Consultation on public interest guidance for suicide pact and ‘mercy killing’ type cases
The CPS is conducting a public consultation on a proposed revision to its legal guidance on Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter. The purpose of the consultation is to provide interested persons with an opportunity to provide comments and to ensure the final version of the guidance is informed by as wide a range of views as possible.
The proposed revision is intended to provide guidance to prosecutors on the public interest factors relevant when considering a death arising from a suicide pact (prosecuted as manslaughter - see section 4(1) of the Homicide Act 1957) or a so-called ‘mercy killing’. A ‘mercy killing’ is any killing in which the suspect believes they are acting wholly out of compassion for the deceased.
CPS guidance is designed to give clear advice to prosecutors who have been asked either for a charging decision or for early advice to the police. Adherence to guidance ensures that there is predictability, transparency and consistency of decision making across the CPS.
As with every other case, the test set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors (the Code) will be applied: there must be enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. If the case does not pass that evidential stage, it must not go ahead no matter how important or serious it may be. Only if the case does pass the evidential stage, will consideration be given to whether a prosecution is needed in the public interest. It has long been recognised that a prosecution does not follow automatically whenever an offence is believed to have been committed.
The Code sets out the factors relevant to determining whether a prosecution is in the public interest. This is a valuable safeguard as it enables the prosecutor to consider the entire background of the case and ensures that prosecutions are not brought in inappropriate circumstances. Its application ensures predictability and consistency of decision-making.
Our legal guidance is an important aspect of our work and provides support to our prosecutors to make effective Code compliant decisions in all cases, thereby helping to ensure the delivery of justice. Crown Prosecutors to whom the decision-making function is delegated need to be given the clearest possible guidance about the public interest factors that they must consider when making charging decisions. The police, who apply the Code when exercising an important discretion as to whether to bring a case to the attention of the Crown Prosecutors for a charging decision, also need guidance to ensure a fair and consistent approach to these difficult and sensitive cases.
The CPS regularly reviews and updates our legal guidance to ensure it supports our prosecutors. A recent review of the Homicide Guidance identified that further direction could be provided to assist prosecutors with the application of the public interest test in these cases. The review highlighted the similarities between public interest considerations within the Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide and those applicable where the parties have entered into a suicide pact or cases of so called ‘mercy killing’. These are cases where the course of conduct goes beyond encouraging or assisting suicide. Instead, the suspect has committed the act that caused the death of the victim. It includes cases in which the victim was seriously physically unwell and unable to undertake the act themselves and may have asked the suspect to do the act.
A person commits murder or manslaughter if they do an act that causes the death of the victim, even where they believe that they were simply carrying out the victim’s express wish or acting in the victim’s best interest. Because of the analogous considerations that apply to those charged with murder or manslaughter in so called ‘mercy killings’ and deaths caused as part of a failed suicide pact, we consider that similar specific guidance on the relevant public interest factors is required in these cases.
Therefore, the proposed Homicide legal guidance revision includes reference to relevant public interest factors similar to those set out in the Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide. The policy was originally published following the decision of the House of Lords in R (on the application of Purdy) v Director of Public Prosecutions  UKHL 45 and a public consultation exercise which attracted more than 5,000 responses.
It is proposed that a new section (see: Proposed changes to ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ Guidance) is added to the current guidance. The section seeks to clarify the relevant factors that should be considered in exceptional cases where there is evidence of a suicide pact or so called 'mercy killing'. It states that it does not provide any assurance that a person will be immune from prosecution if he or she does an act that ends the life of another person. It has been drafted to ensure that prosecutors are given assistance when taking the decision to prosecute in such complex and sensitive cases.
The consultation seeks your views on the following questions:
- Do you think that the categories of cases to which these additional factors apply are appropriate?
- Do you agree that the factors considered should be broadly consistent with those set out in the assisted suicide policy?
- Are there any further factors in favour of prosecution that should be included?
- Are there any further factors tending against prosecution that should be included?
- Please provide any other feedback you wish to share around how the revised guidance could be improved?
How to Respond
This consultation runs from 14 January to midnight of 8 April 2022.
You can provide your responses using our online form below.
Alternatively, you can:
Homicide Guidance Consultation
Priority Projects Team
Strategy and Policy Directorate
Crown Prosecution Service
10th Floor, 102 Petty France
London SW1H 9EA
After the consultation closing date, we will consider every individual response received. A summary of the consultation responses will be published on the CPS website in accordance with Government Principles. The final version of the revised section will be published within the Homicide legal guidance.
Once your responses have been collated and considered and the summary of responses has been published your individual response form (digital or hardcopy) will be destroyed.
We look forward to receiving your response.