Assisting suicide is a subject about which many people have deeply held and sincere views – on both sides of the debate. My guidance will add to this debate.
Let me make it clear: only Parliament may change the criminal law. I am not able to do so and neither is any court. Neither am I able to provide individuals with a guarantee that they will not be prosecuted if they do or do not do certain acts.
In 1961, Parliament decided that committing suicide should not be a crime; but to protect the vulnerable, it also decided that those who assist another to commit suicide should be guilty of an offence. And again let me make it clear: this debate is not about legalising euthanasia. If an individual directly causes the death of another, the appropriate charge is murder or manslaughter.
But even in 1961, Parliament recognised that the ways in which people commit suicide and how others may assist are very varied. In order to bring some consistency to when proceedings should be brought Parliament required the Director of Public Prosecutions to consent to any prosecution.
It has never been the case in this country that every criminal offence for which there is sufficient evidence should be prosecuted. Parliament has given those who prosecute discretion whether to bring criminal proceedings depending on an evaluation of the public interest.
Of course, the criminal law must be upheld and prosecutions must be brought in appropriate cases. But we are proud of the way we temper justice with mercy. The discretion not to prosecute provides essential flexibility to prosecutors. Being able to translate the often blunt words of a criminal statute into a meaningful decision based on the individual facts of a case enables compassion to be shown where appropriate.
So the critical question I have considered is: what are the circumstances in which it is or is not in the public interest to prosecute a person against whom there is enough evidence to support the criminal offence of assisted suicide?
There are many factual circumstances: whether it is the accompanying of a loved one on a flight to Switzerland or what appears to be a suicide pact between an elderly couple in which one of them has survived.
I have already indicated that acting with compassion and assisting someone who had a clear and settled intent to commit suicide would be factors against prosecution. But would it make a difference if a person was under the age of 18? Does it matter if the person who dies was not suffering from a terminal illness or severe degenerative condition, or if they had a mental illness or learning difficulty?
Are any of these factors more worthy of sympathy than a criminal trial?
If you answer “Yes”, you are exercising your discretion whether to prosecute. I think these factors do make a difference, and I will be setting out exactly how later on today.
I am also opening a public consultation on these guidelines and I am keen to hear from all those who want to contribute to the debate.
Starmer, Keir. (23rd of September, 2009). Why I am clarifying the law on suicide, by Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/6219464/Why-I-am-clarifying-the-law-on-assisted-suicide-by-Keir-Starmer-Director-of-Public-Prosecuitions.html