Legal figures call current lack of guidance on assisted suicide ‘shameful’
A number of legal figures have called for clarity on how anyone who assists a loved one to die will be dealt with by the law, calling the current situation “shameful”.
The letter, signed by 21 academics, is being sent to the Scottish parliament’s health and sport committee this week and urges MSPs to deal with the “alarming lack of clarity in Scots law” regarding assisted suicide.
In England, guidance has been released providing that when someone helps another to die they are likely to be prosecuted.
However, some feel that in Scotland the Crown Office has tried to avoid dealing with the question.
The experts said that currently relatives and friends of people who are seriously ill do not know what will happen to them if they help them to die – they may be put on trial for culpable homicide or even murder.
The letter, published in the Herald today, states: “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.”
Professor James Chalmers, of Glasgow University’s School of Law, helped to organise the letter.
He said not all signatories were in favour of legalising assisted suicide as proposed by the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill which is being considered by the parliament.
Professor 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.”
The signatories are calling for the bill to pass stage one so that it may bring some clarity to the law. But if the bill fails, they say the issue still requires clarification.
A spokesman for the Crown Office said the lord advocate Frank Mulholland QC has clearly stated the Crown’s stance on assisted suicide, saying anyone who helps another to die will be prosecuted under homicide laws.
The letter states: “The absence of either case law or legislative authority in Scotland means that the response to almost any question about the Scottish law applicable to assisted suicide must be only that prosecution is ‘possible’ or ‘cannot be ruled out’.”
It adds that a person facing the dilemma of helping someone to die must “simply wait and see what the Lord Advocate chooses to do – and how the courts respond – after the fact.”
The letter adds that such a state of affairs should “embarrass any legal system”.
Its signatories are: Ilona Cairns, University of Aberdeen; Dr Liz Campbell, University of Edinburgh; Professor James Chalmers, University of Glasgow; Dr Sarah Christie, Robert Gordon University; Dr Andrew Cornford, University of Edinburgh; Dr Sharon Cowan, University of Edinburgh; Professor Antony Duff FBA FRSE, University of Stirling; Professor Peter Duff, University of Aberdeen; Sarah Elliston, University of Glasgow; Professor Lindsay Farmer, University of Glasgow; Professor Pamela Ferguson, University of Dundee, plus 10 other signatories, c/o My Life My Death My Choice, 2 Walker Street, Edinburgh.