Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The DPP's guidelines

Anonymous writes: 'I agonise over the question of "assisted suicide"; it seems wrong that an unelected individual can decide whether or not someone should be prosecuted for breaking the law - but I know that many years ago a jury would, in spite of evidence to the contrary, find "not guilty" a young lad who would otherwise have been hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. There is room for compassion? For the person considering suicide it is a different matter; ultimately it rests with the Father?'

And you aren't alone, anonymous. It does seem odd that the DPP has the discretion whether to prosecute or not. Though, when you come to think of it, that's always true in criminal cases in that the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether there's enough evidence for a probable conviction. What's explicit in the Suicide Act is that the DPP alone has the discretion to prosecute. i.e. A pressure group can't insist on it - which is sensible. I guess he'd say that the same principles applied in his decisions about assisted suicide. In fact he did say just that in the Diane Pretty and then Debbie Purdy's various court cases. You could look them up! But generally he decided against prosecution on the grounds of there being insufficient evidence, its not being in the public interest or being unlikely to secure a conviction. What the Law Lords said in July was that the GENERAL CPS guidelines about prosecution were not sufficiently specific in the case of assisted suicide, and instructed the DPP to draw some up especially for that crime.

I think actually if his guidelines makes exceptions into rules, then that is a bad precedent - and not his job. Laws in our country are made by Parliament, and interpreted by case-laws, i.e. in the courts. I feel it was a bit craven of the Law Lords to put that pressure on him, rather than admitting it was a job for Parliament. One of the things I want to say in the consultation is, This is NOT the place to change the law, neither is it the DPP's job to. I think the argument IS about the person assisting, rather than the person who's died. And the issue is fundamentally, do we want to make it legal ever to take part in intentional taking of life? I think the word 'compassion' can be hijacked. There was a moving piece in the Times of 23 Sept by Rob George, a consultant in palliative care, who recalled a patient who'd received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer and insisted on her life being terminated then. I was struck by this bit:
'My deep concern with the CPS’s policy on assisted suicide is that during the phases of anger, fear and frustration that litter our life journeys a key safeguard has been undermined for both patients and carers.
'That safeguard has given the opportunity for hope to rise and transcend for so many of my patients over the years. It is not just the disabled and frail who are at risk, we all are.
'Being human means that we not only suffer, but we also hope — we have the wherewithal to see life as more than a disposable garment.
'Compassion — "bearing or suffering with", walking the road together, carrying the burden of witness — for me was real, that’s my job. For her living was made possible by our mutual protection from a law that says unambiguously that it is wrong to be part of killing another even if the person thinks it is in their best interest.' The patient survived longer than either she or the doctor expected. And was glad to have had the time. (

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