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Assisted suicide charges prompt fresh demands for legislation

3 September 2010

The CPS is awaiting police files on two people arrested over a disabled man’s suicide.

Douglas Sinclair, 76, died in Switzerland on August 28 after seeking legal advice on the new assisted dying guidelines.

Northumbria Police has confirmed it has arrested and bailed two of Sinclair’s friends on suspicion of ‘assisting or encouraging’ his suicide.

The retired engineer, who was rendered wheelchair-bound by the debilitating illness multiple system atrophy, sought legal advice from his solicitor Christopher Potts, partner at South Shields firm Patterson, Glanton and Stracey, before making arrangements for his trip and funeral.

Potts offered the widower and two friends advice according to the guidelines produced by the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, earlier this year.

The Crown Prosecution Service has declined to comment on the case, insisting it is yet to receive details of the charge from Northumbria Police.

Andrew Bennett, solicitor at Eversheds, said: “The new guidelines require the police and CPS to look at the motivations lurking behind the case, something that will be unique in each different set of circumstances.

“It is therefore already arguable that the new guidelines will not give the police greater clarity in deciding whether to investigate, or the CPS in deciding whether to prosecute these cases.

“Establishing motivations for the purpose of substantive, useful evidence will often be a time consuming and emotive task for the police.”

Sinclair, a widower, reportedly gave staff at his care home in Jarrow, south Tyneside, advanced warning that he was planning to visit Dignitas, and made every effort to carry out the trip alone to distance others from his death.

Nevertheless police became involved following the publication of a Sinclair’s death announcement in his local paper. A police spokesman said: “A 47-year-old woman and a 48-year-old man from South Shields have been arrested on suspicion of intentionally doing an act to assist or encourage suicide following the death of a 76-year-old man in Switzerland. Both have been bailed pending further enquiries.”

The case will put Starmer’s attempt to clarify the CPS position on assisted suicide to the test and has prompted renewed calls for full legislation on the issue.

This week the British Humanist Association (BHA) mounted a fresh campaign for parliament to take charge of the legal grey area.

Naomi Phillips, head of public affairs at the BHA, said: “We all have a fundamental human right to die with dignity, in a manner of our choosing, and those who are motivated by compassion to assist another’s death should be protected from prosecution.

“It is deeply saddening that that people face the threat of arrest and prosecution, which can presently result in a 14-year custodial sentence, should they accompany loved ones abroad for an assisted death.

"We need a law on assisted dying that is sensible, ethical and forward-thinking.

“However, any real and secure change to remove the threat of prosecution must come from parliament, and it is deeply disappointing that so far our elected representatives, and peers, have largely failed to listen to the public who overwhelmingly support reform in the law on assisted dying.”

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