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21 September 2021

Assisted dying - is a change in the law likely?

3 mins

At its annual conference the British Medical Association (BMA) voted to change its stance on assisted dying and has now adopted a neutral stance, whereas previously, it was opposed to it. 

The Assisted Dying Bill is slowly making its way through the House of Lords. This is a private member's Bill designed to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided, at their request, with specified assistance to end their own life. With so much parliamentary business to cover it is unlikely this Bill will be completed within the tenure of this current government.

Meanwhile, in recent years, 18 police and crime commissioners (PCCs) wrote to the government expressing concern about Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act which prohibits encouraging or assisting suicide. This means that if a terminally ill person decides they cannot live with their condition anymore and decides to take their own life or attend a clinic overseas, anyone who assists with this will potentially face prosecution. Family members who want to assist their loved ones may have to decide whether to assist them out of their pain and face the prospect of an inevitable police investigation and potential prosecution, or watch them suffer and deny them the help they are requesting.

Following a legal action in the High Court, the government tried to find a compromise by prohibiting assisted suicide, but at the same time, devising clear criteria from the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) for when a prosecution should or should not take place. We set out this criteria in our blog: Assisted dying – what is the law?.

However, the PCCs have expressed concern that this hybrid position drives assisted suicides underground without accountability or checks and balances. Based on Dignitas' figures alone (the Swiss clinic which practices assisted suicide), from 2009 to 2019 they assisted 300 British people to die, yet in the same period, just 152 cases of assisted suicide were investigated in the UK.

Our experience at Bindmans is that assisted suicides are thoroughly investigated by the police and someone’s absence, especially when they have required medical care in the UK, is rarely missed. A police investigation can be triggered by a GP, careworkers, family members, neighbours or even a bank. This means that during the acutely distressing period of grief, family members have to face a criminal investigation. The police are specially trained and generally deal with these matters sensitively, but the prospect of a criminal prosecution is always on the horizon.

It is unlikely that the BMA stance to remain neutral will have any impact on the criminal law of assisted dying, but it may illustrate a change in opinion and attitudes. The private member's Bill will keep this issue in parliamentarians' minds, but whether it affects a change in the law remains to be seen.

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