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A law with a stern face but an understanding heart

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A sensible policy to guide prosecutors considering cases of encouraging or assisting suicide has been published

In response to an instruction from the Supreme Court, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer QC (pictured above) today published the policy ("Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide") that he will follow in deciding whether cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, which is illegal under Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, should be prosecuted.

The policy published by Mr Starmer followed a public consultation based on an interim policy issued five months earlier. The public consultation had been extensive: the DPP received nearly 5,000 submissions.

The final version of the policy included a number of important changes from the interim version. A significant addition is the statement that assistance with suicide given by “a medical doctor, nurse, other health care professional, a professional carer or a person in authority, such as a prison officer” would be regarded as an aggravating factor – ie a circumstance likely to result in prosecution. This has significant implications for proposals to legalise assisted suicide which are based on the concept of physician-assisted suicide.

The DPP’s inclusion of this clause in his prosecuting policy seems to have been in response to a submission by the Royal College of Physicians, who wrote to him that:

“Our duty of care is to work with patients to mitigate and overcome their clinical difficulties and suffering. It is clear to us that this does not include being, in any way, part of their suicide. We would go so far as to say that any evidence that any clinician has been part, in any way, of assisting a suicide death should be subject to prosecution. The trust afforded doctors and nurses in particular gives their views considerable weight with their patients and the public. Clinicians’ duties of care entail active pursuit of alternative solutions to assisted suicide, not its facilitation. Otherwise they are open to misinterpretation or cynical manipulation”.

Click here to access the DPP’s policy in full.

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