Dying, vulnerable people need the law to protect them

This is the first of a series of three posts about the right to die, end of life care and its legislation.

Assisting someone to take their own life is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In Sept. 2019 yet another case of assisted suicide hit the news: Mavis Eccleston was cleared of manslaughter and murder after admitting to giving her husband an overdose of medicine being used to treat the pain of his terminal cancer. The Crown Prosecution Service said “There was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction… it was in the public interest to prosecute” and had a duty to act. After a trial lasting two weeks, the jury took just four hours to clear Mavis of the charges. The decision was unanimous.

Guidelines published by the Director of Public Prosecutions say people acting wholly out of compassion could avoid prosecution for helping people end their lives, because the assistant has good motives. The role of DPP guidelines is to provide certainty where there is a legal gap. However we must have concerns about the democratic legitimacy of the DPP, setting out policy in this area and thus furtively, rewriting the law. This is a slippery slope. This doesn’t preserve life. It cannot properly protect vulnerable individuals because investigation of the circumstances and consideration of vulnerability only happen after death.

The former Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, who chaired the Commission on Assisted Dying said:

The law on assisted dying in Britain is an incoherent, cruel, hypocritical mess.

Guidelines and precedents have been set, and so the time has come to more openly adopt a position that honestly recognises the issues, and to restore a measure of cohesion to the law.

Given the risks and potential consequences of changing law by stealth, and law being synthesised without parliamentary scrutiny, Government must act. Legislation on Palliative Sedation, Assisted Suicide, and Physician Assisted Death is necessary, if nothing else to provide the important safeguards needed for the vulnerable at the end of their lives who are currently not protected. Parliament and Government must not shirk their responsibilities. This is a failure of our democratic process and must change, because the job of Government is to protect the vulnerable in our society.

No Government has ever taken responsibility for this, and it remains Governments of all persuasions’ view that any relaxation of the law in this area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide, rather than one for Government; and yet parties are whipped when taking decisions on going to war. For any such law to pass in the future it must become Government policy – private members bills will always fail. Government must develop the green paper, the subsequent white paper, create the large amount of time needed to prevent such a bill talked out, and to prevent scheduling when a session of Parliament will be prorogued.

We must not let polarisation of heartfelt opinion hijack this debate, or we are failing to act in the best interests of scared, vulnerable people. The Liberal Democrats must be the party to make this a policy commitment if we care about protecting the most vulnerable and about democratic and legislative process.


* Dr David Harding is a Lib Dem member, and a former Lecturer and NHS Consultant

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