Setback for MS sufferer who wants husband to help her die

'I'm not prepared for my husband to face jail', says woman – but judges refuse to clarify assisted-suicide law

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00

A woman suffering from multiple sclerosis who wants her husband to accompany her to Switzerland so she can die in dignity has vowed to continue her fight to clarify the law after two judges yesterday ruled that prosecutors do not have to publish special guidance on assisted suicide cases.

Debbie Purdy, 45, who uses a wheelchair, travelled from Bradford to London to hear the outcome of her case. She claimed that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had a legal duty to say when he was most likely to prosecute an allegation of assisted suicide.

Ms Purdy said that, without such clarity, her husband, Omar, would be at risk of being imprisoned for up to 14 years if he played any part in her travel arrangements to Dignitas, the Swiss clinic where 100 British citizens have chosen to stay to end their lives.

Her lawyers argued the DPP was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for her private and family life, because of his failure to make the law clear.

But Lord Justice Scott Baker and Mr Justice Aikens, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled that Ms Purdy's human rights had not been infringed and that it was up to Parliament to redraw the limits of the law.

Lord Justice Scott Baker added: "We cannot leave this case without expressing great sympathy for Ms Purdy, her husband and others in a similar position who wish to know in advance whether they will face prosecution for doing what many would regard as something the law should permit, namely to help a loved one go abroad to end their suffering when they are unable to do it on their own."

But he added: "This would involve a change in the law. The offence of assisted suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances; only Parliament can change it."

After leaving court, Ms Purdy said she was disappointed with the ruling and promised to take her case to the Court of Appeal.

Speaking outside the High Court, she said: "We still don't know how we can make sure that we stay within the law, because I'm certainly not prepared for Omar to break the law – I'm not prepared for him to face jail. How can we make sure that we act within the law if they won't tell us in what circumstances they would prosecute?"

Ms Purdy met her husband in a bar in Singapore in 1995, as she was first experiencing the early symptoms of her condition. Mr Puente, a jazz musician from Cuba, has stood by her since.

She says she is still considering travelling to Switzerland to take a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by doctors at Dignitas. Ms Purdy wants her husband at her side but fears he may be prosecuted in Britain, and says she may therefore have to make the trip earlier than she really wanted.

Earlier this month, a former rugby player travelled to Dignitas to commit suicide. It is understood that the parents of Daniel James, 23, from Worcester, who was paralysed during training, are being investigated by police and a report has been referred to the West Midlands complex casework unit of the Crown Prosecution Service. Nearly 100 people have travelled to Switzerland to take their lives, but no one has been convicted of assisting suicide.

Many supporters of a change in the law believe the Purdy case could have ended up harming the cause of a death in dignity campaign. Michael Irwin, a former GP and former chairman of the campaign group Dignity in Dying, said that the DPP could never have been expected to give such a commitment as that requested by Debbie Purdy for her husband.

Since 2005, Dr Irwin has accompanied three terminally-ill people to Zurich for an assisted suicide.

In a letter to The Independent, he said: "I am 99 per cent certain that Omar Puente will not be prosecuted, and perhaps never even questioned by the police, if he accompanies his wife to Dignitas in Zurich when eventually she becomes 'terminally ill'.

"The police have interviewed me three times about my activities with Dignitas, with reports being sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. But nothing further has happened.When it comes to acting on the 1961 Suicide Act (which states that it is a crime to 'aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another'), we like a 'fudge' in this country if the suicide occurs abroad."

A spokesperson for the CPS said after the ruling: "The CPS has great sympathy for the personal circumstances of Mrs Purdy and her family. The judgment has, however, recognised that the Code for Crown Prosecutors, against which all cases are reviewed, is clear and precise, that the law is adequate and there is no need for a specific policy for cases of assisted suicide."

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