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Debbie Purdy wins assisted-dying case

30 July 2009

Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who had asked the DPP to clarify his policy on assisted dying, has won her case in the House of Lords.

In a unanimous decision, which is also their last, the law lords said the DPP's refusal to issue specific guidance in respect of assisted suicide infringed Debbie Purdy's right to private life under article 8 ECHR.

Giving the main speech in Purdy v DPP [2009] UKHL 45, Lord Hope said: “I would allow the appeal and require the director to promulgate an offence-specific policy identifying the facts and circumstances which he will take into account in deciding, in a case such as that which Ms Purdy’s case exemplifies, whether or not to consent to a prosecution under section 2(1) of the 1961 [Suicide] Act.”

But the law lords stopped short of suggesting how such policy should operate.

“Our decision is simply that the article 8 rights of Ms Purdy entitle her to be provided with guidance from the director as to how he proposes to exercise his discretion under section 2(4) of the 1961 Act,” said Lord Neuberger.

He continued: “As judges, we are concerned with applying the law, not with changing the law: that is a matter to be decided by Parliament.”

In an earlier case, Diane Pretty, who suffered from a motor-neurone condition, had asked the then DPP for assurances that her husband would not be prosecuted.

Her case went to the European Court of Human Rights, which found that article 8 was engaged.

Diane Pretty died before the question could return to the Lords and the Court of Appeal.

The issue was raised again as recently as Monday this week when a retired doctor who helped a terminally-ill cancer patient travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland challenged the police to arrest him.

Dr Michael Irwin, a former medical director at the UN, contributed to the cost of Raymond Cutkelvin’s trip and travelled with him and his partner, Alan Rees, to Zurich in 2007.

Only two weeks ago the House of Lords rejected a proposed amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill that would have legalised accompanying a terminally-ill person to a country where assisted suicide is lawful.

The amendment, put forward by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, was rejected by a majority of 194 to 139 after fears that it would not provide adequate safeguards and that it would have paved the way for legalising assisted dying in Britain.

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