Robert Verkaik: When clarity in the law does not always make the best policy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is easy to understand why desperate and terminally ill people who choose to end their lives in a flat in Switzerland hundreds of miles from home should want the law on assisted suicide to be made crystal clear. The journey to Dignitas, a nondescript apartment in a business park in a village near Zurich, is bound to be a traumatic one and, unless relatives and friends who accompany terminal ill loved ones can make it without fear of prosecution, the experience will be made that much worse.

But clarity in the law does not always make for the best policy. Since Dignitas opened 10 years ago, 100 British citizens have taken advantage of Swiss laws that allow them to die with help from doctors and nurses. During this period not a single spouse, relative or friend has been convicted under the 1961 Suicide Act for helping them. A handful who have admitted to travelling to Dignitas have been arrested, but usually after the police received a complaint.

Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar, along with campaign groups such as Dignity in Dying, wanted to end this situation by making the Crown Prosecution Service publish a policy for such cases. That was part of a concerted campaign to change the law in favour of legalising assisted suicide.

It was a high-risk strategy . The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) can only apply the law under the Code for Prosecutors. He cannot say what he believes the law should be. If Lord Justice Scott Baker and Mr Justice Aikens had ruled yesterday that Ms Purdy and her husband had the right to know exactly what should be done in a case like theirs, then the law of unintended consequences might in fact have led to a much tougher approach to assisted suicide. Rather than continuing to use the public interest test not to prosecute, the DPP would have had to make clear that Dignitas suicides could fall foul of English law.

The law against assisted suicide is in fact very clear and was drawn up by Parliament partly to prevent vulnerable members of society falling victim to euthanasia. It has a very wide application, catching people eager to get their hands on elderly relatives' riches, as well as those who might want to profit from encouraging the terminal ill to die in Switzerland. This particular law does work. It ain't broke, so don't fix it.