The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has launched a consultation regarding suicide pacts and so-called ‘mercy killings’. The consultation considers public interest factors when dealing with these cases. Going forward, suspects could be spared prosecution where the act was conducted out of compassion for loved ones.

Mercy killings and suicide pacts

Mercy killings are when one person helps another take their own life, usually because they cannot do so for themselves due to an incurable and painful health condition. A suicide pact is when two or more people reach an agreement to commit suicide together. However, there may be an uneven playing field in this dynamic, especially if one person helps the other to end their life first.

Mercy killings, suicide pacts and the law

The UK does not allow assisted dying. This to countries such as Switzerland where it is permitted under certain conditions. This means that those who survive a failed suicide pact in the UK, and those who help their loved ones commit suicide, face the threat of criminal charges.

Such prosecutions can and do happen. One example is that of Mavis Eccleston. She helped her 81-year-old husband Dennis, who was dying of bowel cancer, take a fatal overdose. Mrs Eccleston also took an overdose herself but later recovered in hospital. The CPS subsequently charged her with murder and manslaughter. She was found not guilty after a two-week trial.

Consultation into public interest factors

Mrs Eccleston’s case reignited the debate about the laws regarding mercy killings and suicide pacts in the UK. The CPS received criticism for pursuing a prosecution against her, with many saying her actions were compassionate rather than sinister.

Now, the CPS is proposing an update to the legal guidance on homicide. This would help prosecutors decide whether it is in the public interest to press charges where a failed suicide pact of mercy killing has occurred. The 12-week consultation, which ends on 8 April 2022, sets out various factors that increases/decreases the chance of a prosecution.

When is a prosecution more likely?

The consultation suggests that a prosecution is more likely to be required following a mercy killing or failed suicide pact if:

  • The victim was under 18 years of age;
  • The victim did not have the capacity (as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to reach an informed decision to end their life;
  • The victim had not reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to end their life;
  • The victim had not clearly and unequivocally communicated their decision to end their life to the suspect;
  • The suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion; for example, the suspect was motivated by the prospect that they or a person closely connected to them stood to gain in some way from the death of the victim;
  • The suspect pressured the victim or did not take reasonable steps to ensure that any other person had not pressured the victim;
  • The suspect has a history of violence or abuse against the victim;
  • The suspect was unknown to the victim;
  • The suspect received a financial reward for their actions;
  • The suspect deliberately used excessive violence or force causing unnecessary or prolonged suffering;
  • There was a relationship of care between the suspect and victim, such that the suspect may have exerted some influence on the victim.

When is a prosecution less likely?

The consultation suggests that a prosecution is less likely to be required following a mercy killing or failed suicide pact if:

  • The victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to end their life;
  • The suspect was wholly motivated by compassion;
  • The victim was seriously physically unwell and unable to undertake the act;
  • The actions of the suspect may be characterised as reluctant, in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to end their life;
  • The suspect attempted to take their own life at the same time, in pursuance of a suicide pact;
  • The suspect reported the death to the police and fully assisted them in their enquiries into the circumstances and their part in it.

Does this mean mercy killings will be decriminalised?

The proposed update to the legal guidance does not decriminalise mercy killings, nor does it even mention ‘assisted dying’ or other similar scenarios. Therefore, a person will not be immune from prosecution if they claim their actions amounted to a mercy killing or a failed suicide pact. However, the CPS will consider the aforementioned factors when determining whether a prosecution is in the public interest, and whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction.

Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC said: “Suicide pacts and so-called mercy killings are tragedies for the family and friends of those involved.

It is a sensitive and emotive topic which can be very divisive and provoke strong views, but our prosecutors may need to decide whether the legal test for criminal charges has been met. The individual circumstances of every case must be carefully weighed up when considering whether it is in the public interest to charge.

It is important that we clearly lay out the reasoning behind our decision-making, and we are seeking views on a range of factors which would be considered when determining whether it is appropriate to prosecute.

But let me be clear that these are extremely serious cases. We will always prosecute cases of murder and manslaughter where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest.”

 solicitors – England and Wales

If you have been accused of a mercy killing or a failed suicide pact, then we appreciate that a sensitive approach is needed. Our criminal defence solicitors can help you.

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