THE POISONED CHALICE

It’s not often I feel sorry for the Director of Public Prosecutions. After all, he’s on a fat salary, index linked pension, and if he keeps his nose clean, a knighthood and further professional advancement. And by all accounts, he isn’t required to do much other than pontificate from the margins and delegate to his minions.

But the House of Lords judgment in the Debbie Purdy case has handed him the poisoned chalice, and yes, I feel sorry for him. He’s in the impossible position of trying to square the circle, and it can’t be done. I’m astonished their lordships didn’t see it, and I suspect they wanted to go out with a bang.

For those asleep over the past twenty four hours, and the rest, Debbie Purdy has a debilitating and incurable illness, and has made a provisional booking with Dignitas, the suicide assisting clinic in Switzerland. Needless to say, when the time is right, she wants her husband to accompany her. But she wants an assurance that he will not be prosecuted under the Suicide Act 1961, which in theory carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment for anybody found guilty of assisting another person’s suicide.

I have already commented in an earlier article back in October last that the Act should be repealed [Stand not on the order of your going] and I am flattered to note that the vast majority of people canvassed agree with me. By all accounts, all but the most pigheaded are inching ever closer to repeal, but it’s like the word that dare not speak its name, and with the obvious exception of the former Lord Chancellor, those in high places refuse to stand up and be counted. Were it ever thus in the political hothouse. Politics as practised by this government is all about being seen to do much about nothing, as the late and unlamented Jacqui Smith will testify.

So imagine the DPP’s dilemma with the Act still on the statute books. If assisted suicide remains a criminal offence, then surely each assisted suicide must be judged on its own particular facts. To suggest otherwise is to make a mockery of the law. There will be cases, perhaps the vast majority, where the assistant is clearly acting in the best interests of the person wishing to die, and almost always he or she will be their nearest and dearest. In the absence of any suspicious circumstances, it would be wrong to prosecute. But there may be cases, hopefully few in number, where there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, and they must be investigated and prosecuted. I don’t suppose anybody would argue with that.

Surely that’s as far as he can go if he is to pay lip service to the Act. The DPP cannot anticipate what should or should not be done until the assisted suicide has actually taken place. Then it will be for Plod to investigate and report back, and then, and only then, can the DPP make an informed decision.

As things stand, there is simply no easy answer, and certainly no answer that would cover every possibility. The law lords have simply passed on the poisoned chalice, as they too can do no more. The solution is simple for all concerned. Read my article again. It’s all there. Get on and move on, otherwise this and other tragic cases are set to run and run, with more court time, more pontifications, more fudging, and nobody the wiser. Requiescat in pace.

THE LAW IS A ASS

I wrote some time ago [see my article Stand not on the order of your going] that the criminal law should not be involved in assisted suicide, and that the Suicide Act 1961 should be repealed. I am flattered to read that the aptly named Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, has joined the debate and thrown the full weight of his authority behind my proposals.

But in his review, Lord Judge highlighted the dilemma facing the courts in the event of a prosecution, namely that the courts have only limited powers to intervene, and these must be judiciously exercised. It is all well and good for his lordship to pontificate on the role of the court to “prevent or extinguish the effect of any arbitrary or unprincipled exercise by the Director of Public Prosecutions of his responsibilities,” but in reality, unless the prosecution is brought with mala fides or is oppressive or vexatious, there is little the court can do to prevent or extinguish a prosecution until it has run its course.

This means that the inevitable distress caused to the arrested person cannot be avoided whilst the police carry out their investigation, the suspect is questioned under caution and charged, and a date set for a preliminary hearing. At this stage, the court may make its views known about the wisdom of proceeding to trial, but the final decision rests with the prosecution, and the only weapon in the court’s armoury is the threat of wasted costs.

If the prosecutor so determines, the case will go to trial, and few judges with a vested interest in their index linked pensions are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. It is only at the conclusion of the prosecution case that the judge can then intervene and direct the jury to acquit, but again, the power to do so must be based on the evidence, and not on sentiment, and if there is sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case, the trial must proceed to its conclusion. The defendant must then hope there are sufficient members of the jury belonging to the lobby group Dignity in Dying to secure an acquittal. If, however, the jury is peppered with followers of the lobby group Right to Life, then a guilty verdict is a real possibility. And so it goes on.

