On Tuesday 27th March 2012, the UK Parliament debates the motion, “This House welcomes the Director of Public Prosecutions’ Policy for Prosecutors in respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide published in February 2010.” In effect, the politicians are being asked to endorse guidance that distinguishes between compassionate assistance and malicious encouragement.
The Policy, published by the Director of Public Prosecutions two years ago, is an official interpretation of existing law by DPP Keir Starmer, whose job makes him responsible for prosecutions, legal issues and criminal justice policy. For many years, and in spite of calls from the highest court in the land, Parliament has failed to clarify and update the laws relating to aqssisted suicide. Irrespective of one’s feelings on the matter, some cases seem clearly compassionate whereas others are dubious. Prosecuting someone in a gray area, even with sufficient evidence to result in a custodial sentence, is unlikely to secure a conviction if the public interest would clearly not be upheld. For instance, someone tries everything to dissuade the suicide of an elderly, incurably suffering relative at Dignitas in Switzerland, has no personal motive to help them, and provides only nominal help, such as booking plane tickets that they were unable to do themselves.
That seems very diferent to most people when compard to a case where someone encourages or puts pressure on a relative in order to inherit money, for instance. But the statute as it stands makes no diference. So for many reasons it became incumbent on the DPP to clarify when he was going to authorise a prosecution and when he would be unlikely to do so.
Says the MP launching it, Richard Ottaway (the Conservative MP for Croydon South), “The public and the courts have shown understandable reluctance to uniformly prosecute anyone who assists a loved one to die at their request. Outside of Parliament, there is a consensus of support for the approach taken by the DPP in distinguishing between those who compassionately assist another to die at their request and should not be prosecuted, and those who maliciously encourage a suicide, and should face prosecution. It is now time that Parliament expresses a view.”
So what is the point of the Motion?
Says Ottaway, ““Whatever the outcome of this debate, assisted suicide will remain a criminal offence. The question MPs will face is whether they support the principle set out in the DPP’s Policy, namely that it is not always in the public interest to prosecute those who have compassionately assisted a loved one to die, at their request.”
It is not, in itself, designed to change the law (although several amendments are in the sidelines – calling for enshrinement of the DPP Guidelines in law, and for greater emphasis on palliative care). If the House find against the Motion, their main recourse would be to clarify or change existing law (rather than tell the DPP they don’t like the way he is doing his job). Only parliament can change the law. If they find in favour of the Motion, they might opt to leave things as they are, or they might choose to enshrine the DPP’s position in statute, or add any number of other provisions.
As this is the first tme in a long time that the issue has been debated like this, it might just trigger all sorts of attepts at legislation, for or against.
On his website, Ottaway says, “The public elects MPs to represent their interests and concerns, to hold government to account, and to scrutinise legislation. If we fail to discuss the Policy, we fail to do our jobs: this is an important issue for my constituents as well as for the wider public, and the DPP’s Policy marked a significant change in the legal process surrounding assistance to die. ”
“Although the DPP’s Policy is two years old, it has never been formally discussed by MPs. While the DPP decided the factors in his Policy after public consultation, Parliament was not directly consulted. Although the factors in the Policy determine how the law is applied MPs have never debated them. I don’t believe this is right. As MP’s we have a duty to discuss this important development which is of great legal significance and public concern.”
Care Not Killing, the group that opposes euthansia, has criticised the use of a parliamentary debate to scrutinise the DPP’s guidance. “If they want a change in the law they will have to change the law itself and not try to interfere with the DPP’s prosecution policy which is his responsibility, and not parliament’s, to set and administer.”
The debate is open to the public and has been tabled for a full day. The DPP’s guidance, and the existing statute, affects England & Wales only, not Scotland.