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.