Anthony Lester: End the legal uncertainty over assisted suicide

Citizens are entitled to know if their conduct is criminal

Share
Related Topics

Whatever our religious faith or lack of faith, we all hope that we and our loved ones will have a happy, healthy long life. We all hope that, as our lives come to an end, we will be well cared for and will die peacefully and with dignity.

We all hope – but many know of others who have had "bad deaths" and fear a similar fate for themselves. We should celebrate life, and when death comes we should help the dying to end their lives as they wish, and with respect for their dignity.

The wonders of modern science have greatly prolonged the normal span of human life, but modern medicine has also created difficult ethical problems about how to balance the right to life and the patient's right to choose to accept or refuse medical treatment when life has become unbearable and death is imminent.

New techniques of palliative care have made it possible to relieve pain and suffering. The hospice movement does wonderful work in helping terminally ill patients to die with dignity. But not everyone wants to die in a hospice and not everyone wants doctors and nurses to strive to keep them alive.

The Suicide Act 1961 changed the law so that suicide is no longer a crime, but it remains a crime to encourage or assist suicide, and the current state of the law is not as certain as criminal law should be. Criminal liability depends on the way a particular Director of Public Prosecutions decides what is in the public interest.

Like many others, I believe that we need a legal framework which would allow doctors and nurses to be able lawfully to treat terminally ill patients to relieve their suffering as well as pain, even though it would be a virtual certainty that the treatment would shorten their lives.

Such a framework would need to include really stringent safeguards to respect the patient's right to life and to personal autonomy against coercion or pressure from health care professionals, family or friends, and to protect the freedom of religion and conscience of doctors and nurses. But that reform is not on the Government's agenda and will not happen in this Parliament.

There is a much more limited reform now available which would remove the present uncertainty and the fear of prosecution from those who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland to support them in their agonising decision to end their life. Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, seeks to amend the Coroners and Justice Bill to create a defence to a charge of encouraging or assisting suicide for someone who accompanies a terminally ill person to travel overseas for an assisted death.

Those who assist a terminally ill friend or relative in this way face the agonising uncertainty of whether or not they will be prosecuted. As a result, some who desperately need love and support travel abroad to die alone without their loved ones by their sides.

The Coroners and Justice Bill currently before the House of Lords modernises the language of the Suicide Act 1961, but the Bill does not address the current failure of the law to distinguish between those who maliciously encourage suicide and those who compassionately assist the death of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult. Unless the Falconer amendment passes, those who accompany a loved one abroad to die will still have to await the DPP's decision as to whether they will face a prosecution.

At least 115 people have travelled abroad to die at the Swiss assisted suicide clinic, Dignitas. In this sensitive area, the law should reflect the widespread sense of compassion and humanity and provide legal certainty. It is not sufficient to rely upon the way in which the DPP may decide what is in the public interest in any particular case. Citizens are entitled to know whether their conduct is or is not criminal. That is a fundamental principle of the rule of law.

Lord Falconer's amendment provides a very narrow, carefully drawn defence. It clarifies what is the current actual position and is accompanied by strict safeguards – certification by two medical practitioners and an independently witnessed declaration from the terminally ill person. Those who assist someone who is not terminally ill to die abroad will not be protected by the amendment which introduces safeguards to something that is already happening in a wholly unregulated way.

This moderate, practical, and humane proposal is likely to receive widespread support across the House of Lords and beyond. Public opinion is clearly in favour. Let us hope that the Upper House will once more be the catalyst for necessary law reform.



Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC is a Liberal Democrat life peer and practises at Blackstone Chambers. He also directs the Odysseus Trust

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men