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Paralysed man seeks legal clarity over doctors’ role in assisting suicide

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 29 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7729
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A man in England who is almost completely paralysed and who wants a doctor to be allowed to help him die is seeking a preliminary High Court declaration that lawyers and doctors will not be prosecuted or brought before professional regulators simply for their part in preparing his court application.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority and the General Medical Council have refused to give assurances that the lawyers and doctors involved in the case will not be accused of professional misconduct, and the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales will not guarantee not to prosecute them for assisting a suicide.

The 46 year old man, named only as Martin, had a brain stem stroke three years ago and wants to end his life. His wife has refused to assist him, and he is seeking a ruling allowing for a doctor to help him travel to Dignitas in Switzerland or for the services of a palliative care specialist while he starves himself to death.

Assisting a suicide is illegal in England under the Suicide Act 1961. In February 2010 the director of public prosecutions issued guidelines setting out the factors that would make prosecution more or less likely (BMJ 2010;340:c1167, doi:10.1136/bmj.c1167). Under these, relatives or friends who assist through compassionate motives are unlikely to be prosecuted, but healthcare professionals are more likely to face prosecution.

However, only 38% of GPs think that there is enough guidance for them on how to respond to a terminally ill patient’s request for assistance in dying, finds a new survey commissioned by the group Dignity in Dying, which supports the legalisation of assisted suicide.

Dignitas requires those requesting suicide to produce a copy of their medical records. The Data Protection Act entitles patients to obtain their records unless their doctor believes that providing the records would cause a patient serious harm. But only 31% of 1001 GPs who took part in the online survey by thought that it would be lawful to provide the records if a terminally ill patient said he or she wanted an assisted death.

David Lock QC, who specialises in healthcare law, thinks they are right to be concerned. “In the light of the wide ambit of the Suicide Act, and given the guidelines issued by the DPP [director of public prosecutions], it’s an understandable concern that any GP that takes any step knowingly to assist a person with a course that leads to their suicide may be committing an offence,” he told the BMJ.

“The provision of records specifically for the purpose of assisting somebody to secure the agreement of a suicide provider in another country may well be an act of assistance.”

Dignity in Dying said: “The difficulty for healthcare professionals is the complete lack of clarity on the interaction between the Suicide Act, the DPP’s prosecuting policy, and the Data Protection Act.”

Sarah Wootton, the group’s chief executive, said, “The GMC’s 2010 guidance to doctors on end of life decision making did not even mention the DPP’s prosecuting policy on assisted suicide. However, guidance from regulatory bodies can only be as clear as the law they are guiding on, and what is urgently needed is for the government to fully consider these issues in light of the DPP’s prosecutorial policy.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7729

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