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New guidelines on assisted suicide published by DPP

The motives of those assisting suicide will be at the centre of the decision over whether they should be prosecuted, the chief prosecutor in England and Wales said yesterday.

Anyone acting with compassion to end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges. Even families who benefit from the death of a relative will not be hauled before the courts if their motives were good.

Outlining the new rules, Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said they would shift the emphasis of inquiry from the victim to the suspect.

Mr Starmer said each case would be judged on its merits and denied he had legalised assisted suicide. Anyone who carried out a “mercy killing” would lay themselves open to murder or manslaughter charges, he said, adding: “The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of Parliament. What it does do is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not.”

Mr Starmer was forced to issue the guidelines after a Law Lords ruling in favour of Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis.

She wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to end her life.

The new policy lays out 16 factors that would weigh in favour of a prosecution and six against.

It removes references to the health of the victim. Terminal illness had been a factor weighing in favour of prosecution. Disability action groups had called for its removal and Mr Starmer said it could have caused discrimination.

The new rules remove references to husbands and wives or close friends being less likely to be prosecuted because of their close relationship to the victim.

The eight pages of guidelines were released this morning along with a 45-page summary of nearly 5,000 responses.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but individual decisions on prosecution will be made on the circumstances in each case.

But publication of the guidance did nothing to quell the fractious debate surrounding the issue.

Ms Purdy welcomed the rules but continued to call for Parliament to act.

Author Sir Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer's, said the guidelines only addressed the problem after somebody has already died.

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