A Critical Consideration of the Director of Public Prosecutions Guidelines in Relation to Assisted Suicide Prosecutions and their Application to the Law

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The Suicide Act 1961 changed the law under which it had been a crime for a person to commit suicide.

Assisted suicide remains illegal under s 2 of the Act.  Whilst a person may refuse medical treatment even though that refusal would result in her death, she cannot ask another to take her life or assist her in doing so without exposing that person to a criminal prosecution.

Following the House of Lords’ judgment in the Debbie Purdy case, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) issued guidelines on the circumstances in which he will exercise his discretion to bring a prosecution in the case of what appears to be an assisted suicide.

The guidelines are set out in full in the paper.  They are not exhaustive, and do not change the law – assisting suicide remain illegal.  They do fetter the DPP’s discretion not to prosecute, but the DPP has always been reluctant to prosecute, and will continue to be so.

A more immediate impact of the guidelines concerns the distinct area of professional medical involvement as an aggravating feature – this will make the medical profession far more wary of administering assistance which could be interpreted as assisting suicide.

In many respects the guidelines go much further than the House of Lords postulated. But it is important that the guidelines are seen in the context of the general law as developed over many years of legal jurisprudence.

Time will tell how well they survive analysis at the coalface of the courtroom, although, given that historically there have been few prosecutions, it may be some time before the guidelines are rigorously tested.

There remain problematic aspects, but provided that the aggravating and mitigating factors enunciated by the DPP are interpreted in accordance with the unchanged law, the guidelines can enhance and maintain the existing law.


  1. Lawrence van Rijn says

    I must admit some hypocrisy on my side with the following option.
    What if, there we change this around in regards to the following: “Whilst a person may refuse medical treatment even though that refusal would result in her death, she cannot ask another to take her life or assist her in doing so without exposing that person to a criminal prosecution”. So, what if certain medications are no longer prescribed, but could be obtained freely? Overdosing on sleeping pills is not a new concept.
    This thought did come with the fear of the consequence on how innocent people, with no intent on committing suicide could be subject to danger of being murdered for simple greed. This would not be an acceptable result!
    So on this, I must step back and reluctantly oppose my own thought. Yet, this matter goes to my heart as I watched my mother being eaten away by cancer. The last 2 years were a nightmare for us. When we lost her I was only 15, and thinking back, if this could have been ended at least a year earlier, both her and us would not have suffered her agony for at least a year. I feel that we all would have been more at peace with this.
    So I feel that there is an issue here that should be addressed.
    Whenever there is an issue of killing a person (separate from murdering a person) i feel that some in THEIR hypocrisy run to the bible and mention how wrong it is.
    Yet, in this instance I call it a book of selfishness, as for example there are provisions for allows for justified killing in the context of warfare, capital punishment, and self-defense. So in that light, is a suicide not a form of self-defence against one’s self (one’s own body)?
    This is not about religion for me! This is about science. Medical science has grown to such extent, has allowed us to live a life more than three times the length that was ever possible in those days, yet it also allow us to suffer or that much longer, so it is important to address to avoidance of suffering in that regard.
    I feel that an assisted suicide should be rare, but when a person is handed a death sentence with added years of suffering, I think it is important to step back and we should adjust our views. Perhaps only a doctor could make such a ruling, and only a few will be willing to give assistance to the victims of prolonged suffering. I think the people willing to carry the burden of ending life should be allowed to continue. Perhaps the DPP should find a way to help these victims of suffering.

  2. Paige says

    Lawrence, you’ve raised some interesting and thought provoking points.

    This is evidently an emotive topic; those who have been there for family or friends through a long illness will often form their views based on the effects of that personal experience.

    I would like to address one of your points and that is your reference to religion – and specifically the Bible.

    Firstly, I would suggest that Christians are entitled to their beliefs and opinions in the same way that you are entitled to yours. Taking passages out of context from the Bible can be misleading and the general message lost.

    But, most importantly, this religious belief is not the reason the law has not yet changed.

    In multicultural Britain it is vital that the law is made to reflect the changing society – for example, many Christians have recently lost court battles regarding their homosexual beliefs.

    One central concern about efforts to institutionalise homicide or suicide is that it erodes respect for human life. It endangers the vulnerable. There would inevitably be breaches of regulation – where those most vulnerable are killed for financial gain or because the family can simply no longer cope. How would assisted dying be policed and regulated?

    Once this first step is made, it is also questionable where this would end. Will those who are deeply depressed or are experiencing locked-in syndrome or other non-life threatening but debilitating conditions also be permitted to die? How can we bestow the right on some groups but not others?

    There are many questions – I have only touched upon a couple – and until these can be answered effectively, I would suggest that legalising assisted suicide is an unwise step to take. I would suggest that life is precious and much can be gained from every moment – our focus should be on ensuring the terminally ill are valued, supported and given the best level of care during their remaining time.