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Assisted Suicide

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 14 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of Geoffrey Whaley’s case, what assessment they have made of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Policy for Prosecutors in respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide.

My Lords, CPS policy on assisted suicide provides guidance to prosecutors on assessing the evidential and public interest stages in reaching decisions in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide. The policy sets out the public interest factors that must be applied in reaching decisions in these cases and balances the various important factors that need to be considered. There are no plans to reassess the CPS policy in relation to such cases.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he really think that it is a good use of police time to interview, under caution, the wife of a dying man who wishes to choose how he dies? In the light of the Whaley story and loving families being treated like criminals, does the Minister think that the law on assisted dying is working well?

My Lords, it is for the CPS to apply the law, not to make the law. Every case has to turn on its own facts and circumstances. Where matters are drawn to the attention of the police relating to an assisted suicide or potential assisted suicide, they will investigate. They are bound to investigate what is potentially criminal conduct in terms of Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961. I therefore see no reason why they should pause those investigations, given the current state of the law.

Does the Minister recall that the CPS policy was adopted after the decision of the Appellate Committee of this House in 2009 in the Debbie Purdy case—I declare an interest as her counsel. The Appellate Committee required a policy because of the uncertainty of the law. Does the Minister accept that there continues to be considerable uncertainty in this area, as indicated by the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, which is causing enormous distress to those at the end of their lives and their families?

The noble Lord is quite right that a consultation was prompted by a decision of the courts in England and Wales. That led to a consultation exercise that commenced in September 2009, to which there were more than 5,000 responses, and resulted in the publication of the CPS policy document in 2010. I consider that that policy is working well at the present time.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend understand—I am sure he does—that, for people with a terminal illness who have no hope of recovery and are suffering great distress, the current law, which prevents them being able to end their own lives in dignity, is condemning them to great and unnecessary suffering?

We are of course conscious of the difficulties and challenges facing people in the situation that the noble Lord has outlined, but I emphasise again that it is for the CPS to apply the law, not to make the law. In doing so, it follows a policy that addresses not only an evidential test but a public interest test with regard to such cases. The consequence is that, of the 140-odd cases referred in the last nine years to the CPS, there were prosecutions in respect of Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 in only four of them, resulting in one acquittal and three convictions.

My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord has implied, the police are only enforcing the law, so it is really the law that is the problem rather than the police. When will the Government bring in a new law to free the police from having to treat loving families like criminals?

My Lords, it is not a case of having to treat loving families like criminals. It is a matter of having to look at the facts and circumstances of every case, in situations where the victim may be extremely vulnerable. As the Government have said before, it is therefore a matter for Parliament because it is a matter of conscience. It is not a matter for government to bring forward such legislation. The noble Lord will be aware that such legislation was proposed in 2015 and did not succeed.

My Lords, given the statistics which the noble and learned Lord has just quoted, does he not consider that that in itself is an indication that the law is not working properly?

No, I do not. As I say, only in a small minority of cases has there been a successful prosecution. I should also add, however, that there have been a number of instances in which the case taken forward involved prosecution for homicide, not assisted suicide.

My Lords, indeed Geoff Whaley did die a dignified death in Switzerland last Thursday, but most people cannot afford to take their family to Switzerland for such a death, or they cannot get the medical report from their doctor to enable them to have such a death. Does the Minister agree that, in a civilised society, someone in Geoff Whaley’s position should be able to avoid months of being unable to swallow, eat, drink, speak or move—totally, therefore, cut off from communication? Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues what can be done to change the law?

It is not the intention of the Government to seek to change the law in this area. I emphasise that every case has to be considered according to its own particular facts and circumstances. I readily acknowledge that many of these cases are extremely tragic.

My Lords, whatever the conflicting views—and there are many—on public and prosecutorial policy in this area, I hope we can all agree that the current situation presents loved ones of people with motor neurone disease and similar conditions at the end of their lives with an emotional, ethical and legal minefield. Is the Minister confident that these people, at a very difficult time, are getting the advice and support they need to navigate that?

I am not in a position to say where such people seek advice on these matters, but such advice is available, and the policy of the CPS with regard to this matter is publicly available.