4 July 2018 by

The Tragedy of Assisted Suicide

Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. Under the Suicide Act 1961 (‘the 1961 Act’), encouraging or assisting a suicide or attempted suicide of another person is a crime and is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

By contrast, assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1942 and, so far, approximately 400 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their life.

The recent case of Helen Johnson has highlighted the issues in the law and the tragedy many face in this melancholy and agonising situation.

For eight years James Howley watched the woman he loved wasting away. Helen Johnson had been diagnosed with a rare lung condition in 2004, aged 47. Having exhausted all the treatment options, Helen decided to contact Dignitas; a non-profit society which provides assisted or accompanied suicide to its members provided that their wishes are signed off by independent doctors.  James travelled to Switzerland with Helen where she ended her life.

The morning after James returned home from Switzerland, police officers turned up at his door to question him. Two weeks later, he was summoned to a local police station to be interviewed under caution and, for the next six months, James was subjected to a harrowing criminal investigation, which raked over intimate details of his life.

By discussing Helen’s end-of-life plans with her, escorting her to the clinic and accompanying her in those final hours, James had broken the law.

At a time when he should have been grieving, he faced the terrifying prospect of arrest, trial and imprisonment.

Since 2009, 138 assisted suicide cases have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police, but only 19 went to court. Official guidelines urge a ‘common sense’ approach to such cases and no one, to date, has been convicted.

However, it wasn’t until June 2017, seven months after Helen’s death, that the police finally dropped the investigation.

Though critics fear a slippery slope towards a ‘suicide industry’, the membership requirements to attend Dignitas are strict. A candidate must be of sound mind and capable of committing the life-ending act (a lethal cocktail of drugs administered as a drink or injection via a tube) and patients have to submit medical reports.

The criminal aspect is often only one fight the families of those who choose to end their life face. The effect of the Forfeiture Rule is a further legal battle to overcome.

On public policy grounds, those guilty of unlawfully killing, aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the death of a person forfeit their interests in his or her estate (this includes an offence of assisting or encouraging a suicide under section 2 of the 1961 Act). The Forfeiture Rule will apply irrespective of whether or not there is a criminal prosecution.

The Forfeiture Act 1982 allows a Court to modify the effect of the Forfeiture Rule where the justice of the case requires.

This means that in order to inherit the deceased’s estate any loved one who has assisted or encouraged the suicide will need to apply to the Court for relief from the Forfeiture Rule.

We have experience of dealing with these applications and the sooner you contact us the greater chance you will have of making a successful application for relief from the Forfeiture Rule. Ideally you should get in touch with us prior to the suicide so that steps can be taken to prepare for a post-death application, but we are always happy to discuss matters at whatever stage the case has reached. .

You can also contact one of our solicitors in the Contentious Trusts and Probate team here.

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