Following the recent decision of the House of Lords, granting Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, the right to clarification from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the circumstances in which a relative of someone who wishes to end their own life will be prosecuted under the Suicide Act 1961 if they travel with the person wishing to die to a country where assisted suicide is legal, the DPP has now issued an interim policy statement on the approach that will be taken.

The Suicide Act provides that 'a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years'.

Ms Purdy wanted to know whether her husband, Omar Puente, would risk prosecution if he accompanied her to an 'assisted suicide clinic' in Switzerland. So far, more than 100 people have travelled from the UK to end their lives in this way. No prosecutions have yet occurred but, because of the uncertainty surrounding the issue, some people seeking to end their lives have travelled abroad alone rather than risk their relatives being prosecuted for assisting them. Others have remained in the UK to suffer what Lord Hope described as ‘a distressing and undignified death’.

According to the DPP’s guidance, among the factors which would determine a prosecution are:

  • whether a person stood to benefit financially from assisting the suicide or was acting wholly out of compassion;
  • whether the individual wanting to die was deemed competent enough and had a 'clear and settled' wish to make such a decision. Particular attention would be paid to issues such as being under 18 or having a mental illness; and
  • whether the person was persuaded or pressured into committing suicide or if it was entirely their own decision.

The DPP made it clear that ‘there are no guarantees against prosecution’, however. Whilst the policy statement provides clarification, it does not change the fact that assisted suicide remains a criminal offence and all cases will be investigated by the police.

The guidance has immediate effect and a final policy statement will be issued in spring 2010.

Following the ruling, Mrs Purdy said, "The decision means I can make an informed choice, with Omar, about whether he travels abroad with me to end my life because we will know exactly where we stand."