Judges Reject Plea For Assisted Suicide Guidance

19 February 2016, 14:28 | Updated: 19 February 2016, 15:01

A legal bid by a severely disabled grandfather for guidance to be issued over assisted suicide in Scotland has been rejected by judges.

Gordon Ross, who suffered from multiple health problems including Parkinson's disease, died last month aged 67.

He was admitted to hospital in Glasgow with pneumonia and died on January 13 from that and his other medical issues.

Mr Ross had been pursuing a court action in which he wanted Scotland's top prosecutor, the Lord Advocate, to issue ''sufficiently clear guidance'' clarifying whether any person helping him end his life would be charged with an offence.

Guidelines have been published by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in England and Wales but they do not apply in Scotland.

Mr Ross brought his case for a judicial review to the Court of Session in Edinburgh in May last year seeking the Lord Advocate to set out guidance on what circumstances he would take into account in deciding whether to prosecute someone who helped another individual end their life.

But a judge later dismissed the petition, saying the policy is "consonant with the rule of law''.

His appeal against the decision was heard by three judges in December, with Mr Ross's legal team arguing that the Lord Advocate's ''failure'' to produce guidelines is incompatible with the disabled man's rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Judges have now refused the appeal, saying the criminal law in relation to assisted suicide in Scotland is clear.

Right-to-die campaigners described the decision as a "real slap in the face''.

Submissions from Mr Ross's legal team said the Lord Advocate had stated that any incident involving a person who assisted another to take his own life would be reported to the procurator fiscal as a deliberate killing of another.

It was argued that the failure to clarify the circumstances taken into account when deciding whether or not to prosecute was a breach of human rights laws.

But Lord Justice Clerk Carloway, Lady Dorrian and Lord Drummond Young agreed with the earlier opinion and concluded the interference with a person's right to determine the manner of their death by criminalising individuals who assist in their suicide is "in accordance with the law''.

In a written judgment, Lord Carloway, Scotland's senior judge, said: "The criminal law in relation to assisted suicide in Scotland is clear. It is not a crime 'to assist' another to commit suicide. However, if a person does something which he knows will cause the death of another person, he will be guilty of homicide if his act is the immediate and direct cause of the person's death.

"Depending upon the nature of the act, the crime may be murder or culpable homicide. Exactly where the line of causation falls to be drawn is a matter of fact and circumstance for determination in each individual case. That does not, however, produce any uncertainly in the law.

"In the same way, other acts which do not amount to an immediate and direct cause are not criminal. Such acts, including taking persons to places where they may commit, or seek assistance to commit, suicide, fall firmly on the other side of the line of criminality. They do not, in a legal sense, cause the death, even if that death was predicted as the likely outcome of the visit.

"There is no difficulty in understanding these concepts in legal terms, even if, as is often the case in many areas of the law, there may be grey areas worthy of debate in unusual circumstances. There is no need for the respondent (the Lord Advocate) to set these concepts out in offence specific guidelines.

"They are clearly defined matters of law upon which, if necessary, an individual can seek legal advice.''

Responding to the decision, Bob Scott of Friends At The End (Fate), which campaigns for a change in the law, said: ``Although Gordon died last month, his family, as wells as his friends at Fate and the Humanist Society Scotland, had hoped that the appeal court judges would overturn the previous decision by the Court of Session and compel the Lord Advocate to issue detailed guidance on the law around assisted dying as exists in England.

"This is a real slap in the face for those who wish to have a choice at the end of their lives and particularly to Gordon, who fought long and hard to have the guidelines clarified.''