The law on helping people to die must be changed because current guidelines have led to an “unregulated situation” where anyone can be assisted to die, campaigners have claimed.
Dignity in Dying chief executive Sarah Wootton said the 1961 suicide act was “no longer fit for purpose” and new guidelines brought in after the case of right-to-die campaigner Debbie Purdy should be replaced with an updated law that clearly states which acts are criminal and which are not.
Her comments come as Lord Falconer’s inquiry into assisted dying hears evidence on the ethical issues of the controversial debate.
At the moment, anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges and some people travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their life.
Ms Wootton said: “What we’ve really got is an unregulated situation where anyone can go to Switzerland and anyone can be assisted to die in this country. What we want is a better law, a more up-to-date modern law which clearly states which acts are criminal and which acts are not.
“We believe regulating would make a much safer situation and make sure that laws are observed. That’s the ideal situation for us.”
The chief prosecutor in England and Wales issued new guidelines over assisted suicide in February after right-to-die campaigner Ms Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), took her case to the highest court in the country after the High Court and Court of Appeal held that it was for Parliament, not the courts, to change the law.
Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions, said the motives of those assisting suicide would be at the centre of the decision over whether they should be prosecuted and that no further action had been taken in 20 cases considered for prosecution in the 18 months to December last year.
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, Mr Starmer said.
Ms Purdy, from Undercliffe, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, wanted to know what would happen to her Cuban husband, Omar Puente, if he helped her travel abroad to end her life.