Focus on the Motives for Assisting Suicide Does Not Open the Door to Euthanasia, Says DPP of New Rules; Prosecution Unlikely of Someone Who Helps a Sick Person Who Wants to Die

Article excerpt

Byline: Jack Doyle

THE motives of those assisting suicide will be at the centre of the decision over whether they should be prosecuted, the chief prosecutor in England and Wales said yesterday.

Anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges.

Even families who benefit financially from the death of a relative will not be hauled before the courts if their motives were good.

Outlining the new rules, Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said they would shift the emphasis of inquiry from the victim to the suspect.

Mr Starmer, the chief prosecutor in England and Wales, said each case would be judged on its merits and denied he had legalised assisted suicide or "opened the door to euthanasia".

Anyone who carried out a "mercy killing" would lay themselves open to murder or manslaughter charges, he said.

Mr Starmer said: "The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim.

"The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide.

"It does not open the door for euthanasia.

"It does not override the will of Parliament. What it does do is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not."

Mr Starmer was forced to issue the guidelines after a Law Lords ruling in favour of Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis.

She wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to end her life.

Initial guidance was issued in September and the Crown Prosecution Service invited responses from the public to inform the final version.

The new policy lays out 16 factors that would weigh in favour of a prosecution and six against.

It removes references to the health of the victim. Terminal illness had been a factor weighing in favour of prosecution.

Disability action groups had called for its removal and Mr Starmer said it could have caused discrimination.

The new rules remove references to husbands and wives or close friends being less likely to be prosecuted because of their close relationship to the victim.

Responses to the initial guidance argued that such relationships could be "antagonistic or manipulative" and should not count in a suspect's favour.

The eight pages of guidelines were released yesterday along with a 45-page summary of nearly 5,000 responses.

The vast majority were from individual members of the public but submissions were also received from academics, health workers, politicians and religious groups.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but individual decisions on prosecution will be made on the circumstances in each case, Mr Starmer said, as he denied having changed the law.

But publication of the guidance did nothing to quell the fractious debate surrounding the issue.

Ms Purdy and campaigners for a change in the law welcomed the rules but continued to call for Parliament to act.

Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, said the guidelines only addressed the problem after somebody has already died.

"I think we should consider looking to the medical profession to do with care and attention and with understanding and with full explanation of the circumstances, to allow us to die at a time of our choosing," the 61-year-old said. …