Despite a recent case, there is still no certainty as to whether those who assist someone who wishes to end their own life, by helping them travel abroad to a country where assisted suicide is legal, will be prosecuted. The issue has become more prominent since Debbie Purdy, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for 13 years, sought clarification from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on whether her husband would face prosecution under the Suicide Act 1961 if he travelled with her to a country where assisted suicide is legal.

The uncertainty stems from the fact that the DPP has complete discretion when deciding whether someone will be prosecuted or not. A new DPP could take a different stance, which adds to the uncertainty.

The DPP refrained from giving specific guidance in Ms Purdy’s case. In court, Lord Justice Scott Baker stated 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 (ECHR). 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.

The most decisive ruling to date is that relating to Dianne Pretty in 2001. She also suffered from a terminal illness and wished to end her own life. When her case came to court, the decision was that Article 8 ECHR was not engaged in assisted suicide cases. Ms Purdy’s lawyers claimed that times had changed dramatically since then and that the Pretty judgment was out of line with recent thinking. Ms Purdy’s solicitor argued that subsequent to the Pretty case, the European Court of Human Rights has in other similar cases concluded that Article 8 in essence is about the right to ‘self determination, the right to make decisions about personal autonomy, physical integrity and the quality of life’.

Because of Ms Purdy’s illness, her solicitor had hoped to get an appeal fast-tracked to the House of Lords, but permission was denied and so the case will now be referred to the Court of Appeal. Whichever way the decision goes, the case will almost certainly end up in the Lords if Ms Purdy lives long enough to see the matter concluded.