Assisted Suicide — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:10 pm on 5th March 2014.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 9:10 pm, 5th March 2014

My Lords, the issue of assisted suicide raises profound questions of an ethical, juridical and practical nature. Tonight’s debate is not on the general principle of assisted dying, which is of course already the subject of passionate debate—we have a had a number of such debates in your Lordships’ House—and one to which we will return when we discuss my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer’s Bill in due course. Rather, this debate is—or should be—on the narrow or legal issue of how the current criminal law is to be applied.

The DPP’s very carefully drawn guidelines reflect current practice. Reading the examples of recent decisions, I am struck by the balanced and sensitive nature of the approach that has been adopted. As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, pointed out, there is a two-stage process, setting out the factors that have to be considered—the evidential stage and the public interest stage—should the evidence support a charge that,

“the suspect aided, abetted, counselled or procured the suicide or the attempt”.

It is not quite clear to me what constitutes,

“an act capable of encouraging or assisting”,

to use the phrase in the guidelines. I infer that mere words would constitute an act, but I may be wrong in that inference. Sixteen tests are enumerated but it is not clear how the public interest is actually defined. Perhaps it is impossible to do so.

I was interested in the article written by John Cooper QC that is contained within the Library briefing, which illustrates the complexity of the situation. He says:

“Perhaps it can best be said of the DPP’s guidelines that they please no one and for many they were unwanted, not least of all by the DPP”.

Mr Cooper concludes that,

“it is my view that the guidelines can work and will enhance and maintain the existing law”.

This all underlines the desirability of a definitive conclusion on whether the present law should stand or be altered, as in my noble and learned friend’s Bill or perhaps in some other way. But we have to bear in mind, as others of your Lordships have pointed out, that a significant majority of the public, as measured by the polling, would support a change. I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, in expressing the hope that the House will be given an adequate opportunity to discuss this fundamental issue when my noble and learned friend’s Bill comes to be considered. In the mean time, it will be interesting to hear the Government’s response to the director’s guidelines.