis that the responses were from a range of individuals and groups expressing their views. It was clear the views were widespread."
The fight for assisted suicide has gotten... interesting since Terry Pratchett spoke about his wishes for the Richard Dimbleby lecture- some praising him and the ability to 'die with dignity', others accusing the BBC of 'promoting euthanasia by ignoring rights of disabled'.