Glasgow & West Scotland

Judges reject assisted suicide guidance in Gordon Ross case

Gordon Ross
Image caption Former TV producer Gordon Ross lived in a care home in Glasgow

Judges have rejected a legal bid to force Scotland's senior law officer to publish guidance over prosecution in cases of assisted suicide.

Gordon Ross, 67, from Glasgow, had degenerative Parkinson's disease and was concerned anyone who helped him end his life would face prosecution.

Mr Ross died in January from pneumonia and other medical issues..

Judges at the Court of Session in Edinburgh said criminal law in Scotland on assisted suicide was clear.

They said it would only be a crime if the act of assistance was the immediate and direct cause of a person's death.

Mr Ross's case was heard by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Carloway, sitting with Lady Dorrian and Lord Drummond Young.

'Nature of act'

Delivering the ruling, Scotland's senior judge, Lord Carloway, said: "The criminal law in relation to assisted suicide in Scotland is clear. It is not a crime 'to assist' another to commit suicide.

"However, if a person does something which he knows will cause the death of another person, he will be guilty of homicide if his act is the immediate and direct cause of the person's death."

The judge said the crime may be treated as murder or culpable homicide depending on the individual circumstances of the case.

For example, injecting someone with a lethal substance may amount to homicide.

But when an adult "with full capacity freely and voluntarily consumes a drug with the intention of ending his life", it "breaks the causal link between any act of supply and the death", the judge added.

He said: "In the same way, other acts which do not amount to an immediate and direct cause are not criminal. Such acts, including taking persons to places where they may commit, or seek assistance to commit, suicide, fall firmly on the other side of the line of criminality."

"They do not, in a legal sense, cause the death, even if that death was predicted as the likely outcome of the visit.

"Driving a person of sound mind to a location where he can jump off a cliff, or leap in front of a train, does not constitute a crime.

"The act does not in any real sense amount to an immediate and direct cause of the death," he said.

Legal concepts

Lord Carloway added: "There is no difficulty in understanding these concepts in legal terms, even if, as is often the case in many areas of the law, there may be grey areas worthy of debate in unusual circumstances.

"There is no need for the respondent to set these concepts out in offence specific guidelines. They are clearly defined matters of law upon which, if necessary, an individual can seek legal advice."

Lady Dorrian pointed out that it seemed suicide had never been a crime in Scots law, whereas the position had been different in England when it was only decriminalised by legislation in 1961.

Mr Ross, a retired TV producer, was a member of Friends At The End (Fate), an organisation campaigning for a change in the law on assisted dying in Scotland.

He brought his case for a judicial review to the Court of Session in Edinburgh in May last year.

He wanted Scotland's most senior prosecutor, the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC, to set out guidance on what circumstances he would take into account before deciding whether to prosecute somebody who had helped another person end their life.

Similar guidance has been issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions for England.

In a written judgement issued in September, Lord Doherty ruled that the current Crown policy was legal and did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Ross launched an appeal against this decision in December but died the following month.

Reacting to the latest decision, Bob Scott, of Fate, said: "This is a real slap in the face for those who wish to have a choice at the end of their lives and particularly to Gordon who fought long and hard to have the guidelines clarified.

"At the moment anyone helping a friend or loved one, who is suffering intolerably, to die faces a charge of murder or manslaughter."

Dr Peter Bennie, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland, said: "While the issues surrounding assisted dying are complex and challenging, it is BMA policy to oppose physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.

"Our focus must be on the provision of resources to ensure that all patients, irrespective of diagnosis, have access to first class palliative care in order to ensure that terminal suffering is properly managed."

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