In an unprecedented decision of the House of Lords, a terminally ill woman has won 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 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.

Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wanted to know whether her husband, Omar Puente, would risk prosecution if he accompanied her to an ‘assisted suicide clinic’ in Switzerland. So far, 115 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’.

The DPP had previously refrained from giving specific guidance in Ms Purdy’s case. The Court of Appeal ruled that by so doing the DPP was not acting unlawfully and did not breach Ms Purdy’s right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge’s reasoning was based on the fact that only Parliament can change the law relating to assisted suicide and as the law stands now it is drafted to cover a wide variety of circumstances.

However, the five Law Lords hearing the case unanimously ruled that the DPP must issue a policy statement stating the circumstances in which those who help someone to travel abroad to end their life might be prosecuted. 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’. This is the first time that the courts have requested that the DPP outline the circumstances that would lead to a prosecution.

The DPP has said that it will produce interim guidance by the end of September 2009 and will then undertake a public consultation exercise before the final policy statement is issued in spring 2010.