Assisted Suicide Law: Should It Be Changed?

Assisted SuicideNotwithstanding that criminal law specialist legal secretaries’ and PAs’ work diaries are hardly brimming with such enquiries from clients, this area of law still conjures up some of the strongest thoughts and opinions from all of us, no matter which side of the fence we choose to stand on over the issue. Indeed, it may be fair to state that this subject probably represents one of the most controversial issues that currently shrouds our legal system.

Following the broadcast of the programme “A short stay in Switzerland”, which showed the incredibly talented Julie Walters’s true-life portrayal of Dr. Anne Turner’s assisted suicide trip to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, there is absolutely no doubt that this exceptionally moving performance will have stirred up even more emotion. Those who have seen it would have to admit to having been taken to the deepest, darkest depths of their conscience as they watched this truly amazing story of a courageous woman choosing to end her life as a consequence of an aggressively degenerative disease.

The current law on assisted suicide may be viewed by many people as being particularly harsh. Upon conviction, under the Suicide Act 1961, a person who has assisted someone to die in this way may be liable for a term of imprisonment of up to 14 years. The crime is not restricted to having carried out the actus reus of this offence, as even intending to encourage or assist a suicide is sufficient to face a criminal charge and subsequent stiff penalty. 

It would appear that the airing of this programme could not have been any more of a coincidence. Within the last couple of weeks, the government has announced plans to look into this area of law. It is generally accepted that this area of law requires far more clarity and transparency, especially in light of a number of cases that have seen people having to approach the court system for a better understanding of their position. This has always been an attempt to assert the fact that loved ones would not be liable for prosecution if they assist in someone’s death.

An increasingly large number of British people have now gone to the Swiss clinic to end their lives. Very recently the new Director for Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, did not pursue a prosecution against the family that had helped 23 year old Daniel James to die in this way. Daniel had been paralysed from the chest down in a rugby accident. At the time, Mr Starmer claimed to have sufficient evidence against this family but still failed to bring about a prosecution. What is more, Mr Starmer has hinted that it would be unlikely that anyone else would face similar charges in the future.

Whilst legislation is completely likely in this area, for those who are looking for the legalisation of euthanasia it would seem that they will still have to wait for this. The Prime Minister and the government, senior church members and top judges all appear to oppose this shift in the law at the moment. They all comment on the fact that such an amendment could bring about absolutely disastrous consequences, with more and more people electing this course of action when they are not of sound mind to make that decision in the first place.

Of course, the executive and judiciary of this country have a moral duty to protect the well-being of its citizens, but it is extremely interesting to note that in all the countries that have implemented this change in the law so far, there has never been a scrap of evidence to substantiate any of these concerns or misgivings.

This is one controversial issue that will require avid investigation in the near future. We will do our very best to announce news in this area as soon as it comes to light.