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Monday, 20 September 2010

Assisted Suicide

Short piece for Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here

Over the weekend the press reported the death of Michelle Broad, wife of former England cricketer Chris Broad and step-mother to the present England cricketer Stuart Broad. Mrs Broad, a successful businesswoman in her own right, suffered from motor neurone disease, and tragically decided to take her own life. She explained in notes left to her family that she ‘didn’t want to become a burden’.

The story recalled that of two of the most famous cases in English law of the past decade, concerning the terminally ill Diane Pretty and Debbie Purdy, both of whom suffered conditions similar to that of Mrs Broad. Each brought proceedings because they wished to die in circumstances of their own choosing.

Needless to say, the issue of whether someone who wishes to arrange suicide should have those wishes respected gives rise to the strongest reactions and the most difficult of moral issues; and it is one thing to believe that those wishes ought to be respected, but quite another to draft a legal framework to give effect to it.

The present legal framework has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny due to the Pretty and Purdy cases ([2002] 1 All ER 1 and [2009] 4 All ER 1147 respectively). In an article for a forthcoming LexisNexis publication, Cases that Changed Our Lives, Lynne Townley, a barrister with considerable expertise in the area reviews both cases and observes among other things:

  • The offence of committing or attempting to commit suicide was abolished by s 1 of the Suicide Act 1961;
  • Nevertheless, under s 2(1) it remains an offence to assist or encourage the suicide of another (and see the amendment provided by s 2A, introduced in January 2010);
  • However, a fundamental principle of English law is that the prosecutorial authorities have a discretion whether or not to bring a prosecution in any individual case, even when it seems clear that an offence has been committed, and it has exercised that discretion not to prosecute under s 2(1).
The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidelines as to when a prosecution is likely to be brought.

  • Factors in favour of a prosecution include where the victim is under 18, or lacks the capacity to reach an informed decision, and where the suspect is not wholly motivated by compassion.
  • Factors tending against prosecution include where the victim has reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision, and the suspect was motivated wholly by compassion.
Inevitably, however, as Ms Townley goes on to show, whatever the law says will never foreclose the moral debate.

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