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Assisted suicide guidelines "do not change the law"

23 September 2009

Interim guidelines on the CPS policy in cases of assisted suicide do not change the law, the DPP said as he published the guidance this morning.

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

But Starmer said he did not have the power to change the law on assisted suicide or on euthanasia, and that he could provide no guarantees not to prosecute either.

He rejected suggestions that more people would be involved in assisted suicide cases as a result of the publication of the guidelines, saying that such decisions were not made as a result of CPS guidelines.

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.

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, and reflect factors that have historically been considered when deciding whether to prosecute under the general Code for Prosecutors.

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 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.

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

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.”

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