Monday 10 August 2015

Britain's law on assisted suicide is not 'broken' and does not need ‘fixing’

On Friday 11 September MPs will vote on the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill tabled by Labour’s Rob Marris. In case you were wondering, it’s called ‘No 2’ because an almost identical Assisted Dying Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords by Labour Peer Lord Falconer.

Marris wants to change the law to allow mentally competent adults with less than six months to live to obtain help to kill themselves with lethal drugs.

Over the next month hundreds of thousands of pounds will be spent by the campaign group Dignity in Dying (the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society), who drafted the bill, aided and abetted by its principle cheerleader, the BBC, who can be guaranteed to give it the full oxygen of publicity and to grant an international platform to anyone who supports it.

Expect to see more celebrities coming out to back what they perceive to be a popular cause, more opinion polls telling us that most people want to see a change in the law and more cynically timed cases of people having to journey to Switzerland to end their lives at the Dignitas facility because there is no similar opportunity here.

Expect also to see other campaign groups with more radical agendas entering the fray in an attempt to see the bill’s provisions extended to a far wider group of people.

The presence of determined and well-funded groups like the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS), The British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and Exit International assures us that any change in the law to allow assisted suicide for anyone at all will be followed by a continuing clamour to broaden its provisions even more. It Marris’s law passes it will be only the beginning.

One of the major arguments put by all of these campaigners is that our current law is broken and needs fixing. In fact Dignity in Dying plans to plaster up ‘Fix our broken assisted dying law’ posters all over London throughout the summer. 

Leading politicians across all major parties have already signalled their opposition to a change in the law. They include SNP leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, Labour leadership candidates Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corban, past and present Liberal Democrat leaders Nick Clegg and Tim Farron and most of the Tory government’s cabinet, including Prime Minister David Cameron himself.

But even Cameron, who has been consistent and resolute in his opposition, seems to weakening under the pressure to concede that the current law is not fully fit for purpose. In an answer to a recent parliamentary question he suggested that although he did not support Marris’s and Falconer’s proposals, he conceded that there were ‘imperfections and problems with the current law’.  

But is our law broken? What is the actual evidence for this claim? I am struggling to find any at all.

Dignity in Dying are working hard to convince us that there is a huge demand for assisted suicide and that thousands of well-meaning and compassionate relatives risk prosecution under the current law for ‘helping’ their loved ones because the law is not clear enough about whether they will be prosecuted or not.  

But in fact none of this is actually true.

Under the current law, the Suicide Act 1961, it is not against the law to commit, or to attempt to commit, suicide.

On the other hand, ‘encouraging or assisting a suicide’ is a crime carrying a discretionary sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment.

The law carries this blanket prohibition of helping people kill themselves in order to protect vulnerable people from exploitation and abuse. Any change will remove legal protection from those who are elderly, disabled, or suffering from physical or mental illness.

It will thereby encourage those who stand to gain financially or emotionally from their deaths, either to coerce them or subtly suggest that they take this course, or at very least not to stand in their way. Yes the law provides a very strong deterrent.

The reason the law makes no exceptions is because laws are best defended when they hold to strong consistent principles and don’t try to make exceptions for individuals with arguably extenuating circumstances. Imagine a speeding law that was accompanied by a list of excusable reasons for going above 30 mph in a built up area ahead of the event. It would be utterly unworkable.

Managing exceptions is far better left to the police, the crown prosecution service and the courts.

This is not a legal fudge but one of the foundations of the British Justice system.

The handling of an individual hard case is dealt with, not by a piece of paper, but after careful consideration by professionals who know the law, but are able to apply it in any given case with discretion and kindness, to temper justice with mercy.

When a case of alleged assisted suicide is brought to attention it is first investigated by the police who submit their finding after a careful examination of the facts to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which must then make a decision about whether to prosecute.

In weighing this decision the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) must decide whether there is enough evidence to bring a case (there often is not) and whether it is in the public interest to do so. 

Only if the answer to both these questions is yes does it proceed to court. And in the extremely rare event of a conviction resulting, the judge is also given discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. 

Fourteen years is an absolute maximum sentence which is virtually never given. Those who are convicted and sentenced generally go to prison for far less or do not receive a custodial sentence at all.

So how is this law actually working? According to the CPS’s latest figures 1 April 2009 up to 24 April 2015, there have been only 110 cases referred to the CPS by the police that have been recorded as assisted suicide. This is less than 20 per year or under two every month.

Of these 110 cases, 70 were not proceeded with by the CPS and 25 cases were withdrawn by the police. In fact in all the high profile cases we see on our television screens the overwhelming majority result in no charges being brought, let alone any convictions.

Of the remaining 15 cases eight are ongoing and six were referred onwards for prosecution for homicide or other serious crime. Yes, some assisted suicide cases turn out to be cleverly disguised murders where the key witness to what really happened is dead. This is another reason why it is so crucial that all cases of alleged assisted suicide are properly investigated. It is the threat of an investigation that keeps us safe.

Since 2009 only one case has been successfully prosecuted, that of Kevin Howe in October 2013. 

Howe was jailed for twelve years after supplying his suicidal friend Stephen Walker with petrol and a lighter in order to set fire to himself. Walker suffered 90% burns but miraculously survived and now faces a life of treatment and disability as a result.

The only other person, not yet on the CPS website,  who has been convicted and sentenced, whom I am aware of subsequently, is Lyndsay Jones who provided another suicidal man Philip Makinson with a heroin and a syringe in order that he could kill himself with a lethal injection. She was jailed in July this year for four and a half years.

These are the sort of cases that end up in prison under the present law. 

We are also told by campaigners of the vast numbers of people who are making one way trips to Switzerland to end their lives at the Dignitas facility. But the reality is 273 cases in the 16 years from 1998 to 2014 – fewer than 20 a year. Although each individual case is a tragedy, the numbers are tiny when we put them alongside the 500,000 people who die in Britain each year from all causes and the 1,300 and 15,000 annual assisted suicide deaths we would have annually under the laws currently in place in Oregon and the Netherlands respectively.

Their significance has been magnified in a hugely disproportionate way by the media. If fact several have gone to Zurich accompanied by television news teams or have planned their deaths at strategic moments in the campaign in an almost cynical attempt to influence public opinion and place pressure on decision-makers. Most also did not need assistance to end their lives. And most notably not one relative or helper has so far been prosecuted.

The reality is that Britain’s law on assisted suicide is clear and right and is working well.

The strong penalties it holds in reserve act as a strong deterrent to exploitation and abuse as evidenced by the tiny number of people breaking it.

It is also being exercised compassionately as the discretion it gives to judges and prosecutors means that only two people have so far been convicted and sentenced under it in the last five years. And neither of these received the maximum sentence of 14 years.

Having a clear strong and simple law like this offers protection for disabled, sick and elderly people from those who have an interest, financial or otherwise in their deaths. Of course it does mean that those who wish to push its boundaries and break it – for whatever reason – run the risk of a police investigation, a prosecution and a possible custodial sentence.

But this is a very small price to pay given the protection that it offers.  

The law on assisted suicide is not broken. It is clear, just, merciful and fair. It does not need fixing. 

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