New guidelines allow nuances in assisted dying prosecutions

By Liz Stephens

Controversial new guidelines on assisted suicide have been published by director of public prosecutions (DPP) Keir Starmer.

The guidelines, which are only for England and Wales, seek to clarify under what circumstances someone should be prosecuted for helping a person to end their life and what should be taken into account by judges deciding on cases.

Key considerations spelled out in the guidelines include acting whether someone is acting “on compassionate grounds”, whether the friend or relative assisting stands to financially benefit from the death and whether the person was in a fit enough state to make the decision to die.

Mr Starmer said: “I think these factors do make a difference”.

The guidance does not represent a change in the 1961 Suicide Act and Mr Starmer has stressed that the new guidelines do not mean the legalisation of assisted suicide.

Mr Starmer was forced to set out the guidelines by the law lords following the high profile case of Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who is seeking confirmation about whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her to travel abroad to die in future.

Law lords rule in favour of right-to-die claimant .

Over 100 terminally ill Britons have travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to die but, so far, no one has been prosecuted for assisting them because authorities are currently able to use their discretion.

However, technically anyone assisting someone in ending their life currently faces a penalty of up to 14 years in prison under the 1961 Suicide Act.

Writing in a letter to The Telegraph ahead of the publication of the guidelines today, Mr Starmer said: “It is not easy and there are lots of factors that have to be taken into account.

“The basic approach we have taken is to try to bring some clarity, but at the same time to protect the vulnerable.”

Chief executive of Dignity in Dying Sarah Wootton welcomed the guidelines saying: “This will represent a significant breakthrough in our campaign for greater choice and control at the end of life.”

However, Care Not Killing spokesman Dr Peter Saunders expressed concern that the new guidelines may offer a back door to euthanasia.

“We hope no-one will be given immunity. It is only right that each case is looked into as this acts as an effective deterrent and protects the vulnerable,” he said.

“There is also a danger that the DPP will become a consultancy service for law breakers.”

The Scottish parliament will be voting on a bill later in the year about whether to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland.