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September 24, 2009

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Suicide aid 'unlikely' to result in prosecution

Helping someone carry out an informed wish to commit suicide is unlikely to result in criminal charges in England and Wales, the top prosecutor said in London yesterday.

More than 100 Britons reportedly have ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but no one in Britain has been prosecuted for helping them get there.

Though assisting suicide is illegal in the United Kingdom, charges are not likely to be filed unless there is evidence of malicious encouragement toward suicide, according to Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer.

His announcement follows a July judgment by the House of Lords that asked for guidance on how the prosecutor for England and Wales would handle cases of assisted suicide. The guidance does not apply within the separate Scottish or Northern Irish justice systems.

The House of Lords had been ruling on a motion by Debbie Purdy, a 46-year-old with multiple sclerosis who sought clarification because she feared her husband could be prosecuted if he helped her go to the Swiss suicide clinic.

Last year, the parents of 23-year-old partially paralyzed rugby player Daniel James were spared prosecution.

Starmer said prosecutors consider several factors in such a decision, including whether the deceased had a terminal illness or severe disability, had asked for help and "had a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide."

"There are no guarantees against prosecution," Starmer said. "Assisting suicide has been a criminal offense for nearly 50 years, and my interim policy does nothing to change that."

Prosecution would be considered if the deceased was younger than 18, had not asked for help or was unable to make an informed decision or had been indecisive.

Prosecution was also possible if the person who assisted had something to gain.

"Each case must be considered on its own facts and merits," Starmer said, adding "this policy does not, in any way, permit euthanasia."


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