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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game