DPP’s policy on assisted suicide

In February 2010, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued the prosecuting policy on cases of ‘Encouraging or Assisting Suicide’.

This policy was issued as a result of the Law Lords’ ruling in the Debbie Purdy case, which required the DPP “to clarify what his position is as to the factors that he regards as relevant for and against prosecution” in cases of encouraging and assisting suicide.

Dignity in Dying believes that the prosecuting policy marked a significant step forward for patient choice and control at the end of life, giving individuals a much clearer indication of how they are likely to be treated by police and prosecutors. For the first time it gave formal recognition that in certain circumstances, people should not be prosecuted for helping someone to die. At its core the policy distinguishes between compassionate and malicious acts of assistance in order that they can be treated differently by law. In this sense the policy is a victory for common sense and compassion, and a significant milestone in the campaign for patient choice at the end of life.


What does the policy mean?

The policy makes clear that there is a distinction between compassionate acts to assist someone to end their own life which, subject to other factors, are unlikely to be prosecuted, and malicious encouragement or assistance of suicide which will be prosecuted.

However, whilst the guidelines give individuals much clearer indications of how they are likely to be treated under the law, they do not change the law, or provide immunity from prosecution. Assisting suicide is still a crime with a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, and cases of ‘mercy killing’ where a person directly end the life of another person at their request will still be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter.


What does the policy say?

The policy includes a detailed list of public interest factors that will influence the decision on whether or not to prosecute someone for assisting a suicide.

A prosecution is less likely if the assisted person made a voluntary, well informed decision to end their life, and if the assister was wholly motivated by compassion. Furthermore, if they had sought to dissuade the person from suicide and if their actions may be characterised as reluctant encouragement or assistance prosecution is less likely.

Prosecution is more likely if the person committing suicide was under 18 years of age, lacked the mental capacity to reach an informed decision to end their life or if they were physically able to undertake the act that constituted the assistance him or herself.

In addition, the assister is more likely to be prosecuted if they had a history of violence or abuse against the person they assisted, were unknown to the victim, were paid by the person committing suicide or were acting in their capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, other healthcare professional.

This effectively recognises that assistance is more likely to be compassionately motivated when a person needs help to commit suicide, and when the assister knows the person they assist.

The policy instructs police and prosecutors to adopt a ‘common sense’ approach to the issue of financial gain. If it is shown that compassion was the only driving force behind the assister’s actions, the fact that they may have ‘gained’ some benefit will not usually be treated as a factor in favour of prosecution.

The DPP instructs that in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, prosecutors must apply the public interest factors in making their decisions. A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are public interest factors tending against prosecution which outweigh those tending in favour.

Download Dignity in Dying’s perspective on the implications of the DPPs policy.


Where does the policy apply?

The policy covers actions to assist suicide carried out in England and Wales, whether the suicide takes place in England and Wales or in any other country.


What about Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The law in Northern Ireland on assisted suicide is the same as the law in England and Wales. The Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland published a prosecuting policy on assisted suicide cases in Northern Ireland which is the same as the policy in England and Wales:

Policy on prosecuting the offence of assisted suicide for Northern Ireland

The Scottish equivalent of the DPP, Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini QC, said in 2010 that similar guidance would not be issued in Scotland. There is no specific crime of ‘assisted suicide’ in Scotland, but people there who assist suicide may be liable for prosecution for the crime of culpable homicide.

The prosecuting policy clarifies the law, but it cannot change the law – and a change in the law is essential if people are to have both choice and protection.