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Warning: This briefing discusses issues around suicide which some readers may find distressing.

On 29 April 2024, the Commons is due to debate an e-petition calling on the Government to allocate parliamentary time for a debate and vote on assisted dying. The petition was created by The Daily Express newspaper, which is running a campaign called “Give us our last rights”. The campaign is supported by Dignity in Dying and Dame Esther Rantzen.

At the time of writing, it had received over 200,000 signatures. In its response to the petition the Government said “any change to the law in this sensitive area is a matter for Parliament to decide and an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians rather than one for government policy”. On timetabling, it noted that a “significant amount of government legislation” is planned for this session; however, it said it was “committed” to providing time to the Backbench Business Committee, which allows MPs to bring forward debates of their choice, and that MPs also have the option of introducing Private Members’ Bills on the issue.

Terminology and focus

There is no consensus on which terminology to use when debating the issue of whether people should be legally permitted to seek assistance with ending their lives. A range of terms are used, principally ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘assisted dying’, and the choice of term often reflects underlying views on the debate.

This paper focuses on the existing criminal law (in England and Wales) on assisting suicide, as set out in section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961. It also examines calls to change the law to allow terminally ill people to end their lives by self-administering life ending drugs that have been prescribed by a medical professional. The paper does not cover euthanasia, nor does it cover the legal and ethical aspects of end-of-life care such as the withdrawal or refusal of life-sustaining treatment or the administration of pain-relief.

The title of this paper – Assisted suicide – has been chosen as a legal term to reflect the wording of the section 2(1) criminal offence. The use of this term is not intended to endorse or reflect any particular stance on the debate about changing the law.

This paper also includes an overview of selected stakeholder views and the legal position in other jurisdictions.

Assisted suicide: The criminal law and prosecution policy

Suicide or attempted suicide are not in themselves criminal offences.  However, under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 it is an offence (in England and Wales) for a person to do an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide (or attempted suicide) of another, with the intention of encouraging or assisting suicide or attempted suicide.

Any proceedings for an offence under section 2(1) can only be brought by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

In common with all criminal offences, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must follow the principles set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors when deciding whether to start or continue a prosecution. The Code requires prosecutors to consider whether there is sufficient evidence against the defendant and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

For assisted suicide offences, the general principles in the Code are supplemented by an offence-specific prosecution policy. The policy sets out how prosecutors should apply the evidential and public interest tests in the Code to assisted suicide cases. The policy does not provide any guarantees against prosecution, nor does it legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Human rights challenges

There have been several legal cases regarding the offence of assisted suicide, particularly in the context of disabled or terminally ill people who are unable to end their lives without assistance from family, friends or doctors.

Most significantly, in June 2014 the Supreme Court examined the issue of assisted suicide in the cases of Tony Nicklinson, Paul Lamb and AM, who were seeking a declaration that the current law on assisted suicide was incompatible with their right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Supreme Court decided against making such a declaration by a majority of seven to two. It took the view that Parliament was the most appropriate forum for considering changes to the law on this issue.

Following the Supreme Court decision, in July 2015, the European Court of Human rights dismissed applications from Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb.

Parliamentary activity

The Government considers any potential change to the law to be “a matter for Parliament to decide and an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians rather than one for Government policy”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer KC is reportedly personally supportive of a change in the law; however, he has said any changes should be the subject of a free vote by MPs to respect the “strong views” on either side. In March 2024, in a telephone call between Sir Keir and Dame Esther Rantzen filmed by ITV News, Sir Keir committed to making parliamentary time for a vote on changing the law in the next parliament should he become Prime Minister.

Several Private Members’ Bills in both the Commons and the Lords have (unsuccessfully) sought to legalise assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. Most recently in the Commons, Rob Marris MP tabled the Assisted Dying Bill (No 2) 2015, which did not progress beyond second reading after it was defeated on a free vote by 330 votes to 118. In the Lords, Baroness Meacher (Crossbench) introduced the Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2021-22 in May 2021. The Bill did not proceed after the end of the 2021-22 session.

In February 2024, the Health and Social Care Select Committee published a report on Assisted Dying/Assisted Suicide (AD/AS). The Committee did not come down for or against AD/AS; instead, it said the purpose of its report was to provide a basis for discussion and debate in future parliaments, rather than to resolve the debate one way or another.

Getting help

If you are affected by the themes of this briefing, you can call Samaritans on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch.

If you are covering a suicide-related issue, please consider following the Samaritans’ media guidelines on the reporting of suicide, due to the potentially damaging consequences of irresponsible reporting.

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