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Prosecutors seek the public’s views on mercy killings and failed suicide pacts

|News, Violent crime

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is seeking views on a proposed update to legal guidance on homicide, to assist prosecutors considering the public interest when dealing with suspects in deaths arising out of failed suicide pacts and so called ‘mercy killings’.

Launching a public consultation today (Friday 14 January), the CPS has set out a number of public interest factors prosecutors should consider when deciding whether or not to charge a suspect with murder or manslaughter, where the suspect believes they were acting wholly out of compassion for the deceased.

The proposed update to the legal guidance on murder and manslaughter does not decriminalise any offences, and a suspect is not immune from prosecution if they claim it was a ‘mercy killing’ or failed suicide pact. The guidance does not touch on ‘assisted dying’ or other similar scenarios which are treated separately in law.

The guidelines are designed to give clear advice to prosecutors who have been asked either for a charging decision or for early advice by the police. It is proposed that CPS homicide legal guidance should be updated to include reference to relevant public interest factors similar to those previously set out in the guidance for prosecutors in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide.

It is designed to give clear advice to prosecutors and to ensure there is transparent and consistent decision making across the CPS when considering these sensitive cases.

Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC said:

“Suicide pacts and so-called mercy killings are tragedies for the family and friends of those involved.

“It is a sensitive and emotive topic which can be very divisive and provoke strong views, but our prosecutors may need to decide whether the legal test for criminal charges has been met. The individual circumstances of every case must be carefully weighed up when considering whether it is in the public interest to charge.

“It is important that we clearly lay out the reasoning behind our decision-making, and we are seeking views on a range of factors which would be considered when determining whether it is appropriate to prosecute.

“But let me be clear that these are extremely serious cases. We will always prosecute cases of murder and manslaughter where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest.”

The draft guidance sets out 11 factors that tend to favour a prosecution, including:

  • if the victim was under 18;
  • the victim lacked mental capacity to make an informed decision to end their life;
  • the suspect had a history of violence or abuse against the victim;
  • the suspect received a financial reward; or
  • the suspect had a duty of care such as a doctor or nurse.

There are six factors where a prosecution would be less likely, including:

  • if the victim had reached a voluntary, settled and informed decision to end their life;
  • the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion;
  • the suspect attempted to take their own life at the same time as part of a suicide pact; or
  • the suspect reported the death to the police and fully assisted the authorities.

Although not an exhaustive list these factors and others will be considered when applying the public interest test in cases where prosecutors are satisfied there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

The 12-week consultation begins on Friday, 14 January and will end on Friday, 8 April.

A summary of the consultation responses and the final version of the revised guidance will be published on the CPS website in accordance with the Government's guidelines.

Notes to editors

The draft guidance can be found here and the consultation document is here.

Further reading

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