DPP Guidance on Right to Die


Following the recent decision of the House of Lords, when terminally ill Debbie Purdy sought the right to clarification from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the circumstances in which a relative of someone who wishes to end their life will be prosecuted under the Suicide Act 1961 if they travel with the person wishing to die to a country where assisted suicide is legal, the DPP has now issued interim guidelines on the approach that will be taken.
Ms Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wanted to know whether her husband, Omar Puente, would risk prosecution if he accompanied her to an ‘assisted suicide clinic’ in Switzerland. The Suicide Act provides that ‘a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years’.
So far, more than 100 people have travelled from the UK to end their lives in this way. No prosecutions have yet occurred but because of the uncertainty surrounding the issue, some people seeking to end their lives have travelled abroad alone rather than risk their relatives being prosecuted for assisting them. Others have remained in the UK to suffer what Lord Hope described as ‘a distressing and undignified death’.
The DPP has now issued a policy statement stating the circumstances in which those who help someone to travel abroad to end their life might be prosecuted. However, the DPP has stated that ‘there are no guarantees against prosecution’ and that all cases will be investigated by the police.
Among the factors which would determine a prosecution are:
  • Whether a person stands 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 being under 18, and having a mental illness; and
  • Whether the person was persuaded or pressured into committing suicide, or if it was their own decision.
A final policy statement will be issued in spring 2010.
Following the ruling, Mrs Purdy said, “The decision means I can make an informed choice, with Omar, about whether he travels abroad with me to end my life because we will know exactly where we stand.”

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