The Director of Public Prosecutions is preparing to issue his final guidelines on when cases of assisted suicide will be prosecuted.
Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for England and Wales, issued draft guidelines last year, explaining the circumstances under which he would be likely to prosecute a case of assisted suicide.
Press reports indicate that Mr Starmer’s final guidance, due to be published in a matter of days, will alter some of the factors against prosecution, but critics remain concerned that the guidelines will be abused.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well said that the guidelines “could have the unintended effect of leading potential law-breakers to believe they will secure immunity from prosecution if they assist suicides in certain prescribed ways or circumstances”.
And the Most Revd Peter Smith, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, said: “If you have a tick-box approach it could mislead people or lead someone to say ‘if I tick the right boxes I could get away with it’.”
It is unprecedented for prosecutors to set out ways in which people can commit a crime, yet avoid being charged for it.
The House of Lords has recently seen two attempts to legalise assisted suicide, but both of these failed to secure enough support.
The DPP’s draft guidelines have been widely criticised by pro-life campaigners, disability groups and medical professionals.
Earlier this month the mother of a severely disabled man warned her son would appear “expendable” if the law on assisted suicide changed.
Elisabeth Shepherd also warned that disabled people, like her son James, could feel pressurised into committing suicide if the law on assisted suicide was relaxed.
And Phil Friend, chairman of the Royal Association for Disability Rights,has warned that vulnerable individuals need support and encouragement instead of help to commit suicide.
Mr Friend cautioned that any change in the law would “create a class of people from whom legal protection can be taken away”.
And last month the Royal College of Physicians warned that the interim guidelines on prosecuting assisted suicide cases could lead to an “open door” for doctors to end patients’ lives.