Assisted Suicide — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:03 pm on 5th March 2014.

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Photo of Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Liberal Democrat 9:03 pm, 5th March 2014

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate. It is, as she says, a difficult and sensitive subject. My years as DPP brought home to me, in concrete examples day after day, the power that the law has to protect vulnerable people, but also its great capacity to inspire awe and therefore to deter cruelty and abuse. In the case of assisted suicide, the law must do both.

By law, every prosecutor examining a case must ask not one, but two questions. First, is the evidence sufficient for prosecution? Secondly, if so, would a prosecution be in the public interest? That is why an 80 year-old will not be prosecuted for shoplifting or a careless driver for a collision in which her own child is killed. It is also why, during my time as DPP, no one helping a loved one travel to Switzerland to die was prosecuted, even if the evidence that they had committed the crime was perfectly made out. The DPP’s guidelines, I believe, give clarity to this exercise of discretion.

It would be foolish to assume that everyone counselling a suicide acts from pure motives, or that malice or venality is always absent, but I believe that the equation that we have developed—a broad legal prohibition on the one hand, to deter those acting out of malice, and a carefully explained prosecutorial discretion on the other, to protect those who act from genuine compassion —strikes the right balance. It shields those who need protection on both sides: the terminally ill from exploitation and those whose compassionate assistance may be sought from prosecution.

Of course, any police investigation is difficult and traumatic, but even if the law is changed, there will be no escape from investigation—nor should there be. After all, even if the law is changed, someone will have died at the deliberate hand of another. The law should of course acknowledge purity of motive and recognise that people face impossible choices, but it does that already. What it should not do is to turn so far one way that it no longer sees the risk of conduct that should properly remain criminal.