Law Changed on Assisted Suicide

Not many people seem to have noticed that the law on assisted suicide was changed at the beginning of this month. To help fellow reporters who may have to cover the DPP’s revised guidelines when they’re published on Thursday, here’s my download-and-keep guide to the new law.

What’s new?

Gone is the old wording about a person who “aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another”.

Instead you get jazzy new wording that makes it an offence if a suspect “does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person” and the suspect’s act “was intended to encourage or assist suicide or an attempt at suicide”.

The maximum sentence remains 14 years.

Is that all?

Not quite. The person assisted need not be known to the suspect. Indeed, it’s still an offence even if no attempt at suicide occurs. So anyone who posts material on the internet promoting suicide commits an offence if they intended to encourage or assist suicide. This has always been the law, though it was not widely known.

Are you sure?

If you don’t believe me, read the following “frequently asked questions” (and answers) in this Ministry of Justice circular to judges, police forces, etc.

Do the terms “assisting and encouraging” cover any behaviour that is not covered by “aiding, abetting, counselling and procuring”?

No. These terms cover the same behaviour that was previously covered by section 2 of the Suicide Act and the Criminal Attempts Act as it applied to section 2.

Will restating the law in this way increase the likelihood of prosecutions?

The decision to prosecute in individual cases for an offence under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. The amendments that have been made to the Suicide Act simplify and modernise the law in this area but they do not make liable to prosecution anyone who was not liable before. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee in March 2009 that the new provisions will not extend the current law. He did not therefore anticipate any increase in the number of prosecutions for this type of offence.

Why was a restating of the law necessary?

It is important, particularly in an area of such wide public interest and concern, for the law to be expressed in terms that everyone can understand. The Byron report Safer Children in a Digital World identified this as an area where there is some confusion about the application of the law to online activity. And the Law Commission also said that there was a strong case for updating the language of section 2 of the Suicide Act.

What has changed?

The previous two offences have been replaced with a single offence and the old-fashioned terms of aiding, abetting counselling and procuring have been replaced with the more modern ones of assisting and encouraging. The new provisions are in line with the case law relating to the previous two offences. The behaviour covered by the new provisions is the same as was covered by the previous law.

How will this make it clearer that the law applies to online actions?

Simplifying and modernising the law should increase public understanding and provide reassurance that the law is capable of reflecting the new ways of communicating and accessing information that have developed since the 1961 Act was passed.

Why not just make explicit that the law applies online?

It is not necessary to do this nor would it be sensible. The internet is simply a means of communication and the law already applies to that means of communication as it does to any other.

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