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Woman challenges assisted suicide law in historic legal case (6 June 2008)

6 June 2008

Woman challenges assisted suicide law in historic legal case

In the first hearing of its kind, to be heard on Wednesday 11th June at the Royal Courts of Justice, an MS (Multiple Sclerosis) sufferer is challenging the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to clarify the UK law on assisting the suicide of another person, in a country where it is lawful.

Debbie Purdy, 45, from Bradford, suffers from Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis and wants to travel to assisted suicide clinic, Dignitas, in Switzerland, to end her life if her suffering becomes 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 to Switzerland.

Debbie said:

“If my suffering becomes unbearable, I want to be able to make the decision to travel to Dignitas for an assisted death. But I do not want to die knowing that there is a chance my husband could be prosecuted on his return to the UK.”

As the law stands, Omar would be liable to prosecution and a prison term of up to 14 years if found guilty of assisting, aiding or abetting a suicide. However, none of the relatives who have accompanied the 92 Britons who have already been to Dignitas have been prosecuted on their return to the UK.

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

“Debbie and Omar – and others like them – need to know where they stand with regards to accompanying loved ones abroad to die.

“On the face of the law, people who accompany a loved one to Dignitas are liable to up to 14 years in jail, but the fact that no one has yet been prosecuted indicates that there seems to be some sort of unspoken policy operating.”

Debbie is asking the 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. More than 40 Britons have written statements confessing to accompanying loved ones to die at Dignitas in support of the case.

Although no one has yet been prosecuted for accompanying a relative to Dignitas, many people have been questioned and had to wait several months before finding out the cases against them had been dropped.

Sarah continued:

“The fact that people like Debbie feel they have to travel to Dignitas to have a dignified death is far from ideal. Yet, without a law in the UK to allow terminally ill, mentally competent people the option of a medically assisted death if their suffering becomes unbearable, they feel they have no other choice. Without assisted dying legislation, people will continue to resort to desperate measures, such as violent or botched suicides, asking for assistance from a loved one, and travelling abroad to die.

“The current law is failing the vulnerable.”

It is currently illegal in the UK to assist the suicide of another person, which includes accompanying a person abroad – even if assisted suicide is legal in that country.

Debbie continued:

“I do not want to have to go abroad to end my suffering but, due to the current law, this would be my only option. I just want the clarification over whether my husband Omar will face prosecution for assisting me in any way, if I do decide to go. If there is any uncertainty around this, I would be forced to go by myself, while I can still travel alone and make all the arrangements. This could be years before I’m actually ready to die. If I know my husband won’t be prosecuted for coming with me, I will be able to go when I’m ready, with my husband by my side.”

The Permission Hearing on Wednesday, which is the first of its kind, will determine whether or not the case will be granted a Judicial Review. Debbie is represented by Ms Saimo Chahal of Bindmans LLP, a leading civil liberties firm. The case will be heard at the Royal Court of Justice.

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


Notes to Editor:

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 people so far in 2008 have had an assisted death at Dignitas
  • 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 Jessica Tomlin by telephone on 020 7479 7736 or 07734 433025 or by email <>