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Debbie Purdy in House of Lords

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2nd June 2009

It is necessary to remember that laws exist to give protection to vulnerable people

Debbie Purdy today goes to the House of Lords. Ms Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, has been asking that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) should be instructed to say under what circumstances her husband would be prosecuted if he were to her assist her to travel to Switzerland at some point in the future in order to commit suicide at the Dignitas suicide facility. The High Court and the Court of Appeal have already refused Ms Purdy's application but have given her leave to appeal.

Care Not Killing argues that assisting suicide is illegal for reasons of public safety. The current law is clear and acts as an effective deterrent to those who seek to push its boundaries whilst also giving scope for judges to temper justice with mercy in hard cases. To force the DPP to offer case-by-case guidance ahead of time would turn it into a consultancy service for law-breakers and would inevitably lead to instances of abuse. People who are depressed, disabled or elderly often feel under pressure to end their lives so as not to pose a financial or care burden to relatives or the state. At this time of economic recession, with cuts in health spending imminent, a weakening of the law is the very last thing they need.

The Court of Appeal previously set out, in a 35-page Judgment, why it felt it necessary to dismiss Ms Purdy's submission. It points out that the DPP is required to provide general guidance as to the principles on which prosecutions should be undertaken and that he has done so in the form of a Code for Crown Prosecutors. The Court explains in its Judgment that the Code requires consideration to be given in each case to whether there is sufficient evidence to provide 'a realistic prospect of conviction' and, in cases which pass this test, whether the public interest would be served by a prosecution. The Judgment then proceeds to list some of the public interest factors that the Code requires to be considered.

The Judgment observes, however, that Ms Purdy is looking for the DPP to publish specific rather than general guidance. It states that 'what in reality Ms Purdy is seeking…is the nearest thing possible to a guarantee that, if the circumstances we have summarised come to pass and her husband assists her suicide when she is no longer able to end her own life by her own unassisted actions, he would not be prosecuted'. That is something the Court cannot provide. The Judgment continues:

'Ms Purdy must take legal advice and she must then make her own decision. But she cannot do so on the basis that the DPP should either act as her legal adviser or, through the means of a crime-specific policy, offer the kind of case-specific indications which would provide her with the absolute certainty of mind she is seeking'.

The Appeal Court Judgment concluded therefore that 'the DPP is not in dereliction of his statutory duty' and that Ms Purdy's Appeal must be dismissed.

Care Not Killing has welcomed this Judgment. Much as we sympathise with Debbie Purdy's distressing condition, it is necessary to remember that laws exist to give protection to vulnerable people. While a small number of highly resolute individuals may be clear about wanting to commit suicide rather than live with chronic illness, the law has to consider the interests of much larger numbers of sick people who may feel pressure to end their own lives, whether from others or (more often) from internalised feelings of guilt at being a burden to their families. Assistance with suicide is therefore illegal, and Parliament has rejected proposals to change the law. To ask the DPP, as Ms Purdy was suggesting, to state how much assistance with suicide could be given without incurring prosecution would be tantamount to changing the law by stealth.

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