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Two week window for committing assisted suicide remains unclear, Law Society says

12 January 2015 | tagged News release

People seeking to end their lives with assistance from another person will have two weeks in which to do so, but when this time limit starts remains unclear, the Law Society of Scotland said today, January 12. 

The intent of the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) 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:  

“We remain very concerned that the bill in its current form lacks definition on what constitutes assisted suicide, what is meant by assistance, and therefore what actions would or would not be legal.  As the bill stands, a person who has had their request for assisted suicide approved has fourteen days in which to commit the act, but it is unclear exactly when that time period starts – is it when the GP issues the prescription or when the prescription is actually dispensed? 

“Someone who is contemplating ending their life is likely to be experiencing stress and anxiety, so it is imperative that the legislation is crystal clear and unambiguous.  What if they got to the end of the fourteen day period and they wanted another couple of hours? How would this time limit be enforced?  There is also no detail on how these life ending drugs are to be safely stored, or indeed disposed of, if they are not used.  We certainly would want to see this clarified.” 

The Society also has 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.” 

Professor Alison Britton and Coral Riddell will be giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee on Tuesday 13 January at 9.45am.  


Notes to editors

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

The Society’s written and oral evidence very much focuses on the legal points and practicalities of the bill.  The Society’s full written evidence and links to previous oral evidence sessions to the Justice Committee 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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