LONDON, December 17, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Twenty people in Britain who have admitted to assisting suicides, a criminal offense, will not be prosecuted, the Director of Public Prosecutions told a private committee investigating the “laws and issues” surrounding assisted suicide this week. Since the new policy on prosecuting assisted suicide cases was put in place early this year, “there have been no prosecutions for assisted suicide,” said DPP Keir Starmer.

Starmer called the cases “difficult,” since they involved families in which relatives were accused of assisting in the suicides of loved ones. Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, in theory punishable by up to 14 years in prison. But this February, Starmer issued new guidelines that said persons who had assisted suicides would not be prosecuted if it were believed that they had acted without a motive of personal gain .

Starmer was speaking at a private “independent” inquiry into the “laws and issues” surrounding assisted suicide launched last month by one of the House of Lords’ most enthusiastic promoters of legalised assisted suicide. Charles Lord Falconer was Lord Chancellor under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and is the leader of a cadre in Parliament who are ardently campaigning to legalise assisted suicide.

According to Starmer, in 2009-10, there were 19 cases where the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was asked to make a decision whether to prosecute. In 17 of those cases it was decided there should be no further action. One of those cases is on-going and one was withdrawn by the police. In 2010-11 there have been 14 cases so far. 11 are on-going and with a decision for no further action in 3.

Starmer added, “We did have discussion about whether we should use the word ‘victim’ or not in the policy. We used it because when you’re talking about the
criminal law it works well in describing the parties, but I know that not everybody would agree with that.”

Explaining the genesis of the new policy, Starmer said that it was put in place in advance of a public consultation on the law. The CPS, he said, knew that there would “be a number of individuals who might find themselves in a difficult circumstance during the currency of the consultation and we didn’t want them to have no guidance”. 

“Parliament it seemed to us had signaled that not every act that technically comes within the terms of the offence need necessarily be prosecuted,” he added.

Falconer’s Commission has been heavily criticised for its pro-legalisation bias. The Commission, that is not a work of the House of Lords, was launched late last month after two attempts to legalise assisted suicide through democratic processes failed by large voting margins -  148-100 and 194-141 in the House of Lords in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Last year, Falconer and his supporters failed to weaken the current law with an amendment to the Coroners and Justice bill that would have made it legal for family members to help relatives go to Switzerland to end their lives at the Dignitas euthanasia “clinic” .

Falconer said that his “independent” Commission would be a “serious and dispassionate investigation” into the need for a change in the law. The Commission intends to publish a report in October 2011 which it hopes will be discussed in Parliament.

Countering the “dispassionate” claim is the revelation that of the 12 members of the Commission, at least eight are on record as favouring legalising assisted suicide. The Commission is being conducted under the supervision of the campaign group ‘Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and is funded by novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, who has himself called for legalisation of assisted suicide for people suffering from dementia.

It has been heavily criticised for bias by disability rights campaigners. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said, “[W]e are deeply concerned that this pseudo ‘commission’ will not reflect the concerns and fears of many disabled people. When it is funded by supporters of legalising assisted suicide, and without a formal remit from government, we would question how independent this commission really can be.”

Dr. Peter Saunders, campaign director of the Care Not Killing alliance, said, “This so-called independent commission has all the appearances of a stitch-up and serious questions have already been raised about transparency and objectivity.”

George Pitcher, a liberal Anglican minister who has written a book against legalisation of assisted suicide, was asked by Falconer to give evidence to the Commission. In an open letter to Falconer in the Daily Telegraph, Pitcher called the inquiry a “sham,” saying it is nothing more than a naked publicity campaign to legalise euthanasia.

Pitcher said it is “difficult to see” how the Commission could be “interpreted as anything even approaching ‘independent’ or ‘dispassionate’”. He asks Falconer to reveal how many members of the House of Lords refused to give evidence and whether any of the Lords who oppose legalisation of assisted suicide were approached for membership.

To contact the Commission on Assisted Dying:
Louise Bazalgette
Secretary to the Commission and Researcher
louise.bazalgette@demos.co.uk
+020 7367 6334