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I have already commented in an earlier article back in October last that the Act should be repealed [Stand not on the order of your going] and I am flattered to note that the vast majority of people canvassed agree with me.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.