Calls for more clarity over assisted suicide bill

The legislation is being backed by MSP Patrick Harvie on behalf of Margo MacDonald, who died in April following a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Picture: TSPL
The legislation is being backed by MSP Patrick Harvie on behalf of Margo MacDonald, who died in April following a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Picture: TSPL
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MORE clarity is needed in proposed assisted suicide legislation to stop those involved in ending someone’s life “falling through the gaps” and being prosecuted for murder and culpable homicide, it has been warned.

MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee today heard there is a need for greater clarity in the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, including better definitions of what actually constitutes assisted suicide.

The legislation is being backed by Green MSP Patrick Harvie on behalf of former independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who died in April following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Hugh Reilly: We shouldn’t deny assisted suicide

The bill proposes a change in the law to make it legal, in certain circumstances, to assist another to commit suicide.

Giving evidence at the justice committee today, David Stephenson QC, of the Faculty of Advocates, said: “My concern would be that there’s a danger of individuals falling through the gaps and finding themselves in danger of prosecution.

“If the bill is introduced and cases (of assisted suicide) are being scrutinised, if you don’t get it right, it’s individuals who will suffer. Better to get it right now, rather than through a series of criminal prosecutions in the High Court where individuals are at risk of losing their liberty.”

He added: “The dividing line between prosecution for murder and assisted suicide is potentially carelessness and we’re all careless sometimes.”

Coral Riddell, head of professional practice at the Law Society of Scotland, said “certainty was key” for the bill to be effective.

The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill is the second attempt to pass legislation on assisted suicide in the Scottish Parliament, the first having been voted down by MSPs in 2010.

Assisted suicide laws ‘unnecessary and unethical’

Mr Harvie told the committee he believed the introduction of legislation would clear up the “lack of clarity” which currently existed on the issue.

But Stephen McGowan, from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, said the law was clear - anyone taking steps to assist suicide could be liable under the law of homicide.

Mr McGowan said the current draft of the bill would lead to “discretionary judgements” being made in some cases.

“In the way the bill is presently drafted, there are a number of areas where I’m not sure it gives any more clarity and areas where there is less clarity than the situation we’re currently in,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Alison Britton, convenor of the Law Society’s Health and Medical Law Committee, agreed with Lib Dem MSP Alison McInnes that “facilitators” carrying out assisted suicides should be older than the age of 16 proposed in the bill.

“One would hope they (facilitators) would have experience of life and a certain empathy,” she said. “While many 16-year-olds may feel they possess these qualities, they would usually be found in a person of older years.”