The CPS has provided prosecutors with updated guidance about when it is appropriate to bring charges in cases of mercy killings.
There is no legal definition of ‘mercy killing’ and so there is no defence to a homicide charge if a person takes the life of a loved one, as an act of mercy, acting on their wishes. However even where there is sufficient evidence to bring a charge, prosecutors have a discretion whether to do so, and on Thursday, the CPS published a list of factors to be considered when deciding whether to bring charges in mercy killing cases. These factors build on the concepts in the DPP’s guidance in respect of assisted suicide, which have been operating since 2010. They include whether the victim made a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision’ that they wanted to die, and if the suspect acted reluctantly and under ‘significant emotional pressure due to the victim’s wish for their life to end’.
Factors to consider in favour of prosecution include whether the suspect stood to gain from the death, if there was violence and abuse between the parties, and if the victim was under 18 and instances where the suspect is a doctor, nurse or other health professional or where a victim has been discouraged from receiving medical treatment or independent professional advice, or has been actively denied access to this.
This new guidance, issued following consultation, signals a change of approach by the DPP as previous CPS guidance stated: ‘subject to sufficiency of evidence, a prosecution is almost certainly required, even in cases such as “mercy killing” of a sick relative.’
The police will continue to have an important role in investigating deaths that may be characterised as mercy killings, as all the relevant evidence, including any account provided by family members who are witnesses or suspects, will need to be secured so that a prosecutor can make an informed decision. The dilemma for suspects will be that in order to benefit from the new guidance, they may feel the need to make admissions which would contribute evidentially to a prosecution in the event that the guidance is interpreted against them.