The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has published a clarification of one aspect of its Policy for Prosecutors governing cases of encouraging or assisting suicide. The Policy, which was published in 2010 and makes clear that encouraging or assisting another person's suicide is a criminal offence, lists a number of aggravating and mitigating factors which may argue for or against prosecution in any individual case. One of the aggravating factors refers to a circumstance where assistance with suicide has been given by a doctor or nurse to a patient who had been under his or her care.
This particular factor (the fourteenth in a list of sixteen aggravating circumstances) has been regularly attacked by the 'assisted dying' lobby. Such criticism is to be expected from those who wish to see the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide and who have claimed that Factor 14 encourages 'amateur assistance' with suicide. The criticism is, however, misconceived. In reality, Factor 14 does not encourage any kind of assistance with suicide: it simply makes clear that such assistance could be seen as a breach of the trust which a doctor or nurse has for a patient under his or her care.
The CPS has thought it necessary to clarify Factor 14 by underlining that it applies where there has been a relationship of care between a doctor (or nurse) and a patient. Some commentators have suggested that this betokens a change in the Policy for Prosecutors and that the CPS is offering free rein to doctors who are not in a duty-of-care relationship to assist a suicide. This claim is difficult to substantiate. The Policy has not been changed and continues to make clear that encouraging or assisting suicide is a criminal offence and that no one who engages in such acts may expect immunity from prosecution.
The timing of the CPS's clarification, when there is a Private Member's assisted suicide bill before the House of Lords and when there is perhaps greater scope for its misinterpretation by both supporters and opponents of the bill, is less than ideal. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Policy for Prosecutors has not changed.