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DPP's Introductory Remarks on Assisted Suicide Policy, 25 FEB 2010


The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer QC published a new Assisted Suicide Policy today and made the following introductory remarks:

"Let me begin by setting the context.

The case of Purdy did not change the law, nor does this Policy, and suggestions to the contrary are simply wrong.

The Policy does not in any way "decriminalise" the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide, which remains a serious criminal offence under the Suicide Act 1961 and is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

Nothing in the Policy can be taken to amount to an assurance that a person will not be prosecuted if he or she does an act that encourages or assists the suicide or the attempted suicide of another person.

The Policy does not open the door for euthanasia or so-called mercy killings. They are quite different from assisted suicide, and fall to be considered as murder or manslaughter.

The act of suicide requires the victim to take his or her own life.

Euthanasia and mercy killing are where the suspect takes the life of another.

In the Debbie Purdy case, the House of Lords required me, and I quote: "to clarify what his position is as to the factors that he regards as relevant for and against prosecution" (paragraph 55 of the judgment) in deciding whether or not to consent to a prosecution under section 2[1] of the Suicide Act 1961.

This was a legal ruling with which I was bound to comply.

In September we published an Interim Policy and launched a 12-week public consultation exercise.

My aim was to ensure that I was aware of and could take properly into account the views of all those with an interest in the issue.

I have always recognised that this is an extremely sensitive area of the law on which there are many sincere and deeply held views.

We received a very substantial number of responses to the consultation exercise from over 4,800 individuals and organisations. That represents, we believe, the most extensive snapshot of public opinion on assisted suicide since the 1961 Act was passed.

Of the 4,800 responses, almost 4,000 individual members of the public responded to the consultation.

We also received replies from significant numbers of doctors and other healthcare professionals, representatives of several faiths, academics, lawyers, public servants and politicians, as well as over 100 organisations.

The Policy is about how we make decisions in cases of assisted suicide.  The first thing to note is that there has been a change to the wording of the law since the Interim Policy was published. As a result of section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act which came into force on 1 February 2010, "aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring" became "acts capable of encouraging or assisting".

In cases where there is enough evidence to justify a prosecution we have to decide whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. That involves an exercise of discretion.

Discretion for prosecutors is nothing new. It has never been the case that every offence where there is sufficient evidence must automatically be prosecuted.

The Policy sets out the public interest factors which prosecutors will take into account in reaching their decisions.

It is to be used in conjunction with the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Every case will continue to be judged on its own facts and merits.

Assessing the public interest is not simply a matter of adding up the number of factors for and against prosecution to see which side has the greater number.

It is not a "tick-box exercise". Nor can it be described as a "numbers game".

Prosecutors must decide the importance of each public interest factor in the circumstances of each case and go on to make an overall assessment. It is quite possible that one factor alone may outweigh a number of other factors which tend in the opposite direction.

There have been changes to the Policy but that does not mean that there is a greater or lesser likelihood of prosecution.

As the Summary of Responses makes clear, the public agreed that we had correctly identified many of the relevant public interest factors and these remain in the Policy.

However, there was a strong view that the factors against prosecution should not focus on the behaviour and characteristics of the victim, but should more properly be centred on the actions and role of the suspect. I agree with that approach and the Policy has been refocused.

As a result of this change, factors relating to the health and disability of the victim have been removed from the Policy.

In addition, the factors relating to the relationship of the suspect to the victim - namely that the suspect was the spouse, partner, relative or close personal friend of the victim - have also been removed.

As these two factors have been removed from both public interest lists in favour of and against prosecution, the Policy has neither been relaxed nor tightened.

One victim-specific factor remains, that is that the victim had reached a "voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision" to commit suicide.

Although the majority of respondents did not support this as a factor against prosecution, I have taken the view that this factor is central to any assessment of a case of assisted suicide. As a result this factor remains in the Policy in both the lists.

In addition there is a new factor in favour of prosecution. This deals with the situation where previous violence or abuse by the suspect against the victim may have had an effect upon the victim's decision to commit suicide.

We have also broadened the factor relating to healthcare professionals and in addition have included persons in a position of authority.

We now have a more focused, tailored approach.

As a result, there is no longer a need for weighting of factors and weighting has been removed.

I believe that this makes the Policy clearer and more accessible. And the public can have full confidence in the Policy.

It takes immediate effect."

Keir Starmer QC
Director of Public Prosecutions