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Assisted Suicide: when should we prosecute?

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William Crawley | 12:24 UK time, Saturday, 27 February 2010

y183731481725298.jpgThe new prosecution policy, published this week by Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, applies directly to the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Similar guidelines were simultaneously published by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland. We'll explore the new guidelines on tomorrow's Sunday Sequence with the legal expert Joshua Rosenburg.

Keir Starmer said: "The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim. The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of Parliament. What it does is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not. Assessing whether a case should go to court is not simply a question of adding up the public interest factors for and against prosecution and seeing which has the greater number. It is not a tick-box exercise. Each case has to be considered on its own facts and merits."

More than 5000 people contributed to the public consultation process which produced this new policy. In assessing the motivation of the suspect, the policy will consider 16 public interest factors in favour of prosecution, and 6 public interest factors against prosecution. I've listed these below the fold.

Public interest factors in favour of prosecution

1. The victim was under 18 years of age.

2. The victim did not have the capacity (as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to reach an informed decision to commit suicide.

3. The victim had not reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide.

4. The victim had not clearly and unequivocally communicated his or her decision to commit suicide to the suspect.

5. The victim did not seek the encouragement or assistance of the suspect personally or on his or her own initiative.

6. The suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion; for example, the suspect was motivated by the prospect that he or she or a person closely connected to him or her stood to gain in some way from the death of the victim.

7. The suspect pressured the victim to commit suicide.

8. The suspect did not take reasonable steps to ensure that any other person had not pressured the victim to commit suicide.

9. The suspect had a history of violence or abuse against the victim.

10. The victim was physically able to undertake the act that constituted the assistance himself or herself.

11. The suspect was unknown to the victim and encouraged or assisted the victim to commit or attempt to commit suicide by providing specific information via, for example, a website or publication.

12. The suspect gave encouragement or assistance to more than one victim who were not known to each other.

13. The suspect was paid by the victim or those close to the victim for his or her encouragement or assistance.

14. The suspect was acting in his or her capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, other healthcare professional, a professional carer (whether for payment or not), or as a person in authority, such as a prison officer, and the victim was in his or her care.

15. The suspect was aware that the victim intended to commit suicide in a public place where it was reasonable to think that members of the public may be present.

16. The suspect was acting in his or her capacity as a person involved in the management or as an employee (whether for payment or not) of an organisation or group, a purpose of which is to provide a physical environment (whether for payment or not) in which to allow another to commit suicide.

Public interest factors against prosecution

1. The victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide.

2. The suspect was wholly motivated by compassion.

3. The actions of the suspect, although sufficient to come within the definition of the crime, were of only minor encouragement or assistance.

4. The suspect had sought to dissuade the victim from taking the course of action which resulted in his or her suicide.

5. The actions of the suspect may be characterised as reluctant encouragement or assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to commit suicide.

6. The suspect reported the victim's suicide to the police and fully assisted them in their enquiries into the circumstances of the suicide or the attempt and his or her part in providing encouragement or assistance.


  • Comment number 1.

    1 word: never. If it's assisited suicide it's just that. If it's outright murder then treat it as such. I'm sure many people are making quite a livelihood out of discussing, arguing, drafting, etc, etc, etc, etc on issues like this and many others. Well, I've just solved it. Let's move on.

  • Comment number 2.

    Every adult should write & sign a Will. I am astounded when asking the question as to how many people that have not done this. Dontcha' all know that jabbering to your favourite kid that they get the loot is worthless in Law? Modern documents describe the 'what ifs' for physical care as well as disposal of assets. Nominate a Power of Attorney who will be trusted to carry out your wishes. When it comes to the physical stuff make a record of what you expect in the case of terminal illness. If you do not want to have death prolonged by medical technologies then state that. It is up to the individual.

    Perhaps all schools should rid themselves of religious instruction classes in favour of adding life skills courses including Law 101, to teach all how to manage the business of their lives.

    Easing death for the terminally ill really should be part of the health care system as it is in the beginning with new life. Putting family or friends in a difficult position of helping a loved one die and then turning trauma into a legal circus is inhumane. Surely many reading this have eased the end of life for a beloved pet, why can't the same treatment be in place for people?

    Each of us has the right to self determination free of from state or religious tyranny. There are no Brownie points on offer for physical suffering, that is a myth. Individuals can asses their personal tolerance for pain and incapacity and make an informed decision as to quality of life.

    Those who belong to religious cults, having joined them from a point of free will and not initiated as defenseless infants, are free to opt in or out as they see fit.

    Criminal prosecutions with regards to letting the terminally ill go are abhorrent.

  • Comment number 3.


    I agreed with both set of comments that are above mine...So, I NOT repeating myself.


  • Comment number 4.

    Don't y'all jus love the simplistic approach? (Sorry Helio can't get Dolly out of my head).

    If it's ever crossed anyone's mind to wonder why I'm not a humanist, apart from the God thing, it's because they have far too elevated a notion of human nature. As a rough rule of thumb, especially where large pots of lolly are involved but sometimes even when it's only a matter of mild inconvenience, I don't think you'd go too far wrong by adopting the old Biblical view that men's hearts are 'only evil continually'.

  • Comment number 5.

    Here's a question - attitude of insurance companies to this sort of thing. You help your poor suffering spouse to end it all - can't see the mortgage insurance kicking in for that one.

    With these guidelines who will be determining the issues - not a court but the peelers and CPS - which means in practice no more prosecutions - who can prove these things beyond reasonable doubt if all these "what ifs" and "buts" are build into the system.

  • Comment number 6.

    I totally agree with LucyQ. It all depends on the living will and testament of the individual.

    And nice work Dan, in agreement on this end.

  • Comment number 7.

    "letting the terminally ill go.."

    go where, exactly? Or can't we talk about what we're talking about?


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