The recent deaths of Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes at a Dignitas clinic in
Zurich have reignited the debate on assisted suicide. Under current UK law,
aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offense punishable by up to 14 years
in prison. Consequently, more than 115 British citizens have travelled to
Dignitas to die, and, according to Baroness Jay, “one Briton a fortnight travels
abroad for an assisted death in a jurisdiction where it is legal.”
In many instances, loved ones accompany these so-called “suicide tourists” and,
depending on each individual’s condition, actively facilitate their death. Last
year, for example, Daniel James – paralysed from the chest down as a result of a
rugby injury – persuaded his parents, Mark and Julie James, to take him to die
When the couple returned to the UK, the police investigated the
case and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, QC, found
“sufficient evidence” to convict. He decided not to press charges against the
Jameses, however, reasoning prosecution was not in the public interest.
Although the Crown Prosecution Service has refrained from prosecuting family
members who help terminally ill patients (and, in Daniel’s case, a tetraplegic)
travel to Dignitas, almost all the relatives have endured distressing police
interviews. Moreover, according to Lord Falconer, the threat of prosecution
“forces some people to go to die alone and earlier than otherwise for fear of
what may happen to those who accompany them.”
In February, the Court of Appeal dismissed a case brought by Debbie Purdy, who
sought clarification on the circumstances in which family members could face
prosecution for helping relatives to travel abroad to commit suicide. The court commented “the offense of assisted
suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances” and
stressed that only Parliament has the authority to change the law.
As for Parliament, well, on the very day the Downeses departed for Zurich, the
House of Lords voted against an amendment to the Coroners and Justice
Bill to relax the absolute prohibition on assisted suicide.
Even if the amendment had passed, it would not have satisfied The Economist: “It is
perfectly possible to frame a law that allows suffering people who are close to
death to die quickly and peacefully. The suicide-seeker declares he is not
being pressured to kill himself; two doctors agree, and testify that he is
terminally ill and of sound mind. A waiting period before lethal drugs are
dispensed ensures that the desire for death is a settled one. A law of this
sort would have allowed Lady Downes to die as she wished in her own country.”
The Economist acknowledges, however, that such a law would not have allowed
Sir Edward or Daniel James to die in the UK – since they were not terminally
ill – and concludes that whatever happens there are sure to to be more hard cases, and
more attempts to change the law.
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