You are here

DPP to personally review all assisted suicide cases under new policy

29 September 2009

The Director of Public Prosecutions will be personally involved in the assessment of assisted-suicide cases to ensure consistency in the application of new guidelines published last week.

Keir Starmer QC said consistent application of the new interim policy will be “easily” achieved by centralising all suspected cases of assistance to a specialist team based in London and by his personal involvement in the final stages of the decision to prosecute or not.

The DPP produced the guidelines at the request of the law lords in July in the case of Debbie Purdy, the multiple sclerosis sufferer who had asked him – unsuccessfully – to clarify his prosecution policy.

Starmer maintained that he did not consider a specific policy in assisted-dying cases was necessary and only did so because of the lords’ ruling.

The factors set out in the guidelines, he insisted, reflected elements that prosecutors have historically taken into account in these cases and did not change the law on assisted suicide.

The new policy did not change the law on euthanasia either, and he repeated that he could not provide guarantees not to prosecute.

Instead, he said, the new guidelines would clarify the discretion that prosecutors are allowed exercise and help “translate the blunt word of the statute” to take account of compassion where appropriate.

Asked whether more people would be involved in assisted suicide cases as a result of the guidelines, he said that such decisions were unlikely to be made as a result of CPS guidelines.

He also said that the new guidelines would not pave the way for the setting up in Britain of organisations like the Swiss clinic Dignitas.

However, he confirmed that websites and organisations providing information on suicide could fall foul of the law, depending on their remoteness from the suicide itself.

The guidelines are divided in two sections; those weighing in favour of prosecution and those against.

Of the 16 factors to be taken into account in favour of prosecution, eight will have particular weight, including the lack of a clear wish and the absence of unequivocal indication on the victim’s part that they intended to commit suicide.

Evidence that the suspect stood to gain from the suicide and that they influenced the victim’s decision will also be a significant factor.

In addition, less important but equally relevant elements will be considered, including whether the suspect was close to the victim, gave assistance to more than one victim, or was a member of an organisation providing a physical environment allowing people to commit suicide.

Carers are also specifically targeted, with one of the factors in favour of prosecution being: “The suspect was paid to care for the victim in a care/nursing home environment.”

Starmer confirmed that the guidelines would apply to everybody within the jurisdiction, including doctors and other medical professionals.

Earlier this summer Dr Michael Irwin, a retired GP who has paid for one of his patients, Raymond Cutkelvin, to fly to Switzerland, challenged the police to arrest him. He was arrested on 31 July. His bail, which expired on 23 September - the day the DPP published his interim guidelines - has been extended to November.

Alan Rees, Raymond Cutkelvin’s partner, has also been arrested and released on bail.

Dr Irwin said the guidelines would change little in the way the law was applied. “The CPS has always shown compassion in the way it handles cases and will still look at each situation individually,” he told Solicitors Journal.

However he agreed that individuals like him, who had provided material assistance, were more obviously likely to be prosecuted under the new guidelines.

He said new laws were needed to legalise assisted suicide with the involvement of a doctor. Until the law was changed, he warned, there was an ongoing risk of “botched suicides” in Britain as many people would not be in a position to afford the trip to Switzerland.

The British Humanist Association was among the voices calling for legislation, saying that while helpful, the guidance was “hardly an ideal situation” and that “parliamentarians urgently need to legislate to reform the law” to remove the threat of prosecution altogether.

But Rebecca Bensted, barrister and lecturer at BPP Law School was concerned that the guidelines may encourage the carers of vulnerable individuals or their family members into assisting suicide by demonstrating the circumstances under which they are likely to avoid prosecution.

She added: “The fact that prosecutions are said to be less likely where the deceased was terminally ill, or suffering from a severe and incurable disability, or a severe degenerative physical condition, implies that the lives of this group of people are less deserving of the protection of the law than others.”

She said research in jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been legalised showed it is not long before a shift in perception takes place amongst the elderly and vulnerable towards seeing themselves as a burden on their families and being under a duty to die.

Categorised in:

Procedures Expert witness Vulnerable Clients Pensions