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Assisted suicide legislation lacks definition, warns the Law Society

03 June 2014 | tagged News release

Substantially more definition and clarity is needed in legislation allowing for assisted suicide, the Law Society warned today.

The Law Society of Scotland submitted its written evidence on the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, today, 3 June. The Bill aims to make it lawful for a person to assist another to commit suicide, under certain circumstances.

The Society has warned that the Bill lacks a clear definition of what 'assisted suicide' is or what it is to 'assist suicide'.  Nor is the role of 'licensed facilitator' clearly defined. There are also questions over proposed time limits between a request for an assisted suicide and when it could be legally carried out.

The Society has also called for careful consideration and the greatest possible scrutiny of the proposed age at which someone could request or facilitate an assisted suicide. As the legislation currently stands, 16 year olds would be allowed to request assisted suicide and be assisted by another 16 year old.

Alison Britton, Convener of the Society's Health and Medical Law Committee, said:

"This is a significant Bill, which raises complex, difficult and highly emotive issues. If this legislation is to pass then it needs to be clear and unambiguous in what it allows and what it does not. As things stand, there are still too many areas for potential confusion including a lack of a clear definition for what assisted suicide is and what would therefore be made legal. Similarly, the role of the proposed licensed facilitator is not made clear. For such a profound and sensitive issue as this, we need clarity.

"One of the most difficult issues is the age at which someone could request or facilitate an assisted suicide. As the legislation currently stands, a 16 year old could make a request for assistance with suicide from another 16 year old. The processes involved here are serious and the consequences irreversible. While the legal age of capacity in Scotland is 16, MSPs will need to decide if they are comfortable with that age being the point at which this new law applies."

The Bill also lays out details of the assisted suicide process and provides for a 14 day time limit from when the second assisted suicide request is approved to when the act must be committed.

Alison Britton continued: "It is not clear from the Bill exactly when this 14 day time period starts. A GP will issue a prescription for the drugs to be used to commit the act, but it is not immediately clear if the 14 day time limit starts at that point or at the point in which the prescription is dispensed. There could easily be a delay between the issuing and dispensing of the prescription, and the imposition of such a time limit could place pressure on the assisted person, who is likely to be already experiencing stress and anxiety. There is also no detail for the secure and safe storage of these fatal dose drugs."

The Society has 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: "While solicitors have a duty to assess the capacity of all their clients regardless of area of law or what the client is contemplating, solicitors do not generally have an understanding or experience of a person facing a terminal illness and seeking to die.

"The assessment of capacity required in a situation like that goes beyond what the ordinary solicitor might be expected to know and be able to assess. A medical practitioner would seem to be better qualified and best placed to assess whether or not a person has the necessary capacity they require in relation to assisted suicide."


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 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 Sub-Committee, Health and Medical Law Sub-Committee 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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