This note provides background to the offence of assisting a person to commit suicide under the Suicide Act 1961, in the context of terminally ill people who may be unable to end their lives without the assistance of family or friends. Particular reference is made to the cases of Debbie Purdy, who in July 2009 obtained a House of Lords ruling ordering the Director of Public Prosecutions to formulate an offence-specific policy setting out the factors he will consider when deciding whether to prosecute assisted suicide offences, and Tony Nicklinson. The note also considers the Assisted Dying Bill [HL], a Private Member's Bill introduced by Lord Falconer of Thorogood, which is currently before the Lords.Jump to full report >>
Under the Suicide Act 1961 it is an offence for one person to assist encourage or assist the suicide (or attempted suicide) of another. Suicide or attempted suicide are not in themselves criminal offences.
There have been several legal cases regarding the offence of assisted suicide, particularly in the context of disabled or terminally ill people who are unable to end their lives without assistance from family or friends.
Of particular importance is the case of Debbie Purdy, who in July 2009 obtained a House of Lords ruling ordering the Director of Public Prosecutions to formulate an offence-specific policy setting out the public interest factors the Crown Prosecution Service will consider when deciding whether to prosecute assisted suicide offences. The DPP’s policy was published in February 2010 following a public consultation.
In June 2014 the Supreme Court revisited the issue in the cases of Tony Nicklinson, Paul Lamb and AM, who were seeking a declaration that the current law on assisted suicide was incompatible with their right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Supreme Court decided against making such a declaration by a majority of seven to two. It took the view that Parliament was the most appropriate forum for considering changes to the law on this particular issue.
The House of Lords is currently considering the Assisted Dying Bill, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Lord Falconer of Thoroton. The Bill aims to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be allowed assistance with ending their life if they request it. There was general consensus among those who spoke in the Second Reading debate – whether for or against the Bill – that Parliament needed to properly address the issue following the Supreme Court’s judgment in Nicklinson and that the Bill should proceed to Committee for detailed consideration. The Bill was therefore given its Second Reading without division.
The Government has indicated that it considers this issue to be a matter of individual conscience.
Commons Briefing papers SN04857
Authors: Sally Lipscombe; Sarah Barber