UK Law Lords order clarification of assisted suicide law during final session

[JURIST] The UK Law Lords [official website], during their final session Thursday, ordered [judgment text] the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) [official website] to clarify the UK's laws on assisted suicide. The case was brought by Debbie Purdy, a 46-year-old who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Purdy wants her husband to help her to travel to Switzerland to end her life when the disease becomes unbearable. Under the UK's Suicide Act 1961 [text], Purdy's husband could face up to 14 years in prison if he aids her in ending her life, even in Switzerland where physician-assisted suicide is legal. In demanding the DPP clarify the law, the Law Lords reasoned:


Ms Purdy's request for information is to be seen in the light of that background. As has been said, she does not seek an immunity. Instead she wants to be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not to ask for her husband's assistance. She is not willing to expose him to the risk of being prosecuted if he assists her. But the Director has declined to say what factors he will take into consideration in deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute those who assist people to end their lives in countries where assisted suicide is lawful. This presents her with a dilemma. If the risk of prosecution is sufficiently low, she can wait until the very last moment before she makes the journey. If the risk is too high she will have to make the journey unaided to end her life before she would otherwise wish to do so. Moreover she is not alone in finding herself in this predicament. Statements have been produced showing that others in her situation have chosen to travel without close family members to avoid the risk of their being prosecuted. Others have given up the idea of an assisted suicide altogether and have been left to die what has been described as a distressing and undignified death. It is patently obvious that the issue is not going to go away.

Thursday's ruling overturns a February ruling [text; JURIST report] by the Court of Appeals (Civil Division) [official website]. DPP Keir Starmer announced [press release] that he had already assembled a team to review the law and hoped to implement an interim policy by September, with a permanent policy in place by spring 2010. Thursday's judgments were the last [UK Parliament report] the Law Lords will issue as the UK's highest court. The UK Supreme Court [official website] will open and begin hearing cases in October.

Physician assisted suicide is a highly contested issue in Europe and other parts of the world. Many Britons have reportedly gone to the Dignitas clinic [website, in German] in Switzerland to obtain assisted suicides. Earlier this month, the House of Lords rejected a bill that would would have barred prosecuting those who go abroad to help others commit assisted suicide. Last year, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown [official website] spoke out against laws allowing assisted suicide [BBC report], saying that he would not create laws that "put pressure on people to end their lives." Also last year, Luxembourg came close to passing a bill [JURIST report] to legalize assisted suicide but the measure was not approved by monarch Grand Duke Henri. Henri's veto prompted the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies to amend the constitution [JURIST report] to eliminate the requirement that the Grand Duke approve of all legislation. In 2006, the House of Lords set aside a bill to legalize assisted suicide following opposition by physician groups [JURIST reports]. Euthanasia was legalized in the Netherlands [BBC report] in 2001, and Belgium followed suit [JURIST report] in 2002.

 

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.