The new Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has hinted that he will take a laxer approach to assisted suicide than his predecessor.
Speaking in his first major interview since taking over the post, Keir Starmer QC indicated that future cases where relatives take patients abroad to overseas suicide clinics would be unlikely to end in prosecution.
He was speaking in light of his decision at the end of last year not to prosecute the parents of 23-year-old rugby player Daniel James. Mr and Mrs James had helped their paralysed son travel to a Swiss suicide clinic to end his own life.
Mr Starmer said at the time that while there was “sufficient evidence” to prosecute, it would not be in the public interest to do so.
This was taken by many as an indication that those involved in such cases could expect to escape prosecution.
Speculation has now been fuelled by Mr Starmer’s recent interview, in which he said this case illustrates that the current assisted suicide law is “workable” and that future cases will be dealt with in a similar way.
He added: “I hope the Daniel James case has showed that it is. It indicates as transparently as possible the steps that we will go through and the factors that are relevant.”
Opponents of assisted suicide are concerned Mr Starmer’s comments could be taken as a “green light” for those planning to have help in travelling to overseas suicide clinics.
Dr Peter Saunders of the Care Not Killing alliance said: “Assisted suicide is a serious crime and I don’t think anybody should be lulled into believing it is all right. Prosecution is at the discretion of the DPP.”
Mr Starmer’s apparent stance marks a shift from the position of the former DPP Sir Ken MacDonald, whose refusal to issue any definitive guidance on the issue was upheld by the High Court.
Sir Ken said he would effectively be changing the law if he stated publicly whether or not those who help relatives travel to a suicide clinic abroad would be prosecuted for assisted suicide on their return to the UK.
He said: “We can’t do that. It would be unlawful, and would undermine the rule of law.
“If the law is going to be changed, it has to be changed by Parliament.”
Although more than 100 Britons have so far died at the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland, no one has yet been prosecuted for helping any of them to travel there.
The Government says it will review the current law. Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently said he was “totally against” assisted suicide.
However, pro-life campaigners are concerned that the review could provide an opportunity for the current law to be liberalised.