Nick Cartwright: A verdict that forces the hand of prosecutors

Friday 31 July 2009 00:00
Comments

The House of Lords judgment fails to address the question of whether travelling abroad with a loved one is the criminal act of assisted suicide – but it does require the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to publish guidelines on how he makes a decision to prosecute, or not.

So far, more than 100 Britons have travelled to the Swiss assisted suicide clinic Dignitas, but there has yet to be a single prosecution. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

The guidelines would most likely build on the DPP's decision not to prosecute the family of the rugby player Daniel James, who went to Dignitas for an assisted death even though he was not terminally ill. They will have to clearly set out the circumstances in which loved ones would not be prosecuted, giving reassurance to thousands who would otherwise have been deterred, and opening the way to decriminalised suicide tourism.

The guidelines are likely to be sympathetic in nature. Lord Brown has said they should reflect that many people who assist a loved one to die "may fairly hope to be, if not commended, at the very least forgiven".

The House of Lords ruled that the right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights extended to a protection of personal autonomy and ultimately the right to have choices over the timing and manner of one's own death. This interpretation is in line with how the European Court of Justice has interpreted the right.

The public policy reasons the DPP was hoping would protect him from having to publish guidelines were rejected by their lordships and quite correctly their lordships are demanding precise guidelines guaranteeing legal certainty.

In its legislative capacity, the House of Lords had earlier rejected Lord Falconer's amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill which would have legalised assisting someone to travel abroad to die, provided that adequate safeguards were met. Unless Parliament acts to bring about a change in the law, assisting someone to travel abroad could become decriminalised, without these safeguards.

Nick Cartwright is an expert in medico-legal decision-making at the University of Reading and is currently writing a commentary on the case of Debbie Purdy for the "Medical Law Review", the UK's authoritative source of reference on health care and the law, which will involve an analysis of judicial reasoning in the High Court, Court of Appeal and House of Lords

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in