Debate far from over on right-to-die

By Alex Stevenson

The director of public prosecution’s (DPP) initial report clarifying right-to-die prosecution rules will not be the final word on the issue, it has emerged.

Work is beginning today on a clarification of the right-to-die law after yesterday’s judgment by law lords.

But the DPP has indicated he will allow a public consultation on the issue – and given the government an opportunity to impose its own view by legislating.

Debbie Purdy, who has primary progressive multiple sclerosis, wants to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if he helps her travel to Swiss euthanasia firm Dignitas to end her life.

The DPP, Keir Starmer, will set out the circumstances under which someone may be prosecuted for accompanying someone to die abroad as early as next month.

“I have already set up a team to work through the summer with a view to producing an interim policy for prosecutors by the end of September,” Mr Starmer said.

Ms Purdy was delighted following the ruling, telling reporters outside parliament yesterday she had got her life back as a result.

“It’s amazing to hear the House of Lords actually listening to the public for once,” she said.

“We have to see and wait and see what the DPP actually says. But he’s got to be guided partly by what is accepted behaviour now and what the public want.”

Ms Purdy’s legal team had argued the lack of a prosecution policy violated article eight of the European Convention of Human Rights, privacy.

By finding in her favour the law lords overruled the precedent set by a 2003 case – ruling that Ms Purdy’s right to make choices about her death was enshrined in those rights.

Campaign group Dignity in Dying, which had helped Ms Purdy with her case, said the law had previously been “not fit for purpose” and hailed “this historic judgment”.

Chief executive Sarah Wootton said: “More and more people want choice about how they end their life. Yet, until now, the law has refused to say whether people would face prosecution for accompanying someone abroad to exercise this choice.

“The director of public prosecutions will now have to provide this information. As a result parliamentarians will now come under increasing pressure to provide a proper solution to this problem, which doesn’t involve exporting it abroad.”

Mr Starmer said he fully accepted the judgment of the Lords but described the issue as a “difficult and sensitive” one, and a “complex area of the law”.

After producing an interim policy by the end of September he will begin a public consultation exercise.

The consultation will give those opposing today’s judgment an opportunity to fight back.

Among those unhappy with the decision is Care Not Killing, which has made clear that Ms Purdy’s husband will not be provided with a guarantee of non-prosecution if he does help her travel to Switzerland.

“The court has also recognised that it is parliament’s responsibility to make the law and that this judgment is designed simply to improve clarity in the way the law is administered,” it said in a statement yesterday.

The Lords rejected, by 194 votes to 141, an amendment to the coroners and justice bill which would have exempted from investigation and prosecution those helping terminally ill people travel abroad to seek “assisted suicide”.

Mr Starmer said he would publish a finalised policy by spring 2010 – but only “in the continuing absence of any legislative framework”.

That gives the government an opportunity to step in and force through its own views on the issue.