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Strong Case for Assisted Suicide Law Reform

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, has suggested that there is a strong case for a change in the law.

Assisting a suicide is currently illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison but there is growing pressure for a change in the law. Author Sir Terry Pratchett, who helped to fund the Commission and has Alzheimer's disease, has been a driving force in raising the issue.

The Commission criticised the current legal status of assisted suicide condemning it as, "inadequate, incoherent" and stating that it, "should not continue". Although in England and Wales assisted suicide is currently illegal, in practice, perpetrators are not being prosecuted if they act out of compassion.

In 2010 the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, set out guidance regarding the factors that would be considered in prosecuting someone who had assisted in the death of another person. There have been no prosecutions under the law since then. The Commission on Assisted Dying has now gone one step further by suggesting that some people with terminal illnesses could safely be offered the choice to end their own lives if certain criteria were met.

The legal criteria that the Commission has proposed would only apply to those who were over 18, had received a diagnosis of less than one year to live and met a number of conditions including: two independent doctors being satisfied with the diagnosis; the person being aware of the treatment available for their condition; that they were not acting under the influence of a mental illness and they were capable of taking the medication themselves.

However, a change in the law is likely to meet a number of challenges. There is opposition from various quarters including campaign groups such as Care Not Killing and Not Dead Yet; meanwhile the BMA believes that the majority of doctors do not want to legalise assisted dying.

Without the introduction of a new law, significant uncertainty will remain. If any of these issues are affecting you or someone close to you and you would like to receive clear legal advice we have experienced lawyers on hand who can help. Please contact Sarah Vincent by email or by telephone 020 7611 4848.