The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill – Better Safe Than Sorry?

by ScotsLawBlog on January 19, 2015

Both Police Scotland and legal experts have said that if the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill is to be introduced in Scotland, greater clarity must be provided in order to prevent the risk of someone being prosecuted.

The Assisted Suicide Bill would give people in Scotland whose lives have become insufferable as a result of a progressive degenerative condition, or terminal illness the right to seek the help of a doctor to help end their lives.

The legislation has begun its passage through parliament, and makes clear the final act must be carried out by the person seeking to end their own life.

MSP’s heard that there is a “fine line” between assisting someone to commit suicide and an act of euthanasia – the latter would result in criminal charges.

However, at present the difference is not translated in the law.  This post considers what is proposed in the assisted suicide bill and what legal protections are required to protect both the assisted and the assisting?

Clarity for Assistants

Professor Alison Britton, of the Law Society of Scotland, has stated that an exact definition of assisting suicide is essential with defined parameters of when and how the act can be carried out.

This is especially crucial in cases where someone has become too ill to end their life. She said:

“We need to be very clear what actually this assistance encompasses, and we need to be also clear at what point is there a demarcation where assistance is being given and that actually crosses over to being complicit in homicide.”

Under the current law of Scotland it is not illegal to attempt suicide. However, helping someone take their own life could lead to prosecution.

In 2010, Keir Starmer, then the Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales issued guidance clarifying that family or friends who accompanied a loved one to the Swiss suicide group Dignitas would not face prosecution. This guidance came about after Debbie Purdy, a terminally ill woman brought a case in 2009 and obtained a legal ruling that required the DPP to set out whether her husband would be committing an offence if he accompanied her to Dignitas to commit suicide.

The Crown office in Scotland has issued no such guidance in this area and thus it is still unclear as to when exactly prosecutions will be carried out against those who aid another in committing suicide.

Prosecutor Stephen McGowan, representing the Crown Office before the MSP’s said:

“The line between assisting someone and taking the act out of that persons hands is a fine one. The key part of this is, there is no definition of what assistance actually is and what it is to assist someone in suicide.”

The Assisted Suicide Bill, contains a series of safeguards which aim to prevent abuse of the legislation. The key measures are detailed below.

Assisted Suicide Bill – Key provisions

The only people who may seek assisted suicide are those who are terminally ill or who are suffering from deteriorating progressive conditions that make life intolerable.

There will be an early warning system in place. This means that anyone over the age of sixteen can inform their GP whether they are in support of assisted suicide. This will be noted in the individual’s medical records. However, this statement must be made at least seven days before they make a formal request for help to end their life.

Request made to GP’s must be supported by a second professional opinion and then followed by a 14 day cooling off period.

This process is then repeated with a second request. Following this one of the doctors involved in the case will supply a licensed facilitator with a prescription that enables an assisted suicide to take place.

The facilitator must have no relationship with the patient and is charged with collecting the prescription and agreeing the process of assisted suicide.

If the prescription is not used within 14 days it must be returned to the chemist.

The safeguards put in place appear stringent with some amount of time for consideration both by the individual and by medical professionals. The fact that the facilitator has no relationship with the individual requesting assisted suicide is also a valuable safeguard.

It will be interesting to see if the bill is passed and also if and what guidance is issued as regards assisted suicide.

Previous post:

Next post: