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18 police and crime commissioners call for inquiry into current law on assisted dying

18 police and crime commissioners have this week written to the Secretary of State for Justice, calling for an inquiry into the impact of the current law on assisted dying. This comes just weeks after Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg announced his support for a change in the law on assisted dying, having been diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease this July.

In a joint letter sent yesterday to the Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP, the signatories express their concerns about the blanket ban on assisted dying and its impact on terminally ill people, their families and the police officers tasked with investigating potential breaches of the law:

“Most recently, great-grandmother Mavis Eccleston was acquitted by a jury after being charged with murder for helping Dennis, her husband of 60 years, to end his own life rather than suffer any further agony from advanced bowel cancer. Earlier this year, 76-year-old Ann Whaley was investigated by police for booking travel to and accommodation in Switzerland for her husband, Geoff, who had arranged an assisted death at Dignitas in order to avoid a prolonged, traumatic end from motor neurone disease. The cost of these investigations – financial, emotional and societal – cannot be easily dismissed.

“We believe it is time for a renewed look at the functioning of the existing law on assisted dying. While there are clearly differences of opinion as to whether or how the law should change, we contend that the law is not working as well as it could and seek an inquiry to confirm that.”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“We welcome this letter and are pleased to have police and crime commissioners’ support for a new investigation into the functioning of the current law. It is clear that the blanket ban on assisted dying is not working for dying people, for their families, or for the dedicated public servants who must enforce it.

“We all agree that vulnerable people must be protected, but that is not happening under the status quo. The ban on assisted dying merely drives the practice behind closed doors and abroad, with seriously ill people often ending their lives prematurely for fear of becoming too ill to act. There is also a scattergun approach to enforcing the law. Either there is either no scrutiny at all, meaning potential safeguarding opportunities are being missed, or loving family members are criminalised for acts of compassion and are forced to endure distressing and intrusive investigations at great cost to the public purse.

“When half of police and crime commissioners across the country recognise that a law is not working, law-makers have a duty to listen. It is time for a Ministry of Justice-led inquiry into the blanket ban on assisted dying.”


Notes to Editor:

The joint letter from 18 Police and Crime Commissioners to the Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP can be accessed on the Dorset Police website.

For interviews with Dignity in Dying please contact Ellie Ball at / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025 or Tom Davies at / 0207 479 7734.

The law on assisted dying in the UK

Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
In the House of Commons in a debate in July and at Justice Questions in October, MPs have called on the Government to initiate a call for evidence on the damage being done to dying people, their families and public servants who have to enforce the law.

Mavis Eccleston

  • Dennis Eccleston, a former miner from Staffordshire, was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2015 at the age of 79.
  • In February 2018, Dennis and his wife of almost 60 years, Mavis Eccleston, attempted to end their own lives.
  • Dennis died two days later in hospital and Mavis, 80, made a full recovery following treatment.
  • Following a trial at Stafford Crown Court, a jury found Mavis not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter on Wednesday 18 September 2019.

Ann Whaley

  • Diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease and with no option of assisted dying in the UK, Geoffrey Whaley, 80, made the decision to travel to Switzerland to have control over his death and cut short his suffering by a few months.
  • Weeks before his scheduled journey, an anonymous call was made to social services, alerting the police of his plans.
  • Geoffrey and his wife Ann, 76, were subjected to a police investigation which risked stopping him from travelling and carried the possibility of prosecution for her.
  • On the day of his death, Geoffrey released an open letter to MPs urging them to legalise assisted dying as an option for dying Brits.

Phil Newby v Secretary of State for Justice

  • Phil Newby, 49, from Rutland, has motor neurone disease and has launched a judicial review challenging the blanket ban on assisted dying. He is asking the Courts to undertake a “detailed examination of the evidence” to determine whether the current law is compatible with his human rights.
  • Asking High Court Judges to examine a large body of evidence and to cross-examine experts is an unusual legal approach, but Phil & his legal team believe that this method is the only way that the legal stalemate on this sensitive issue will be overcome.
  • A permissions hearing took place on Tuesday October 22 2019. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
  • Phil picks up the baton from Noel Conway, a 69 year old man from Shropshire who also has motor neurone disease and launched a judicial review challenging the current law on assisted dying, which was thrown out by the Supreme Court in November 2018.
  • The High Court judgment on Noel Conway’s case (Oct 2017) asserted that the Courts do have the authority to decide assisted dying cases – a decision which was affirmed in the Court of Appeal’s judgment (June 2018).
  • The Courts’ judgments on Noel’s case confirmed that “all are agreed” that the blanket ban is “an interference with the right to respect for private life” protected by the Human Rights Act. This is the clearest statement of the engagement of the Human Rights Act we have to date.
  • Although the Supreme Court declined to give Noel’s case permission to have a full hearing, that decision acknowledged that assisted dying is an “issue of transcendent public importance” and “touches us all” (November 2018).

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in ten US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine (June 2019).
  • Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. In Western Australia the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was recently passed by the state’s Lower House and will now be considered by the Upper House (Legislative Council).
  • Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016. As a result of the Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in Carter v Canada in February 2015, the Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.
  • New Zealand is currently considering an End of Life Choice Bill which passed a second reading in June 2019. If the legislation passes third reading, it will be put to a public vote in 2020.

About Dignity in Dying

  • Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public.
  • Dignity in Dying does not provide practical assistance or advice in ending life, nor does it provide enquirers with the contact details of organisations who do so.