Coping with terminal illness is distressing and difficult both for the patient and their families. These cases are truly moving and evoke the highest degree of compassion and emotion.
Assisting or encouraging suicide is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 for which the maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published guidelines primarily concerned with advising the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutors about the factors which they need to consider when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute a person for assisting or encouraging another to commit suicide.
The House of Commons has discussed the DPP’s guidelines which were unanimously commended as being a compassionate and measured way of dealing with one of the most emotionally charged crimes in the statute book. However, they do not change the law; assisting or encouraging suicide has not been decriminalised.
The DPP further clarified the CPS policy on the likelihood of prosecution of health care professionals, to specify that the relationship of care will be the important aspect and it will be necessary to consider whether the suspect may have been in a position to exert some influence on the victim.
I believe the application of the law should be flexible enough to distinguish the facts and the circumstances of one case from another. To this end, the DPP’s policy offers important and sensitive guidance.
I fully accept that suicide, assisting or encouraging suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are all subjects on which it is entirely possible for people to hold widely different but defensible opinions. This is why the substance of the law in this area is not a matter of party politics but of conscience, and any vote would be a free one should the law in this area ever be altered.
As you may know, a debate was held in Parliament on 4 July 2022. This was the first time this topic was discussed in Parliament for some time. I want to pay tribute to my colleagues from both sides of the House who spoke bravely with significant contributions.
As the Government takes a neutral position, a change would have to be made via a Private Members’ Bill. If, at a future date, it became the clearly expressed will of Parliament to amend or change the criminal law so as to enable some form of assisted dying, the Government would undertake the role of ensuring that the relevant legislation was delivered as effectively as possible.
I understand that some people draw a distinction between assisted dying, which they see as allowing dying people to have a choice over the manner and timing of their imminent death, and assisted suicide, which they see as helping people who are not dying to choose death over life. The criminal law currently makes no such distinction; under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, the offence is “encouraging or assisting” suicide, and my use of the term “suicide” reflects that. It does not indicate prejudice either way, and it is not an indication of the Government taking one side over the other.
I accept that there are imperfections and problems with the current law, but I think that these can be dealt with sensitively and sensibly without having a new law.
Although the DPP’s policy makes clear that assisting a person to die is still illegal, I am worried that by not prosecuting those assisting in the suicide of others we will encourage demands for legalising assisted dying. The lives of the terminally ill, the frail and those with incurable conditions are of equal value to anyone else’s. They deserve equal protection under the criminal law.