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Prosecution policy

In February 2010, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued the prosecuting policy on cases of ‘Encouraging or Assisting Suicide’. It covers actions that happen in England and Wales, even if the suicide happens abroad.

This policy was published after the Debbie Purdy case. In that case, the judges said the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) needed “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.

What does the policy mean?

The policy gives people a much clearer understanding of how they will be treated under the law. But, it does not change the law or protect people from prosecution. Assisting suicide is still a crime with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

What does the policy say?

The policy includes a list of public interest factors that will influence whether or not someone is prosecuted for assisting suicide. The DPP says that in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, prosecutors must apply the public interest factors in making their decision. A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are sufficient public interest factors against it.

A prosecution is less likely if the person made a voluntary, informed decision to end their life, and if the assister was wholly motivated by compassion. Also, if the assister tried to discourage the person from suicide and if their actions could be seen as reluctant encouragement or assistance, prosecution is less likely.

Prosecution is more likely if the person committing suicide was:

  • under 18
  • lacked capacity to make an informed decision to end their life or
  • physically able to end their life without assistance.

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 person
  • were paid by the person committing suicide or
  • were acting as a medical doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional.

The policy says that police and prosecutors should take a ‘common sense’ approach to financial gain. If compassion was clearly the only reason behind the assister’s actions, the fact that they may have ‘gained’ some benefit will not usually be a factor in favour of prosecution.