By Professor Philip Stenning
Ms. Debbie Purdy, an MS sufferer, lost her appeal today in her bid to have the courts require clarification of the law concerning the vulnerability to prosecution of someone who assists someone else to travel overseas to obtain an assisted suicide. Ms. Purdy had asked the court to require that prosecutorial authorities give a clearer indication as to when they would, and when they would not, prosecute such a person for assisting a suicide under Section 6 of the Suicide Act, 1961. A person convicted of such an offence is liable to up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Ms. Purdy’s lawyers had argued that the lack of clear guidance on this constituted a violation of her right to a private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In rejecting her appeal, the Court of Appeal said that the Director of Public Prosecution’s public explanation of his decision not to prosecute the parents of 23-year-old rugby player Daniel James last year in similar circumstances, together with the published Code for Crown Prosecutors, which provides Crown Prosecutors with detailed guidance on how to exercise prosecutorial discretion in such cases, provided Ms. Purdy’s lawyers with “ample material” on which they could advise her and her partner in her particular circumstances. The Appeal Court also emphasised that even if a person who assisted someone to seek an assisted suicide in this way were prosecuted, a court would most likely take the view that a prison sentence would be inappropriate punishment for the crime, and might even criticise the Crown for pursuing such a prosecution in the first place.
After learning of the judgment, Ms. Purdy is reported to have said that she was satisfied with it, and that she felt she had won her argument even though she had lost the appeal.
A newspaper account of the Court of Appeal judgment can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/feb/19/assisted-suicide-euthanasia-debbie-purdy and the Court of Appeal decision itself can be found at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2009/92.html.
The DPP’s public statement on the James case can be found at http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/nationalnews/death_by_suicide_of_daniel_james.html.