Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Assisted Suicide Debate Continues

In its very last judgment the House of Lords again wrestled with the question of assisted suicide. The Court had earlier determined (in common with Canada) that the bar on assisted suicide was lawful but now had to deal with an ancillary question -- that is whether or not the Director of Public Prosecutions (the head of the English prosecution service) had to give some guidance as to when it would exercise its discretion to allow a prosecution for assisted suicide.

The case concerned a woman suffering from a progressive disease which in time would render her life unbearable. When that time comes she wants to be taken to Switzerland where assisted suicide is lawful to end her own suffering. Her husband is willing to take her. There is a nice legal question as to whether taking somebody to another country where you will assist them commit suicide is even a crime, but the woman and her husband don't want to chance that. Instead they wanted an answer to the question, "is the DPP going to prosecute the husband at all?" At the very least they wanted to know what criteria the Director proposes to apply in making that decision.

The House of Lords, in a thoughtful judgment, ordered that the Director issue a policy outlining the criteria that would be considered in deciding whether or not to prosecute a person for assiting a suicide. The discussion covers a great deal of the assisted suicide debate (including the Rodriguez case) and highlights the continued difficulty that this whole topic raises. In a macabre moment Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers cites an old English decision from the early 1800's (R. v. Burgess) on the problems posed by the crime of attempting suicide:

“We are all of opinion that the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions is not taken away by the 24 & 25 Vict. c. 100, and that attempting to commit suicide is not attempting to commit murder within that statute. If it were, it would follow that any one attempting to commit suicide by wounding himself must be indicted for the offence of wounding with intent to commit murder, which until very recently was punishable with death.”

This question will sooner or later have to be dealt with by Parliament (both here and in the United Kingdom) but for now at least the House of Lords has tempered discretion with reason in this debate.

Perhaps this was not a bad gesture for the Lords own last act.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since Lord Bingham was the one most publicly in favour of the end of The House of Lords...I agree that this judgement is rather like an assisted suicide. The House of Lords resisted reform for a century, and I think Bingham was weak to give in to the Labour push for reform. We have a similar thing here, of course, with the Senate being held out for reform by every reform party.

I really think that a Court is properly a branch of parliament, a 'committee' of parliament, and all that need of been done would have been for a lawyer more brilliant than Lord Bingham to point out the disguise -- the guise. The true nature of court is violated when it sits apart from the main body of government. It's a lie. There are always political interests at play, and the fact that Lord Bingham didn't exercise his votes in Parliament hardly EVER is another reason why I'm not such a fan as you Robert.