Hong Kong needs legal clarity on assisted suicide
The University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention reported last month that the suicide rate now stands at 13.6 per 100,000 people, and predicted a rise in 2012.
While most suicides are associated with personal tragedy or despair and involve individuals acting alone, there are, inevitably, cases of assisted suicide, although these rarely come to light.
Although suicide itself was decriminalised in 1967, a person who assists another's suicide is guilty of an offence, punishable with 14 years' imprisonment. A prosecution, however, requires the consent of the secretary for justice, who has not disclosed the criteria he applies to cases.
In England and Wales, assisted suicide is also an offence, and a prosecution must be approved by the director of public prosecutions, who has recently explained his approach to prosecutions.
To circumvent English law, terminally ill people sometimes travel abroad to places where it is not illegal for doctors to end the life of those who have no hope of recovery and wish to die. In 2009, for example, published figures indicate that 27 Britons ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. However, the family and friends of victims had, until recently, little idea if they faced prosecution for providing assistance.
In 2009, Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, successfully argued in the House of Lords that, by not disclosing whether her husband would be prosecuted if he accompanied her to the Dignitas clinic, prosecutors were breaching her human rights. The court concluded that far greater clarity was necessary in relation to prosecution policy. It said that though assisted suicide cases were few and that decisions were sensitive to the particular facts, these were not reasons to excuse the director of public prosecutions from his obligation to clarify the factors he saw as relevant for and against prosecution.
The director of public prosecutions duly published policy guidelines, which indicate that a prosecution is unlikely if the victim has reached a clear, voluntary, settled and informed decision to commit suicide; the suspect is wholly motivated by compassion; the suspect has sought to dissuade the victim; and the suspect has reported the suicide to the police and assisted their inquiries.
If, however, the suspect has pressured the victim to commit suicide, acted with a view to gain, lacked compassion, has a history of violence or abuse towards the victim, or assisted the suicide of a victim under the age of 18, a prosecution is likely.
Although more than 40 assisted suicide cases have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service since the guidelines came out, there have been no prosecutions. However, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has emphasised that there is no 'blanket policy' of non-prosecution, and that there are now more cases as 'people feel more confident to come forward and say what they've done because they've got a degree of clarity about what might happen to them'.
If Hong Kong's secretary for justice believes in transparency, he should also provide detailed, published guidance. No one knows for sure how many cases of assisted suicide there are each year, or their exact circumstances, but the community should understand the secretary's position.
The secretary must clarify his policy, and not simply wait until a Debbie Purdy comes along to force his hand.
Grenville Cross SC, an honorary professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, is the vice-chairman of the senate of the International Association of Prosecutors