Robert Verkaik: The criminal justice system is not equipped for compassion

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The Independent Online

The cruel extremes of the human condition are not well served by the blunt instrument of the law. No matter how diligent and far-sighted our lawmakers wish to be, there is little they could have done to plan for the invidious predicament in which the Nicklinson family now find themselves.

Tony Nicklinson is a strong-willed man who is determined to end his own suffering. His wife and two daughters want to do everything they can to ease his torment, but know that by hastening his death they expose themselves to criminal prosecution and a possible life sentence for murder.

Because Mr Nicklinson cannot himself take the physical steps to bring his life to an end, the family cannot expect to be charged with the lesser offence of assisted suicide, which attracts a maximum 14-year prison sentence. The law does not yet recognise what is colloquially known as a "mercy killing" and the only real mercy is in the discretion exercised by the prosecutors and the courts.

Earlier this year two so-called "mercy killers" found themselves charged with murder. They were two loving mothers, who after years of devoted care to their disabled children felt they had no choice but to take the law into their own hands. But while Bridget Gilderdale was allowed to walk free from court after helping her daughter die, Frances Inglis is serving many years in prison for killing her son.

These two startlingly different outcomes, to two seemingly similar cases of "mercy killing", show how little scope there is for calibrating compassion in our criminal justice system. But if the law is to change, it should not be through any judicial activism or the self-denying ordinance of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Last week the Government signalled that it wished to take forward the Law Commission's recommendation for a full review of the law of murder. That review must also include the merits of introducing a lesser offence of "mercy killing" which gives justice to those whose actions are wholly motivated by compassion.

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