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Prosecutorial policy on encouraging and assisting suicide—how much clearer could it be?
  1. John Coggon
  1. Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, School of Law, University of Manchester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Coggon, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, School of Law, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; john.coggon{at}

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Any case raising the profile of ‘assisted-dying’ and public policy naturally causes consternation, excitement, heated debate and (sometimes conflicting) concerns from different parties, worried that the law is unclear, unfair, too conservative, too permissive, neglectful of ‘the vulnerable’ or indifferent to the proper scope of freedom for ‘the competent’. It was unsurprising, then, that much attention focused on the litigation between Debbie Purdy and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).1–4 Ms Purdy has muscular sclerosis, and would like to be free, at a time of her choosing, to travel to receive assisted suicide in a jurisdiction that permits this. To do so, she will need the help of her husband. In contrast with the famous Pretty case,5 Ms Purdy did not seek (on her husband's behalf) a proleptic immunity from prosecution under the Suicide Act 1961. Rather, she invoked her human right to respect for private and family life, and argued that the DPP should publish guidance detailing the basis on which he exercises his discretion to bring a prosecution for the crime of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring a suicide (and now, following amendments to the Act, the crime of encouraging or assisting a suicide) in England and Wales. Her case, when heard in the House of Lords, was successful.3

A decision to prosecute cases of assisted suicide pivots on the satisfaction of two key issues: the ‘evidential test’—is there sufficient evidence to justify bringing a prosecution?; and the ‘public interest test’—is it in the public interest to bring a prosecution? Rightly or wrongly, the threshold for meeting the evidential test seems to be set very low.6 Focus tends to fall, therefore, on the public interest aspect of the decision. In September 2009, the DPP published interim guidance, which detailed the offence of ‘assisting a …

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  • Funding JC is funded by the British Academy.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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