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Guidance issued to clarify law on assisted suicide

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Those who help people to commit suicide may be less likely to face prosecution in future if the the indiviual they are assisting has a terminal illness or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.

It is one of a list of “public interest factors” that could be less likely to lead to a prosecution for assisted suicide, published for consultation today by the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC.

Mr Starmer said: “I am today clarifying those factors of public interest which I believe weigh for or against prosecuting someone for assisting another to take their own life. Assisting suicide has been a criminal offence for nearly fifty years and my interim policy does nothing to change that.

“There are also no guarantees against prosecution and it is my job to ensure that the most vulnerable people are protected while at the same time giving enough information to those people who want to be able to make informed decisions about what actions they may choose to take.”

Others factors on the list include that:

  • the victim had a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide
  • the victim asked personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect
  • the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion
  • the suspect was the spouse, partner, or a close relative or a close personal friend of the victim, within the context of a long-term and supportive relationship

But “public interest factors” that could be more likely to lead to a prosecution for assisted suicide include:

  • the victim was under 18 years of age
  • the victim had a learning difficulty or mental illness that could have affected their decision
  • the victim did not indicate unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide

The full consultation document is available on the Crown Prosecution Service website. The consultation will last 12 weeks.

In July, the Royal College of Nursing abandoned its position of opposition to assisted suicide, following consultation with its members.

The RCN adopted a position of neutrality on the issue, neither supporting peoples’ right to take their own lives, nor opposing it.

Following calls from members during the consultation, the college will issue guidance to nurses on the legal, ethical, regulatory and clinical issues involved in assisted suicide.

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