Assisted suicide law broken. No prosecution. Innocent.

Raymond Cutkelvin, who ended his life at a Swiss suicide clinic

Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has today said that although there is sufficient evidence to prosecute two men in England involved in an assisted suicide, it would not be in the public’s interest and no further action should be taken against them. The assisted suicide took place at Dignitas, in Switzerland in February 2007, as permitted under Swiss law.

For a prosecution to proceed for assisted suicide, two things must be satisfied.

1)      The evidence is sufficient to ensure a reasonable chance of conviction; and

2)      It is in the public interest to prosecute

The man who ended his life was Mr Raymond Cutkelvin, diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Persons under consideration in prosecution were Mr Alan Rees, who was Mr Cutkelvin’s civil partner, and Dr Michael Irwin, who is a member of a number of right-to-die societies including Dignitas.

Although the evidence was there, helping to pay costs, collating evidence for Dignitas and so on, the DPP decided that, although there was a realistic chance of conviction, sentences were likely to be nominal, resulting in a absolute or conditional discharge. He also considered against various factors, including Dr Irwin’s advanced years, the degree to which the motives could be ascertained as purely compassionate, and the absence of any pressure on the person wanting to have their own life at an end. The DPP also stated that the two men were entitled to be presumed innocent.

‘Right-to-die’ groups generally fall into three categories, depending on their priorities, capabilities, and what they judge to be the best approach. conservative groups such as the London-based Dignity in Dying, maintain a very narrow remit, tailored towards the best possibility of changing the law and so benefitting those in the future. Exit focuses on helping those in the present, particularly by providing reliable information and workshops, quietly and legally. A more extreme approach verges on civil disobedience, in the hope that high profile cases will trigger a change in the law. Although it risks having workshops closed down or possible jail sentences (which might preclude helping a much larger number of people). Dr Irwin has staked his position publicly by daring authorities to take action against him (as does Philip Nitschke’s ‘Exit International’ – no connection to EXIT – on a frequent basis.) It is, of course, impossible to say which is ‘the best’ way without the benefit of hindsight. Any or none of these approaches can work. Or legal change might come due to entirely different factors, such as a change of opinion with the professions or the influence of academic studies on governments.

Dr Irwin has succeeded in helping a man who probably needed some help with the paperwork and immediate costs. He and Mr Rees have had rather less success in challenging the status quo. The present ruling of the DPP relates solely to the many factors involved in the case of Mr Cutkelvin, and has not, as yet, added anything new or greatly clarified the position for future cases.

Dr Irwin, responding to the CPS decision today said, “I would like to have had the chance to go into court and to defend my actions.” Dr Irwin offered to help out with the Dignitas costs. He said in interview that Mr. Cutkelvin and Mr Rees could have paid the Dignitas fees without his help but time was pressing. He felt sorry for them and paid £1,500 from his own pocket directly to Dignitas; which was about a third of the cost involved.

Similarly, Mr Rees made several attempts to publicise Mr Cutkelvin’s death, but there was little interest and no criminal complaint. It was not until an article appeared in the London Evening Standard more than two years later that a police investigation was opened.

Here are many ways of helping people. The ways of making a name for oneself as the next ‘Dr Death’ are of more dubious value. (More doctors than can be counted currently have had such a title applied to them – it was originally the province of Dr Kevorkian, who physically assisted with the process until put in jail.)

Irwin has pointed out the unfairness of being able to go to Dignitas if you are rich enough to afford the £4,500 fees (The cost of the clinic’s full service, including funerals, medical costs and official fees, is as high as £7,000.) Meanwhile, Dignitas is attacked by the newspapers regularly. A headline in yesterday’s Telegraph newspaper, ran a story that, “Ludwig Minelli, the Swiss founder of Dignitas, has become a millionaire in the ten years since he set up his controversial suicide clinic.” What is only mentioned in the smaller print further down in the story is that Mr Minelli states that his wealth comes from an inheritance, left by his mother. Many of the scandalous accusations against Dignitas seem to remain unproved. Dignitas has just released a picture of its new ‘suicide clinic’ – which may reassure patients concerned over the previous situation of ending their life in a less than luxurious apartment.

Suicide of Mr Raymond Cutkelvin – decision on prosecution (DPP statement in full)
No charges following death of Raymond Cutkelvin (DPP press release)
Man risks jail (Telegraph report)
Dr Death in the clear (Daily Mail)
Dignitas promises pleasant final stay at its suicide hotel (London Evening Standard)
Britons visit Swiss clinic to beat new curbs on ‘suicide tourists’ (London Evening Standard)
No prosecution for right-to-die doctor (BBC)
Dignitas founder is millionaire (Telegraph)
No suicide charges against ‘Dr Death’ (ITN News: video)
Dignitas (some information in English)

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