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More clarity required on assisted suicide legislation, Law Society says

28 October 2014 | tagged News release

More clarity and definition is required if the proposed legislation allowing for assisted suicide is to achieve its stated aims, the Law Society of Scotland said today, 28 October.  

The Society was giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee on the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.  The intent of the bill is to remove the risk of criminal prosecution for those who assist others to end their lives, under certain circumstances.  

Alison Britton, convener of the Society’s Health and Medical Law Committee said: “This is a highly emotive and complex subject, and it is imperative that if this legislation is to pass that it is crystal clear in what it allows and what it does not.  As currently drafted there is a lack of definition in the bill as to what constitutes assisted suicide and therefore what would be legal.  There is a very strong need to clarify what is meant by assistance, and the demarcation lines of where assistance stops and homicide starts are in no way clear.” 

The Society also raised concerns about the provision to allow a solicitor to act as a proxy to sign the request for assisted suicide for a person who is blind, unable to read or unable to sign themselves. 

Coral Riddell, head of the Society’s Professional Practice team said:  “This bill introduces significant moral and ethical issues to the proxy function that solicitors have been asked to undertake.  While the issue remains untested among the Scottish legal profession, in its current form the proxy process requires an assessment of capacity by a solicitor in a matter which may be life ending, and creates a potential tension for solicitors in terms of their professional obligations.  

“Within the context of assisted suicide and the significant and irreversible nature of the act of ending one’s life, it is our view that a medical practitioner would seem to be better qualified and better placed than a solicitor to assess whether or not a person has the necessary capacity to understand the effect of a proxy signature in relation to assisted suicide.” 

The Society was also asked about the proposed 14 day time limit from when the second assisted suicide request is approved to when the act must be committed.  

Alison Britton said: “Any legislation which is passed needs to consider the individual.  What if the person is coming towards the end of the 14 day time limit and needs another couple of hours?  How will this be enforced?  There are also questions around the safe storage of these fatal drugs during this 14 day time period, and how they are to be disposed of if they are not used.  This needs to be given much further thought.” 

Professor Alison Britton and Coral Riddell were speaking after they gave oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee at 9.30am on Tuesday 28th October.   


Notes to editors 

This bill covers a controversial and emotive subject and raises a number of ethical and moral issues.  

The Society’s evidence very much focuses on the legal points and practicalities of the bill.  The Society’s full written evidence and link to the oral evidence session can be found on the Society’s website 

The Society formed a working group to consider the bill made up of members of the Society’s Criminal Law Committee, Mental Health and Disability Law subcommittee, Health and Medical Law subcommittee and the Professional Practice department.  

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Please contact Louise Docherty on 0131 476 8204 or Val McEwan on 0131 226 8884


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