Euthanasia and the law: what is the law on assisted dying in Britain and other countries?

Ursula Smartt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Strong evidence suggests that since October 2002 at least 100 UK citizens have travelled abroad for the purpose of lawfully obtaining an assisted suicide. To date, there have not been any prosecutions which have resulted from such active euthanasia, though there have been some recent police investigations. On December 10, 2008, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer QC, said that there had not been “sufficient evidence” to prosecute the parents of the 23-year-old Nuneaton Rugby player, Daniel James, who had taken their son to a Swiss euthanasia clinic outside Zürich in September 2008, so that their tetraplegic son could die with dignity. Daniel had been left paralysed from the chest down, with no independent hand or finger movement, as a result of an injury sustained in a scrum while training at Nuneaton Rugby Club on March 12, 2007. A Worcestershire coroner’s verdict had stated on December 10, that 23-year-old Daniel James had intended to end his own life when he visited an assisted-dying clinic in Switzerland. The father of the young Rugby player, Mark James, had told the inquest at Stourport-on-Severn Coroner’s Court, about the moment his son drank a substance intended to kill him. Coroner Geraint Williams recorded a verdict of suicide stating he had no doubt Daniel wished to kill himself. The DPP had made a public statement that there would be no charges of aiding and abetting suicide brought against Daniel James’ parents, Mark and Julie James. The parents had been investigated by West Mercia Police since September 2008 after it had become known that they had taken their son Daniel to a Swiss Dignitas clinic where he had died. Following the inquest, DPP Keir Starmer QC stated:- “While there are public interest factors in favour of prosecution, not least of which is the seriousness of this offence, I have determined that these are outweighed by the public interest factors that say that a prosecution is not needed. In particular, but not exclusively, I would point to the fact that Daniel, as a fiercely independent young man, was not influenced by his parents to take his own life and the evidence indicates he did so despite their imploring him not to. I consider it very unlikely that a court would impose a custodial penalty on any of the potential defendants... in all probability the sentence would be either an absolute discharge or, possibly, a small fine.”[Source: BBC News Online, December 9, 2008: england/hereford/worcs/7773540.stm] On the same day as the DPP decided not to charge Daniel James’ parents with assisted suicide, the 10 December 2008, Sky’s digital TV channel 243, screened the documentary “The Suicide Tourist: Right to Die?” Documentary footage was shown of the death of 59 year old Professor Craig Ewert suffering from motor neurone disease. Following the programme, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was asked in Parliament whether he favoured legislation which would permit euthanasia, the Prime Minister responded: “These are very difficult issues… I believe it is a matter of conscience and there are different views on each side of the house about what should be done. I believe that it’s necessary to ensure that there is never a case in the country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it’s the expected thing to do. That’s’ why I’ve always opposed legislation for assed deaths.” [For further reportage, see Audrey Gillan’s article in The Guardian on the topic, “Father tells inquest of son’s dying moments”. The Guardian, December 11, 2008, p.16.]
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-103
Number of pages3
JournalCriminal Law & Justice Weekly
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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