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

On 4 July 2022, the Commons is due to debate an e-petition which calls on the Government to “legalise assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults”. The petition was created by Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying.

At the time of writing, it had received over 150,000 signatures. In its response to the petition the Government re-iterates its position that “any change to the law in this area is a matter for Parliament and an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians rather than one for Government policy”.

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 this issue to be a matter of individual conscience and the matter has traditionally been the subject of a free vote when debated in Parliament.

There have been several Private Members’ Bills that sought to legalise assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. 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.

Private Members’ Bills on the issue have also been introduced in the Lords. Most recently 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.

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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