Introduction for the law on assisted suicide

IntroductionOn the 20th ofAugust 2012, news broke out that Tony Nicklinson had died just six days after helost his high court case; he wanted to be allowed to end his life with the helpof a doctor as he had been paralysed from the neck down following a stroke. 1 This is an example of howassisted suicide is regularly featured in the public eye.

The case of Nicklinson and others in 20142, like many similar cases, has illustrated the UK’s desperate need for the reformation of the law in thearea of assisted suicide. The case of Tony Nicklinson highlights the importanceof this moral issue to the public and the incapacity of English judges todeliver this much sought after reform.  There is mounting pressure fromthe public for the law on assisted suicide to be developed and clarified. Inthis essay I will explore whether English judges are ‘ too willing to imposeartificial and undesirable limits on their own power to change the law,’ or isthe reformation of this law entirely down to Parliament?  The current law on AssistedSuicide Although the Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalised suicide, assisted suicide remains an incredibly serious crime where ‘ a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commitsuicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a termnot exceeding fourteen years.

‘ 3  However, to date there have been noprosecutions under this statute although arguably the case of R v Hough4should have been prosecuted under the Suicide Act rather than attempted murder. This therefore suggests that English judges do indeed impose unnecessary limitson their own power. If they had prosecuted this case as an assisted suicidecase then this case law would better equip both lawyers and the public withfurther clarity on the law. However, they chose to prosecute under another lesscontroversial crime, which shows their reluctance to use their powers.             Under Section 2(4) of the SuicideAct 1961, ‘ no proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this sectionexcept by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.’ Although this is incredibly important, as the cases that fall under this act are incredibly sensitive in their nature, many citizens yearned for clarity on how the DPP would exercise thisdiscretion.