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Assisted Suicide: House of Lords Judgment

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they will make to the House of Lords judgment of 30 July in the case of R (on the application of Purdy) v Director of Public Prosecutions and to the subsequent action by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

My Lords, the judgment in this case concerned the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, which is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. In accordance with the judgment, he has published an interim policy for prosecutors setting out the factors which might be relevant when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute someone for assisting a suicide. It is currently the subject of a public consultation, and the finalised policy is due to be published in spring next year. It is not appropriate for the Government to seek to influence the exercise of this prosecutorial discretion.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that despite the humane attempts by the Law Lords and the DPP to clarify in a sensible way the existing law, it is inevitable that Parliament will need to come back to this issue? Does he further agree that progress in Parliament on clarifying the law on assisted dying might be improved if there were some kind of independent commission—dare I say, a royal commission?—to look dispassionately at the evidence to help Parliament in its deliberations?

My Lords, the Government believe that any change to the law in this area is an issue of individual conscience and, of course, a matter for Parliament to decide. We debated this issue in this House on a free vote on 7 July last and came to a certain conclusion. We think that it is more appropriately dealt with through a Private Member’s Bill and, indeed, I hear that there is a possibility that in another place there may be a couple of Private Members’ Bills that touch on this very sensitive topic. As to whether there should be a royal commission or anything like it, that is an idea that I can take back.

My Lords, the Minister knows that the Director of Public Prosecutions has to consent to a prosecution. Can he give the House an assurance that the Director of Public Prosecutions will take personal decisions in the exercise of his discretion and will personally deal with these matters? Looking at the document that has been produced, the handling arrangements within it suggest that the head of the Special Crime Division might take these decisions.

My Lords, as it happens, I met the director yesterday and, although I do not want to quote him out of turn, I am pretty sure that he will take any decision that needs to be taken in a case of this kind.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is a faint irony in that, in the case of Purdy, the director through his learned counsel argued most strongly against the issuing of any specific guidelines? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that central to the whole question of the exercise of formal criteria in relation to prosecution is a rigorous and wide-searching inquiry of investigation into each individual case? In those circumstances, will additional personnel with adequate expertise and experience, be they in the police service or in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, be appointed to carry out this massive task?

My Lords, I cannot say that that will necessarily happen, although I can say that the director has done what he was asked to do by the House of Lords Judicial Committee—that is, to draw up guidelines both for and against prosecution. He did that within two months of the judgment of the House of Lords Judicial Committee and he is to be applauded for doing so.

My Lords, do Her Majesty’s Government agree that, in drawing up the guidelines for the application of the law prohibiting assisted suicide, the Director of Public Prosecutions must take care not to be seen to condone assisted suicide or to produce a set of rules for breaking the rules?

My Lords, I am quite sure that the director is aware of that. Of course, it is not for him to change the law—not that he has any intention of doing so—nor can he give any prospective immunity from prosecution. He has merely drawn up these guidelines to clarify the factors for and against prosecution, precisely as he was asked to do as a result of the judgment in the Purdy case.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the most helpful things in the interim policy is the attempt to draw a distinction between what one might describe as compassionate assistance and malicious assistance, although that would clearly be difficult to prove in a prosecution case? Does my noble friend agree that this might be precisely an area where the kind of independent inquiry suggested by my noble friend who asked the Question would be very useful?

My Lords, that area could indeed be something that an inquiry could look at but there are many other areas in the arguments both for and against prosecution that any such inquiry would want to look into. However, I shall take back the point that there should be such an inquiry.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this is not just a question of rules against breaking the rules but a question of flexibility in the judgment of someone in charge of the whole situation? On this occasion, the attitude of the Government appears to be totally correct.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord’s support. I do not always have it but today I am very grateful for it.