On 30 July the Law Lords, ruling on the Debbie Purdy case, required the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer (pictured) to publish the facts and circumstances he would take into account in deciding whether to bring a prosecution under the Suicide Act. Under the Suicide Act 1961 assisting with suicide carries a sentence of up to 14 years, but there have so far been no prosecutions brought in any of the 120 cases of British people travelling to the Dignitas suicide facility in Zurich, Switzerland to end their lives.
The DPP published his interim draft guidelines on 23 September and these have been out for consultation. The consultation closed on 16 December and definitive guidelines will be published before 10 March 2010.
The interim guidelines were welcomed by the pro-euthanasia lobby which saw them as sanctioning assistance by family members with the suicide of mentally competent, seriously ill, terminally ill or disabled people who had a settled wish to end their lives.
But they have not surprisingly attracted serious criticism for being discriminatory (removing legal protection from sick and disabled people), naïve (about physical and financial abuse by so called ‘loved ones’), vague (about the status of assisting healthcare professionals) and betraying an ignorance of medical realities (in that a settled wish to commit suicide is often indicative of underlying mental illness).
Overall they have been attacked for changing the DPP’s role from one of upholding and enforcing the law to one of arbitrating between positive and negative prosecuting criteria and encouraging a tick box approach to prosecution that some have called ‘a murderer’s charter’.
The Care Not Killing Alliance, representing almost 50 organisations, has said that the draft guidance ‘is not fit for purpose in its current form’ and that there are ‘serious defects both in its underlying principles and in several of the specific prosecution criteria proposed’. It has called for a substantial revision.
The Christian Medical Fellowship, warning that similar guidelines in the Netherlands led to progressive abuse and the effective legal sanctioning of euthanasia, has called the guidance ‘fundamentally flawed in principle’. ‘The existence of published prosecution criteria will weaken perceptions of prohibition and by incremental drift lead to legalisation by administrative process rather than by the will of Parliament’, they said. ‘Consequently, we cannot in conscience collude with the consultation process by completing the artificial tick-in-the-box questionnaire’.
A group of senior lawyers in the House of Lords led by Lords Carlile, MacKay and Lady Butler-Sloss wrote to the Times expressing concern that the guidelines risked ‘being misinterpreted as implying that breaches of the law will not be prosecuted if certain prescribed boxes are ticked’. Not Dead Yet, an alliance of disability rights groups, said that those supporting the guidelines were ‘seeking to change the law by the back door by creating the impression that those who assist in a suicide will be immune from prosecution’.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well argued that the guidelines provided ‘a checklist for potential offenders’ that would lead to ‘legalised killing’.
We hope that the DPP will take these serious criticisms on board and substantially amend his guidance by the time he issues his revision in 2010.