Rules on assisted suicide intended to clarify when helping someone to end their life will result in prosecution will be published today after almost 5,000 people responded to the interim policy.
The eight pages of guidelines will be released by Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions (DPP), this morning along with a 45-page summary of responses, the vast majority of which were from individual members of the public, according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but individual decisions on prosecution are made depending on the circumstances in each case. An interim policy was published in September and has been in force since.
It made clear that someone acting out of compassion, to help a terminally ill patient with a "clear, settled and informed wish to die" was unlikely to face the courts. But persuading or pressuring the victim to kill themselves, or benefiting from their death, would encourage prosecution.
Starmer was forced to issue the guidelines after a law lords ruling in favour of Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis.
She wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to end her life.
Writing in today's Times, the DPP said the recent debate about "mercy killing" made it important to draw the line between those who help a loved one to kill themselves and suspects who have ended someone else's life.
"Assisted suicide involves assisting the victim to take his or her own life,"he wrote. "Someone who takes the life of another undertakes a very different act and may well be liable to a charge of murder or manslaughter. That distinction is an important one that we all need to understand.
"Each case is unique, each case has to be considered on its own facts and merits; and prosecutors have to make professional judgments about difficult and sensitive issues. The assisted suicide policy will help them in that task."
He said that he found "compelling" the large number of responses arguing "that the factors tending against prosecution should focus more on the suspect than on the individual who committed suicide".
Campaigners for the right to die welcomed the initial guidelines and called for the government to legislate on the issue, but ministers were reluctant to intervene. Critics have complained Starmer is effectively legalising assisted suicide.
The prime minister, Gordon Brown, writing in a newspaper yesterday, said changing the law would "fundamentally change" attitudes to death and could lead to pressure being put on frail elderly relatives. Purdy said his intervention showed a "lack of respect" to the public.
Scope, a charity for disabled people, warned its members were "genuinely frightened" about any changes that would weaken existing safeguards.
The chief executive, Richard Hawkes, said: "We recognise that assisted suicide is a complex and emotional issue. However, as a charity which supports thousands of disabled people with complex support needs, we are very concerned about the potential impact of the DPP's new guidelines on assisted suicide."
Siddique, Haroon. (25th of February, 2010.) DPP releases assisted suicide guidelines. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/feb/25/dpp-releases-assisted-suicide-guidelines