Top legal experts call for clarity over the ‘shameful’ right to die legislation
The Herald Scotland, Helen Puttick
Legal experts from across Scotland are calling for clear guidance on how anyone who helps a loved one to die will be treated by the law, describing the current confusion as "shameful".
A letter signed by 21 leading academics is being sent to the Health and Sport Committee of the Scottish Parliament this week urging MSPs to address the "alarming lack of clarity in Scots law" about assisted suicide.
While guidance has been issued in England showing when aiding someone’s death is likely to lead to prosecution, some feel the Crown Office has tried to avoid dealing with the issue north of the Border.
The experts say the current situation means friends and relatives of a desperately ill patient who is seeking help to die, do not know what repercussions they might face. They could face trial for murder or culpable homicide.
The letter, which is published in today’s Herald says: "A person dealing with this most troubling of ethical dilemmas must simply wait and see what the Lord Advocate chooses to do – and how the courts respond – after the fact. Individuals dealing with unbearably tragic circumstances deserve better than this. This shameful state of affairs should embarrass any legal system."
Regius Professor of law at Glasgow University James Chalmers, who helped organise the letter, said not all the signatories supported the legalisation of assisted suicide – as proposed by the bill introduced to Holyrood by Margo MacDonald.
Prof Chalmers said: "The Lord advocate should have done something on this long ago. I can understand why he or she did not want to. Trying to come up with a publicly defensible statement is going to be a thankless task. It is going to divide opinion. But, what happened in England was they said ‘We have got to do it because it is desperately unfair if you do not do it.’"
In 2010 Keir Starmer, then director of public prosecutions, issued guidance for England and Wales showing the circumstances which are likely to lead to a prosecution and those which are not. Where the victim is determined to die and the person assisting was wholly motivated by compassion, court action is less likely to be considered in the public interest.
The experts who have signed the letter are calling for Ms MacDonald’s bill to pass Stage One in the hope that this may result in a clarification of the law. If the bill fails, they say the issue must still be dealt with.
A Crown Office spokesman said the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland had made the Crown’s position on assisted suicide clear.
He added: "There is no such law in Scotland and anyone who assists someone to die will be dealt with under the law of homicide which is clear and accessible.
"A prosecution will be raised if there is a sufficiency of evidence and it is in the public interest to do so. The Lord Advocate recently made this clear in a letter to the Justice Committee." He added the Crown will be waiting for the outcome of the judicial review.