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“A milestone on the journey to assisted dying law reform, where compassion is no longer a crime”

Dignity in Dying responds to CPS announcement on updated homicide guidance consultation

Today, Friday 14 January 2022, the CPS has announced it will launch a 12-week consultation on proposed updates to its guidance for prosecutors on homicides, specifically with regard to deaths as a result of ‘mercy killings’ and suicide pacts.

The draft guidance sets out factors prosecutors should take into account in favour and against prosecution in these cases, several of which are similar to the updated guidance issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2009 for prosecutions under the 1961 Suicide Act for ‘assisting or encouraging a suicide’. This includes that a prosecution would be less likely if the deceased individual had reached a voluntary, settled and informed decision to end their life and if the suspect was motivated wholly by compassion.

In January 2020, Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for a change in the law to allow assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults subject to strict safeguards, launched Compassion Is Not A Crime, a campaign led by loved ones who have been criminalised under UK laws on assisted dying. The campaign garnered support from Parliamentarians and Police and Crime Commissioners, many of whom wrote to the former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland expressing their concerns that the current laws around assisted dying are not fit for purpose.

The campaign was led by Joy Munns, daughter of Mavis Eccleston, who was charged with murder and manslaughter after her terminally ill husband Dennis asked her to help him end his life. Dennis and Mavis attempted to take their lives together in February 2018, but Mavis later recovered and was charged. In September 2019 she was unanimously acquitted by a jury of both charges. At the time the CPS clarified that it was in the public interest to prosecute Mavis. The Eccleston family has since campaigned alongside Dignity in Dying for a change in the law to allow dying people the choice of an assisted death, subject to safeguards including strict eligibility criteria, judicial approval and medical oversight.

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

“This is a victory for our Compassion is Not a Crime campaign, but it does not fix our broken laws on assisted dying.

“This proposed new guidance recognises that mercy killing and suicide pacts are different from murder and manslaughter, and that they should be treated differently by our criminal justice system. Differentiating acts of compassion from serious crimes is an important milestone on the road to law change, as well as a clear indication that the blanket ban on assisted dying does not work. Parliamentarians should take note.

“But this does not legalise assisted dying – only Parliament can do that. A dignified death should not be a drastic act of love, but a right available to terminally ill, mentally competent adults through safeguarded, compassionate healthcare. And legalising assisted dying to give dying people an upfront choice with rigorous safeguards and oversight would be far safer than deciding whether to prosecute after someone has died.

“The CPS has been forced to fill the void of Parliament’s inaction, attempting to patch up laws that urgently require proper reform. Without a change in the law on assisted dying, terminally ill people like Dennis Eccleston will continue to be left isolated and helpless, forced to ask loved ones like Mavis, his wife of almost 60 years, for help, knowing they could be incriminated as a result.

“As proposals continue to progress in the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament, the States of Jersey and Ireland’s Oireachtas, the time has come for us to do the right thing and introduce safeguarded, compassionate assisted dying laws that balance choice and control for dying people alongside robust protection for the whole of society.”

Joy Munns, 56, business-owner and married mother of two from Staffordshire, said:

“What we really need is an assisted dying law for this country. This new guidance might have saved our Mom from a trial, but she would still have been backed into a corner, having to break the law when she’d never done so in her life. Dad wanted a proper choice, to die on his own terms with his family around him. But he knew he couldn’t have that, and so had to turn to Mom for help. For months she tried to dissuade him, but Dad was dying in agony of bowel cancer and on the night he died he was howling like a wounded animal. Mom felt she had no choice; the law put her in an impossible position. It must be properly reformed so that people like Dad can have the choice that so many dying people want.”


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