UK court dismisses appeal to clarify assisted suicide law

[JURIST] The England and Wales Court of Appeals (Civil Division) [official website] on Wednesday refused [judgment text] to clarify Britain's law banning assisted suicide in an action initiated by a British woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. Debbie Purdy, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1995 and has since lost most of her ability to function independently, sought the court's interpretation of the possible legal repercussions that might face her husband on his return to Britain if he accompanied her to a country where assisted suicide is legal. Under the current British Suicide Act of 1961 [text], Purdy's husband could possibly face up to 14 years in prison if he aids, abets, counsels, or procures her suicide. While the court had sympathy for Purdy's case, it held that a prosecutor does not have a duty to provide specific guidance about how he will exercise his discretion in the future. Though Purdy's appeal was rejected, the judgment noted other cases in which family members who accompanied loved ones to assisted suicide clinics abroad were spared from prosecution, adding that:

Even if a defendant were to be convicted, but the circumstances were such that in the judgment of the court, no penal sanction would be appropriate, the court, exercising its own sentencing responsibilities would order that the offender should be discharged, and might well question publicly the decision to prosecute. In other words, the court is part of the protective system which discourages and would prevent or extinguish the effect of any arbitrary or unprincipled exercise by the [prosecutor] of his responsibilities.
The court advised Purdy to seek legal advice on the issue and make her own decision.

Physician assisted suicide remains a highly contested issue throughout much of the world. A proposed bill to legalize assisted suicide in the UK was set aside by the House of Lords in May 2007 following opposition by physician groups [JURIST reports]. Last year, the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies narrowly passed a bill legalizing assisted suicide [JURIST report], a move that would have made Luxembourg the third European Union country to allow the controversial practice. The country's monarch, Grand Duke Henri [official website, in French], refused to approve the bill, prompting the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies to amend the country's constitution [JURIST report] to eliminate the requirement that its Grand Duke approve legislation before it becomes law so that the euthanasia bill could move forward. Euthanasia was legalized in the Netherlands [BBC report] in 2001, and Belgium followed suit [JURIST report] in 2002.


 

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