ASSISTED DYING: PROSECUTION GUIDELINES
Since 2010, prosecutors have decided whether or not to charge someone with helping another to die by following the Director of Prosecutions’ Guidelines on Assisted Dying.
WHY DO THESE GUIDELINES EXIST?
Before 2009, it was unclear when someone might be prosecuted for helping another person to die. As a result, a legal case was successfully brought against the Director of Public Prosecutions by Debbie Purdy, a former music journalist who suffered from the incurable condition multiple sclerosis. The UK’s highest court ruled that the Director of Public Prosecutions had to clarify the factors that they would consider when deciding whether to bring a criminal prosecution.
Following Debbie Purdy’s case, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, issued the current guidelines on assisted dying. They have been updated on only one occasion since then, to clarify that medical staff are, by virtue of their position, more likely to be prosecuted if they assist someone to whom they owe a duty of care.
WHAT DO THE GUIDELINES SAY?
The Director of Public Prosecutions’ Guidelines on Assisted Dying apply both to assisted deaths that occur abroad and within the UK.
The guidelines do not state every factor which could be relevant, but broadly suggest it is less likely a prosecution would be in the ‘public interest’ if someone:
- Made a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed decision to end their life
- Was wholly motivated by compassion when helping someone else to die
- Provides help ‘of only minor encouragement or assistance’
- Attempts to dissuade another person from ending their life before helping
- Reluctantly provides help to another person
- Reports to the police that they have helped someone to die, and fully assists any investigation.
Alternatively, the guidelines also indicate that it is more likely a prosecution would be in the ‘public interest’ if someone:
- Helps someone aged under 18 years old
- Helps someone who was not of sound mind (meaning they did not have ‘mental capacity’)
- Helps someone without a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed decision to end their life
- Was not wholly motivated by compassion e.g. choosing to help someone because they stand to gain in some way from their death
- Pressures someone or did not take steps to ensure that someone was not being pressured into ending their life
- Helps someone who was not physically able to end their life themselves
- Helps someone who was a stranger
- Helps someone in their capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional.
A full list of the factors can be found on the Crown Prosecutions Website.
WHAT DO THE GUIDELINES MEAN?
The guidelines are clear that prosecutors should not decide whether to bring charges by using the above factors as ‘check-boxes’. This means that it is possible someone can be prosecuted even if they fulfil only one of the factors.
Following the introduction of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ guidelines, people now have a measure of clarity and understand how they are likely to be treated under the law. However, these guidelines are not a guarantee and even if someone is not prosecuted they can still face the prospect of a year-long police investigation, or punishment by having their inheritance withheld under the so-called ‘forfeiture rule’.