WARNING: This post may contain traces of moral issue. These are murky waters for a lawyer, and I cling gratefully to a liferaft of certainty, and the only thing I am qualified to discuss in the whole affair; today's judgment from the House of Lords. I would apologise for the length of this post, but I feel the importance of the issue merits thorough discussion. Plus, I run the show, so I can do what I like.
The House of Lords have just handed down their judgment in the case of Debbie Purdy. My first attempt at typing that last sentence actually included the name "Diane Pretty" in place of "Debbie Purdy".
For those of you who have been living under a rock, Debbie Purdy suffers from a debilitating motor neurone disease that is not currently curable. She says that it will eventually reduce her quality of life to the point where she will commit suicide rather than live on. To do so, she plans to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, which provides lethal cocktails of barbituates to people in her position.
For those of us subject to this jurisdiction, assisting suicide is a crime. Many Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives in the Dignitas clinic, and most travel with family members. Of these family members, none has been prosecuted.
The Code for Crown Prosecutors contains two tests, which can be paraphrased thus: Is there sufficient evidence to give a realistic prospect of conviction? Is it in the public interest to prosecute? Of the cases submitted to the CPS by various police forces, we have declined to prosecute on the basis of the evidential test on a number of occasions, but have declined to prosecute on the basis of the public interest test only twice.
Once, in the case of a paralysed but otherwise healthy young man, the DPP made the decision personally, and made his written reasons public. He has, however, refused to issue guidelines in relation to prosecuting this particular offence. This case is the final stage of Debbie Purdy's long-running legal battle to force him to do just that. And she won.
To quote from the judgment (at some length):
"[Debbie Purdy] wants to be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not to ask for her husband’s assistance. She is not willing to expose him to the risk of being prosecuted if he assists her. But the Director has declined to say what factors he will take into consideration in deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute those who assist people to end their lives in countries where assisted suicide is lawful. This presents her with a dilemma. If the risk of prosecution is sufficiently low, she can wait until the very last moment before she makes the journey. If the risk is too high she will have to make the journey unaided to end her life before she would otherwise wish to do so".
So, the law lords duly concluded that offence-specific guidelines should be published, as a failure to do so left such a grey area that the uncertainty effectively interfered with Debbie Purdy's right to life, accorded by article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. I commend the judgment to you in its entirety, it is worthy reading, not least because Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers took the opportunity to remind people of a judge's role:
"It must be emphasised at the outset that it is no part of our function to change the law [...]. We do not venture into that arena, nor would it be right for us to do so. Our function as judges is to say what the law is and, if it is uncertain, to do what we can to clarify it."
Well said, my Lord, well said.
For those who care, my personal view is that anyone who travels to a foreign country knowing that their loved one holds only a one-way ticket is a brave soul indeed. To be present at the moment of their death is horrendous enough, but to contemplate it for weeks or months before the appointed day arrives, and then to hold to their lips the fatal draught, is beyond my contemplation, and I pray that I never have to make such a journey.
At the risk of opening a king-sized can of worms, I would be curious to know what my readers make of this.