Vulnerable better protected by new assisted suicide prosecution policy, says Archbishop Smith

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer.
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer.


The Archbishop of Cardiff has welcomed revised government guidelines on assisted suicide, saying that passages of concern have been removed so that there is now greater protection for the most vulnerable. He added that there is now greater emphasis on the fact that no one is being given immunity from prosecution.

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), on Thursday published his policy on whether to prosecute those who are suspected of aiding someone who commits suicide.

“The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim,” he said in a statement at the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) website. “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 is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not.”

According to the Telegraph, one of the key changes is the removal of any reference to whether a victim is terminally ill or near death.

Starmer said deciding to take a case to court is not “a tick-box exercise” but requires consideration of the facts.

“The policy has not been relaxed or tightened but there has been a change of focus," he continued.

His announcement listed sixteen “public interest factors” in favor of prosecution. These include whether the victim was a minor, whether he or she lacked the capacity to decide to commit suicide, and whether there was evidence of a communicated decision to commit suicide.

Prosecution considerations regarding the suspect include whether he or she stood to gain in some way from the victim’s death, whether there were previous abuse or pressures to commit suicide, and whether the suspect was unknown to the victim and encouraged or assisted in the suicide by the provision of specific information.

Six public interest factors against prosecution include cases where the victim shows a clear, informed decision to commit suicide, where the suspect was “wholly motivated by compassion,” and where the suspect reported the suicide to police and fully assisted their inquiries.

Removed as a mitigating factor was the suspect’s status as a family member. The Telegraph reports that the change was motivated by concerns that family members could be "manipulative" or even "antagonistic" towards a sick individual.

The policy responded to the nearly 5,000 responses to a consultation exercise launched in September.

The changes mean that assisted suicide groups like Dignitas will “almost certainly” not be allowed to operate in England and Wales.

Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Chair of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ Department of Responsibility and Citizenship, said he welcomed the guidelines.

In his view, Starmer was “given a near impossible task by the Law Lords and many people were extremely concerned by the wording of the interim guidelines and some of the factors to be taken into account against prosecution.”

The archbishop said particular concerns before the revisions were that the guidelines gave less legal protection to the disabled or seriously ill and to those who had a history of suicide attempts.

“There also appeared to be a presumption that a spouse or close relative would always act simply out of compassion and never from selfish motives,” he explained.

“These factors have been removed from the new Guidelines which now give greater protection to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There is also a greater stress on the fact that the law has not changed, that all cases will be investigated and that no one is being given immunity from prosecution under these Guidelines,” the archbishop said.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes suicide as an act “gravely contrary” to natural self-love, love for one’s family and community, and love for God. The responsibility of someone committing suicide can be diminished by “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship” and suffering.

“Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law,” the Catechism teaches.

“It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life… We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”

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