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Court will review law on assisted suicide (11 June 2008)

11 June 2008

Court will review law on assisted suicide

Two judges have today ruled that a Judicial Review of the law around assisting a suicide, in countries where it is lawful, should go ahead.

The case, brought by Debbie Purdy, 45, from Bradford, who suffers from Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, asks the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to issue a statement that reflects the true position of the law, which is that friends or relatives who assist a loved one to have an assisted suicide in a country where it is lawful are not prosecuted.

Debbie said:

I am delighted that the courts have decided to officially review the law surrounding my case.

Debbie wants to travel to assisted suicide clinic, Dignitas, in Switzerland, to end her life?if her suffering has become unbearable, as there is currently no law in the UK that will allow her to request a medically assisted death. Debbie wants her husband, Omar Puente, to accompany her.

Debbie continued:

If the DPP does clarifythat my husband will not be prosecuted for accompanying me to Dignitas, I will be able to wait until I’m ready to go. I want to wait until the last possible moment if I can no longer bear being alive but I cannot do that while there is a chance my husband will be prosecuted. If the DPP does not give this assurance, then I would need to go to Dignitas a long time before I want to die, but at least I would know where I stand.

Debbie’s case will now proceed to a Judicial Review, due to take place in October, which could see a new policy issued on the law surrounding anyone who accompanies another person abroad to have an assisted death, in a country where this is legal.

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, which is supporting Debbie’s case, said:

We are relieved that the Court has made this decision. We hope that common sense prevails and the Judicial Review will clarify the law, so that people considering travelling to Dignitas will know where they stand.

?This is an important step forward for Debbie Purdy and others like her. If the DPP issues a policy on the law, Debbie may be able to live longer, knowing that if her suffering becomes too much to bear, she has the option of having an assisted death, with her husband by her side.?

Of course, the decision to travel to Dignitas is far from ideal. People who are terminally ill and mentally competent should have the option of requesting a medically assisted death in the comfort of their own country, surrounded by the people they love.

Debbie is represented by Ms Saimo Chahal of Bindmans LLP, a leading civil liberties firm.? The case will be heard at the Divisional Court.

A photo of Debbie and Omar is available from Dignity in Dying.

About the current law in the UK:

  • Assisting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.
  • Section 2 (1) of the 1961 Suicide Act states: A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
  • Section 2 (4) 1961 Suicide Act states:No proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this section except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

About Debbie Purdy’s legal team:

  • Debbie Purdy’s solicitor is Ms Saimo Chahal of Bindmans and Partners contactable on telephone 020 7833 4433 and email
  • Debbie Purdy’s barrister is Mr Paul Bowen of Doughty Street Chambers.

About Debbie Purdy:

  • Debbie Purdy is seeking a Judicial Review on the law around assisting a suicide.
  • Debbie Purdy is 45 years old. She lives in Bradford with her husband Omar Puente.
  • Debbie was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS) when she was 31 (1995).

Prosecuting policy:

The purpose of a prosecuting policy is to give guidance to the police and crown prosecutors on how to interpret and apply the law in a given area. The DPP has issued prosecuting policies on several areas of the law including domestic violence, drink driving, race and disability hate crime, and amongst others.

Publishing policy statements is entirely within the scope of the discretion of the DPP, and can be issued under the Code for Crown Prosecutors, which is issued under Section 10 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.

About Dignity in Dying:

  • Dignity in Dying is the leading organisation in the UK that advocates assisted dying for terminally ill patients.
  • The organisation is also the country?s leading provider in information on end-of-life issues.
  • Dignity in Dying has over 100,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.
  • Opinion polls consistently show that at least 80% of the UK population support a change in the law on assisted dying.

About Dignitas:

  • Dignitas has been open since 1998
  • The clinic has helped 868 people to end their lives
  • 92 of these people were from the UK
  • 17 people from the UK traveled to Dignitas in 2007 to end their lives
  • 8 British people have had an assisted death at Dignitas so far in 2008
  • Dignitas has 694 members in the UK
  • The number of Britons to have traveled to Dignitas is likely to reach 100 by the end of this year
  • There is no connection between Dignitas and Dignity in Dying
  • Some previous cases:

Michelle Bennett

Some families had to wait several months before finding out whether or not they would be prosecuted for assisting a suicide (for example Win Crew and Jan Healey, Stefan Sliwinski, and the Bennett family). On top of the natural grieving process, these families have to suffer the stress of a possible prosecution and up to 14 years imprisonment hanging over them.

Michelle Bennett (the wife of John Paul Bennett) said:

The families suffer too, and we suffer when we come back. It just doesn’t all stop there.

Stefan Sliwinski

For those who have children, the fear of the legal consequences is particularly strong. Stefan Sliwinski faced months of uncertainty before police told him that he would not be prosecuted for assisting the suicide of his mother. With young children to support, Mr Sliwinski was naturally very worried about their future, should he have been prosecuted and faced a custodial sentence.

Syd Robbins

The lack of legal certainty leads some terminally ill people to travel to Switzerland without close family members. Syd Robbins was told by his wife of 34 years that she did not want him to face prosecution for assisting her suicide. Dorothy Robbins had MND. Speaking after her death Mr Robbins said:

“The crime wasn’t about flying out of the country to die. The crime was not being able to go out with her and hold her hand.”

Media enquiries:

Please contact Davina Hehir on 020 7479 7738 or