Assisted suicide: The ball is now in the politicians' court
Yesterday's decision forced swift action from the director of public prosecutions, but also gave parliamentarians much to think about in settling issues around the assisted suicidelaw. Keir Starmer, the DPP, made clear that he would, in the first instance, set out in detail the factors taken into account in favour of, or against, prosecution. That process will be followed by a more detailed permanent policy next spring.
But while the law lords' decision has set prosecutors to work on a policy on assisted suicide, it is outside their constitutional power to dictate its content, or to cause parliament to respond.
Politicians must decide whether the existing 1961 Suicide Act needs to be revisited. Peers said yesterday that a further private member's bill proposing to change the law seemed certain.
However, there is no doubt the ruling marks also a legal turning point for assisted suicide, and for human rights law on which Debbie Purdy heavily relied. Purdy said that the lack of clarity on the likelihood of her husband's prosecution violated article 8 of the European convention on human rights – the right to a private and family life.
The law lords paid great attention to the "dilemma" facing those in Purdy's predicament – where the risk of prosecution if her husband accompanies her could compromise her ability to have the death of her choosing. "[People in Purdy's] situation have chosen to travel without close family members to avoid the risk of their being prosecuted", said Lord Hope. "Others have given up the idea of an assisted suicide altogether and have been left to die what has been described as a distressing and undignified death. It is patently obvious that the issue is not going to go away."
The law lords were clear that the right to a private and family life encompasses the right to autonomy – extending to the manner of one's death. But in the 2002 case of Diane Pretty, the first time the Lords considered the questionof assisted suicide, they refused to recognise the application of those rights to questions of dying.
That refusal was overturned by the European court of human rights. "In an era of growing medical sophistication combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity" the Strasbourg court ruled.
The judgment marks a willingness by the UK's highest court to revisit the issue of the scope of an individual's rights when it comes to their death.
The case is also a reflection on changing views on suicide. In the Pretty case Lord Bingham spoke of "the undesirability of anything which could appear to encourage suicide", citing concern that a change in the law on assisted suicide might encourage the elderly to take their lives.
But yesterday Baroness Hale took a different approach. "It is not for society to tell people what to value about their own lives", she said. "If we are serious about protecting autonomy we have to accept that autonomous individuals have different views about what makes their lives worth living".
Afua Hirsch is the Guardian's legal affairs correspondent