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Press briefing on assisted suicide consultation

23/09/2009

At today's (September 23, 2009) press briefing DPP Keir Starmer QC discussed the public consultation on assisted suicide.

Good morning, thank you to you all for coming to this briefing. I hope you've had and have had time to read the interim policy document. In a minute I'll explain the general approach we've taken on this issue and highlight the key parts of the interim policy document and then I'll take questions.

Can I just make a few preliminary remarks before I do so? First, assisted suicide is an offence set out in statute and only parliament can change the law. I'm not able to do so and nothing in the interim policy should be taken as me doing so neither am I able to provide individuals with a guarantee that they will or will not be prosecuted if they do or do not do an act. However, when parliament passed the law in 1961, it recognised that the ways in which people commit suicide and how others may assist are very varied; it therefore provided a discretion whether or not to prosecute by requiring the director of public prosecutions to consent to any prosecution. That discretion not to prosecute provides essential flexibility to prosecutors being able to translate the often blunt words of a criminal statute into a meaningful decision based on the facts of each case and enables compassion to be shown where appropriate. That discretion of course has been exercised for many years but in July, the House of Lords required me to publish a policy setting out the factors I take into account when exercising that discretion. The interim policy you now have is a result of that judgement, is of immediate effect and applies from now on to any act within England and Wales coming in within the terms of the interim policy.

Recognising that we prosecute on behalf of the public and that the issue of assisted suicide is one on which people have deeply held views one way or the other, I have decided to consult on the interim policy with a view of developing a final policy in early 2010 and this marks not only the publication of the interim policy but the start of the consultation process. I'm very keen for that consultation to be as wide as possible.

Can I then turn to the policy itself and just highlight the approach we've taken, that is, to protect the vulnerable from those that may gain from assisting their suicide, but at the same time, to identify ass far as it's possible to do so, those cases where it would not be appropriate to prosecute.

Looking at the policy document, the words under paragraph 6 are important, namely that there will be in all these cases, an investigation by the Police and it will be the information that that investigation turns up that will be relevant to the consideration of the factors set out in this interim policy. We work closely with the Police at an early stage of those investigations.

So far as the decision making process is concerned, as set out in paragraph 7, there are two stages. The first stage is an assessment of whether there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction. Only if that is the case do we go on to consider whether prosecution is needed in the public interest and the focus of this document as you will have seen is on the second stage.

We deal with the evidential stage of paragraphs 9 through to 13. Can I highlight paragraph 10, which simply sets out what needs to be proven for the evidential stage to be satisfied, namely that the victim committed or attempted to commit suicide and the suspect assisted them in doing so. You'll appreciate from reading that paragraph how broad the offence of assisted suicide is, and thus why parliament thought it sensible to have a discretion in the DPP in considering the cases that should be prosecuted and those that shouldn't.

In paragraph 12, the policy makes the important point that the active suicide requires the victim to take his or her own life, it remains murder or manslaughter to cause the death of someone who wishes to commit suicide but is unable to do so for him or herself. This policy does not cover euthanasia, which is a separate offence under the law and remains an offence.

Can I then turn to the public interest stage paragraph 15 makes it clear that the factors that we've identified in this policy are set out to be taken into account but deciding on the public interest is not simply going to be a matter of adding up the number of factors on each side and seeing which side has the greater number and in some cases, a single factor might be so powerful that it outweighs all others.

At paragraph 17 we make the important point that in some cases the only source of information about the circumstances of the suicide and the state of mind of the victim is the suspect, and prosecutors and investigators should make sure that they pursue all reasonable lines of further enquiry in order to obtain where possible, independent verification of the suspect's account.

Turning then at paragraph 19 to the public interest factors in favour of prosecution, they're set out in sub-paragraphs 1 through to 16, I'll just touch on them briefly.

First that the victim was under 18 years of age.

Secondly that the victim's capacity to reach an informed decision was adversely affected by a recognised mental illness or learning difficulty.

Third, that the victim did not have a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide.

Fourth, the victim did not indicate unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wanted to commit suicide.

Fifth, the victim did not ask personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect.

Sixth, that the victim did not have a terminal illness, a severe or incurable physical disability or severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.

Seventh, that the suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion, for example that they stood to gain on some way from the death.

Eighth, the suspect persuaded, pressurised or maliciously encouraged the victim to commit suicide or exercised improper influence in the victim's decision to do so.

A dotted line really need to be drawn under sub-paragraph 8, because as I've indicated in paragraph 24 following those factors 1-8 are the factors which in most cases will carry more weight than the other factors in favour of prosecution.

9 through to 16 are the other factors that fall as if it were to the other category.

Namely that the victim was able to undertake the act that constituted his or her suicide.

That the suspect was not the spouse, partner, close relative or close personal friend of the victim.

Eleven, the suspect was unknown to the victim and assisted by providing specific information via a website or publication to the victim to assist him or her in committing suicide.

Twelve, the suspect gave assistance to more than one victim who were not know to each other.

Thirteen, the suspect was paid by the victim or those close to the victim for their assistance.

Fourteen, the suspect was paid to care for the victim in a care or nursing home environment.

Fifteen, the suspect was aware that the victim intended to commit suicide in a public place where it's reasonable to expect that members of the public would be present.

Finally, sixteen, that the suspect was a member of an organisation or group who's purpose is to provide an environment, for payment or otherwise where a person can commit suicide.

Those are the factors identified in favour of prosecution and as I mentioned, they are split into two those which carry more weight being numbers 1 to 8.

Turning then to the public interest factors against prosecution, paragraphs 21 onwards.

First that the victim had a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide.

Second, the victim indicated unequivocally that he or she wanted to commit suicide.

Third, the victim asked personally on his or her won initiative for the assistance of the suspect.

Fourth, the victim had terminal illness, a severe or incurable physical disability or severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.

Fifth, the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion.

Sixth, the suspect was the spouse, partner, close relative or close personal friend of the victim in the context of a long term and supportive relationship.

Seventh, the actions of the suspect, although sufficient to come within the definition of the offence, were of only minor assistance or influence. All the assistance provided by the suspect provided was as a consequence of his or her usual lawful employment

Again, a dotted line to be drawn under paragraph 7 to indicates that all included in factors 1 to 7 of 21 are likely to carry more weight as factors against prosecution.

The other factors, sub-paragraph 8-13

First, the victim was unable to carry out the act that constituted the suicide themselves.

Sub-paragraph nine, the suspect had sought to dissuade the victim form carrying out the action which resulted in the suicide.

Tenth, the victim had considered and pursued to a reasonable extent treatment and care options.

Eleventh, the victim had previously tried to commit suicide and was likely to do so again.

Twelve, the actions of the suspect may be categorised as reluctant assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to commit suicide.

Finally, thirteen, the suspect fully assisted the police in their enquiries.

We indicate at paragraph 23 that the evidence in these support of these factors must be sufficiently close in time to the suicide to allow the investigator to infer that the factors remained reasonably operative at the time. At 24, that the list of these factors is not exhaustive and ultimately that each case must be determined on it's own facts and its own merits.

This interim policy is of immediate effect and as of today, all cases of assisted suicide will be considered by us under this new interim policy. At the end of the consultation period, a final policy will be published.

Ends