The law on assisted suicide has not changed, but the way it will be applied has been clarified by the DPP in response to the House of Lords’ decision relating to Debbie Purdy, who sought a declaration that her husband would not be prosecuted if he assisted in her suicide.

The DPP has detailed the factors that will be taken into account in deciding whether or not a prosecution would be in the public interest. There is a long list which includes:

  • If the person had a terminal illness, a severe and incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.
  • If the person was competent and had a “clear, settled and informed” wish to make that decision.
  • The person assisting was a spouse, partner, close relative or personal friend who was motivated wholly by compassion.
  • Whether there is any evidence to suggest that the person was pressured into suicide.
  • Whether the person stands to gain financially from assisting the suicide (however a person is unlikely to be prosecuted on this basis unless there are additional factors which cast doubt on their motives for assisting the suicide).  

The DPP emphasises that the interim policy, which is to take immediate effect is not a guarantee against prosecution. It is, however, undoubtedly a significant step forward for those genuinely concerned to bring about a timely and dignified end for their loved one and who, until now, have had to simply take their chances that the criminal law would not be invoked against them.

The new policy leans against assisting the suicide of somebody who is under the age of 18 – an understandable provision but one that raises difficult issues for the very young terminally ill. The policy is also not clear about the circumstances of someone who does not have close family or friends but might, for very valid reasons, wish to end their life. Euthanasia remains prohibited.

It is significant that the DPP has also launched a public consultation on the interim policy and the factors for and against prosecution in a bid to bring any final guidance as close to the requirements of the law and public sentiment as possible. It is difficult to see how the guidelines can be relaxed much further without constituting a change in the law which, as the DPP emphasises, is not for him but for Parliament.

The interim policy and information about the consultation can be accessed here.