Key questions answered on assisted suicide ruling

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The Independent Online

Debbie Purdy says today's landmark ruling gives her her life back and will clarify the law over assisted suicide. Here some of the issues surrounding today's judgment are explained:





Q. Why is the issue of assisted suicide so controversial?



Suicide is no longer a crime in England and Wales, but aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The calls for a change in the law have been marked by high-profile legal bids and a steady stream of publicity about UK citizens who have travelled to Swiss clinic Dignitas to die. Although a handful of people have been arrested, no relative or friend of the more than 100 UK citizens who have gone abroad to the Swiss Dignitas clinics has been prosecuted under the 1961 Suicide Act so far. Ms Purdy wanted the policy to be clarified so that people in her situation knew whether or not they would be prosecuted for their actions.



Q. Was Ms Purdy asking for immunity for her husband if he helped her to die?



A. No. She simply wanted information in order to take a decision - whether to go abroad with her husband's help to end her life in a country where it was not an offence.



Q. Why did Ms Purdy want the law on assisted suicide clarified?



A. Ms Purdy told the Law Lords that, unless the law was clarified, she might be forced to end her life earlier than she planned because her husband would be unable to help her, without risking prosecution, if she became totally dependent. If the risk of prosecution was sufficiently low, she could wait until the very last minute before travelling with her husband's assistance. If the risk was high, she would have to go earlier while she was still fit enough to travel without assistance.



Q. What did the Law Lords decide?



A. They called for a "custom-built policy statement" to give guidance to prosecutors on the highly sensitive issues raised by the case. The Law Lords said Ms Purdy wanted to avoid "an undignified and distressing end to her life" and ruled that she was "entitled to ask that this too must be respected".



Q. What does today's decision mean?



A. The judgment will bring reassurance to thousands of people faced with the same dilemma as Ms Purdy.



She says it means she has her life back and can now make an informed choice, with her husband Omar, about whether he travels abroad with her to end her life. She says the couple will know exactly where they stand.



Q. Have the Law Lords decriminalised assisted suicide?



A. No. They agreed that changes were a matter for Parliament, but upheld Ms Purdy's argument that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, should put in writing the factors that he regarded as relevant in deciding whether or not to prosecute.



Q. What happens now?



A. Mr Starmer said prosecutors would start work immediately to produce a policy on assisted suicide. He said he hopes to have an interim policy for prosecutors by the end of September and will then undertake a public consultation exercise in a bid to publish a finalised policy in the spring of 2010.

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