Mercy killings: what new CPS guidance means for assisted dying law

Prosecutors detail circumstances when it is appropriate not to bring charges

A medical professional snips a life support cord
The revisions, which cover England and Wales, are designed to provide transparency and consistency
(Image credit: rancis Demance/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The Crown Prosecution Service has opened the door to legalising "mercy killings" of the terminally ill in the UK by introducing guidelines on when those assisting death should escape charges.

Announcing the new guidance, Max Hill KC, the outgoing director of public prosecutions, said it was "vital" that prosecutors were given "the clearest possible additional guidance" on the sensitive issue. He insisted the guidance will not result in fewer court cases or murder charges.

The revisions, which cover England and Wales, are designed to provide "transparency and consistency", said Sky News. But they will also prove controversial.

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What is the latest guidance?

In response to a consultation on the issue, Hill said the CPS would "always prosecute cases of murder and manslaughter where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest".

Prosecutions "would be likely in cases where suspects were alleged to have influenced a victim not to seek medical treatment, palliative care or independent professional advice", noted The Times, and if the suspects were medical or healthcare professionals and the victim was under their supervision.

But in cases where the victim had reached a "voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision that they wished for their life to end", prosecution would be less likely. The CPS also said it would be less minded to act on cases where "the actions of the suspect may be characterised as reluctant, in the face of significant emotional pressure due to the victim's wish for their life to end".

The question of a "suicide pact", where the suspect survives, is also taken into account, said the Law Society Gazette, and a prosecution is less likely if the suspect "made a genuine attempt to take their own life at the same time".

However, said the Daily Mail, the revised guidance does not discuss "assisted dying" or similar situations, which have "their own legal distinctions". In contrast to euthanasia and assisted suicide, assisted dying would apply to terminally ill people only, noted the BBC.

What's the law on assisted dying?

Under the Suicide Act 1961, assisting someone to take their own life is an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison, while the maximum penalty for euthanasia, which could be prosecuted as murder, is life imprisonment.

It's a different story in some other countries: some form of assisted dying or assisted suicide is legal in at least 27 jurisdictions worldwide. For instance, it became legal in Canada in 2016, in the Netherlands in 2001, and in the US state of Oregon in 1994.

The new CPS guidance does not change any laws, explained Hill. "We are always conscious that the CPS doesn't make the law," he said. "It's only Parliament to do that. And we always follow the law that Parliament imposes and there's nothing in this guidance that would suggest anything otherwise."

Will the law change?

There is thought to be widespread support for legal change. Two-thirds of Britons support legalising assisted dying, according to an Ipsos poll published by The Guardian in August. 

A YouGov poll found that 79% of disabled people in Scotland supported legalising assisted dying. The campaign group Dignity in Dying said its own polling showed that nearly 80% of those surveyed in England and Wales supported reforms that would offer the choice to "terminally ill, mentally competent adults".

But there is also opposition. In 2021, some 1,689 current and retired doctors, nurses, pharmacists and medical students signed an open letter opposing plans for a new law on assisted dying, noted the Evening Standard.

They argued that "the shift from preserving life to taking life is enormous and should not be minimised", adding that "any change would threaten society's ability to safeguard vulnerable patients from abuse". It would "send a clear message to our frail, elderly, and disabled patients about the value that society places on them as people".

In May, the Catholic Herald reported that the Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland have "redoubled their effort to fight off attempts to legalise assisted suicide in the UK".

"Our faith traditions are united in the principle that assisted dying in itself inevitably undermines the dignity of the human person," they said in a statement, "and to allow it would mean that our society as a whole loses its common humanity".

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