As I wrote last October, the simple solution is to decriminalise assisted suicide and repeal the Act, but sadly, the government have bigger fish to fry, and there are no plans to review it. Such a pity, when the government can make available seven hundred hours to debate the hunting of foxes, and when the vast majority of the great British public couldn’t give a rat’s crap. Strange priorities, strange government.

POSTSCRIPT: Excitement mounts to fever pitch. Jacqui Smith, the hitherto invisible Secretary of State for Home Affairs, has actually been spotted, albeit briefly, outside a run down tenement building in a district of London called Nunhead, wherever that may be, claiming to be permanently resident there when the House of Commons is in session. She was followed to the building by the usual media scrum, and guess what?? She spent several minutes fumbling at the door with a key that didn’t fit, trying to gain access to her ‘permanent’ residence. There’s more to this upstanding public servant than meets the eye!

STAND NOT ON THE ORDER OF YOUR GOING

Assisted suicide, once again being ventilated in the courts, is an ethical and legal minefield, and one incapable of easy resolution. Whilst we cling to the questionable belief that in a civilised society human life is sacred, then suicide will remain anathema. To the Catholic Church, it remains a mortal sin, on the basis that God giveth, and God taketh away. To the “Right to Life” lobby, and other interested parties, assisting another to commit suicide is nothing short of murder by any other name.

The dilemma facing the courts is not about euthanasia, although this too raises many serious ethical questions, and in the recent past, the courts have taken a very compassionate approach to all but the most egregious cases where the terminally ill or senile demented have been helped on their way by their loved ones.

But with euthanasia and assisted suicide, leaving aside the ethical questions, it’s all about knowing when the time is right, and this is the dilemma facing the courts in an attempt to clarify the situation. The person wishing to commit suicide today may change her mind tomorrow, by which time it would be too late.

The public stance of the medical profession, for the most part, remains opposed to the ending of life by whatever means whilst the patient is still breathing, so short of DNR, no help there. And of course there’s the occasional well documented miracle, witness the advancement up the beatification ladder towards sainthood of Cardinal Newman, one of ours no less, who has claimed vicariously the miraculous cure of an American supplicant suffering from terminal cancer of the spine. An odd choice, you might think, deep in the sun belt, but who am I to question the wonders of the Almighty?

For the time being at least, those who want to commit suicide ‘with dignity’ beat a path to Switzerland, where they have a special clinic. But to avoid any repercussions from their own licensing authority, this clinic insists that the enrolees are sufficiently of sound mind at the time of departure to know what they are doing, and as importantly, to be able to take the medication by their own hand. These requirements are of little comfort to the terminally ill, who may be suffering from a debilitating disease which makes these requirements impossible to fulfil.

For the life of me [if you’ll forgive the pun], I cannot understand why the criminal law needs to get involved in this distressing area of life and death. The Act in question is the Suicide Act 1961, carrying with it the draconian sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment for those who assist another’s suicide. I can just remember 1961, but I can’t connect the two. What was happening in 1961 to bring about this misconceived legislation? I remember it was towards the end of Harold MacMillan’s tenure of high office, “SuperMac” as he was known in the popular press, and he who coined the phrase “you’ve never had it so good.” I also remember his resignation two years later, on the grounds of ill health, although he went on to live to a ripe old age, became the Earl of Stockton, wherever that is, and had a son who sold Highgrove House to HRH. Did “SuperMac” fear some Machiavellian plot to offer him the poisoned chalice for the good of the Party? I know not, but if anybody out there can throw light on the origins of the Act, then feel free to share it with us.

If the elderly, or infirm, or terminally ill, or senile demented, shake off their mortal coil in suspicious circumstances, then by all means bring in Plod. Rest assured that thorough checks are made on the deceased, as somebody in authority and with the necessary medical qualifications has to sign the death certificate. In suspicious circumstances, there will be a post mortem, so if the assisted suicide turns out to be murder most foul, that is the time to invoke the criminal law. In all other cases, leave those who remain behind to grieve their loss with the same dignity as those who have departed.

 

POSTSCRIPT

 

Nothing I read today [18th October] about the assisted suicide of Daniel James changes my opinion one iota. Such a pity that they had to travel to Switzerland. Time for a long hard look at our laws and the way we treat those most in need of our help.