In the UK, anyone who "aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another" is breaking the law and may face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. In practice though, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides whether to prosecute under the Suicide Act 1961 on a case-by-case basis. And there have been repeated calls for a change in the law.
In the summer of 2009, the Law Lords ruled that there was a need for greater clarity on when a prosecution under the Suicide Act would be brought, especially in cases of assisted suicide. This led to a set of guidelines being published by Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, which were issued as a public consultation paper.
Following feedback by over 5,000 people, on 25 February 2010 the CPS published a new policy for prosecutors in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide.
Keir Starmer said: "The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect [the person assisting] rather than the characteristics of the victim [the person committing suicide]. The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of Parliament. What it does is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not. Assessing whether a case should go to court is not simply a question of adding up the public interest factors for and against prosecution and seeing which has the greater number. It is not a tick-box exercise. Each case has to be considered on its own facts and merits."
It should be noted that a person who helps someone to die will still face a police investigation during which the factors spelt out by Mr Starmer will be taken into account. Depending on the circumstances, when weighed up against the policy, the CPS will decide whether to bring a prosecution.
The test for whether someone can be held to have breached the Suicide Act 1961, for a person committing suicide after 1 Feb 2010, is:
The suspect did an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person; and
The suspect's act was intended to encourage or assist suicide or an attempt at suicide.
However, even if the above can be evidenced, prosecutors must go on to consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest, and to do that, they must apply the public interest factors set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
Mr Starmer stressed that discretion would still be used and the presence of one factor would not automatically lead to a prosecution or the decision not to prosecute. Instead, the case as a whole would have to be taken into account with the factors weighed up against each other.
In 2010, the former GP, Dr Michael Irwin, who had provided advice to five terminally ill people, and accompanied a further three to the Dignitas euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, wrote to Keir Starmer admitting that he had recently financially contributed and accompanied a man, Raymond Cutkelvin, to the Dignitas clinic. The idea of writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions was to test recent guidelines to bring a prosecution under the Suicide Act 1961.
Mr Stamer announced that a prosecution would not be brought against Dr Irwin on the ground that such a prosecution was not in the public interest, even though there was sufficient evidence to bring a public prosecution. The partner of Mr Cutkelvin, who financially contributed to the costs of the euthanasia, was also spared prosecution.
The new policy in full, together with a summary of the public interest factors tending for and against a prosecution being brought (paragraphs 43 and 45 respectively), can be found in the below article by the CPS, and anyone in the UK who thinks that assisted suicide might be relevant to them should read this policy very carefully.