Warning On Assisted Suicide Plans

13 January 2015, 08:03 | Updated: 13 January 2015, 08:04

A proposed law designed to allow incapacitated and terminally-ill people to seek help to commit suicide could breach European human rights laws and leave accomplices open to prosecution, legal experts have warned.

Holyrood's Health Committee will take evidence on the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill from witnesses including the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland today.

The Bill is designed to make it lawful, in certain circumstances, to assist another person to commit suicide.

It was introduced by terminally-ill MSP Margo MacDonald before her death last April and is a refined version of her previous assisted suicide bill which failed to find majority support in the last Scottish Parliament.

David Stephenson QC will give evidence on the Bill on behalf of the Faculty of Advocates today, alongside The Law Society of Scotland health experts Professor Alison Britton and Coral Riddell.

In an advance submission to the committee, the Faculty said: "If Parliament is to pass legislation to protect persons from what would otherwise be the legal consequences of assisting another person to commit suicide, the Faculty considers it is important that such legislation is clear, readily understood, and not just by lawyers, that key terms are well-defined and not open to a variety of interpretations, and that the penalties for breach of the requirements of the legislation are spelled out.

"Otherwise, persons wishing the protection of the legislation will be unclear as to whether their acts are protected and may render themselves liable to prosecution for serious crimes or subsequent review of their conduct in a civil court.

"The Faculty considers that the Bill as currently drafted may not achieve these essential goals.''

The Law Society of Scotland said the Bill could breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

It said: "An act will be outside of competence if 'it is incompatible with any of the Convention rights'.

"The Bill, therefore, may be in direct contrast, and possibly incompatible, with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life.''

Duncan McNeil, convener of the Health Committee, said: "MSPs have a duty to scrutinise the detail behind any proposed piece of legislation, but given that this bill adjudicates on life and death, it is imperative that we robustly and transparently scrutinise what is being proposed.

"Our committee has already received the views of over 800 people and will now start over two months of evidence, hearing from those with knowledge, expertise and interest in how the proposed bill would operate in practice.

"I want to make clear that all MSPs on the committee will consider the evidence in front of them, question robustly our witnesses and consider carefully the implications before we reach a committee view.''

Deputy convener Bob Doris said: "This legislation has the potential to polarise opinion on both sides of the debate and as a committee we understand the strength of feeling that these proposals generate.

"However, it is our job as a committee to approach this subject without prejudice, take a detailed look at the proposals and consider both the written and oral evidence before taking a committee view on any change in the law.''

The committee will also hear from Gary Flannigan, detective chief superintendent at Police Scotland; Stephen McGowan, procurator fiscal for major crime and fatalities investigation at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service; Dr Francis Dunn, president of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow; Dr Stephen Potts, consultant psychiatrist at The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland; and Aileen Bryson, practice and policy lead at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in Scotland.