Assisted suicide campaigner Purdy 'given new lease of life'

Multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy has spoken of her new lease of life since winning a landmark ruling from the House of Lords on assisted suicide.

The 47-year-old Bradford woman told an inquiry on assisted dying that she would be dead if she had not won the backing of the Law Lords for a policy statement on whether people who help someone kill themselves should be prosecuted.

Ms Purdy told the Commission on Assisted Dying inquiry in London that she would have gone to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end her own life if she had lost the case, as her condition was deteriorating.

She said she would not have wanted to have exposed her husband, Omar Puente, to the possibility of prosecution if he helped her travel abroad to end her life.

"I did not have enough time to go to the European Court, which would have been the next step had we lost in the House of Lords," she told the inquiry.

"My physical degeneration was beginning to make my life difficult. I knew that my ability to travel unaided was getting close and I now know that there is no way that I could get to Switzerland by myself without help.

"That would have meant that I would be implicating somebody else and I was not prepared to do that. I was raised to take responsibility for my own decisions."

Ms Purdy, who has the primary progressive form of MS, told the inquiry she did not feel the current 1961 Suicide Act and new Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines gave sufficient security.

"In the North East of England for instance, there is a gentleman who waited until the guidelines were issued before he went to Switzerland.

"He did everything by the guidelines," she said.

"The two people who accompanied him are still on police bail six to eight months later.

"Although I think they won't be prosecuted, I think we should be able to sort that out before the decision is made."

Ms Purdy's legal victory led to new guidelines on assisted suicide being issued in February by Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who also appeared before the inquiry yesterday.

He said the motives of those assisting suicide would be at the centre of the decision over whether they should be prosecuted.

Anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges, he said.

But he said each case would be judged on its merits and anyone who carried out a "mercy killing" would lay themselves open to murder or manslaughter charges.

No further action has been taken in 20 cases considered for prosecution over assisted suicide in more than a year-and-a-half, the director of public prosecutions said today.

Mr Starmer said no further action was taken in 17 out of 19 cases where the Crown Prosecution Service received a file to make a decision in the financial year 2009/10 with one case ongoing and another withdrawn by the police.

There have been 14 cases this financial year so far, he said, of which 11 are ongoing with three where no further action is being taken.

The Commission's independent inquiry was launched last month by former justice secretary Lord Falconer. It will review evidence from experts and the public, publishing its final document in December next year.

The commission has been set up with funding from Bernard Lewis and the best-selling author Terry Pratchett who has early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

The commission includes among others former Met Police commissioner Lord Blair of Boughton, the Rev Canon Dr James Woodward, an Anglican priest and Canon of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and Dr Stephen Duckworth, founder and chief executive of Disability Matters Ltd.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but individual decisions on prosecution will be made on the circumstances of each case, Mr Starmer said.