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Society, Faculty renew concerns on Assisted Suicide Bill

29 October 2014

More clarity and definition is required if the proposed legislation allowing for assisted suicide goes ahead, according to Scotland's legal professional bodies.

Giving evidence on the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee yesterday, both the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates restated the concerns expressed in their written submissions that it was vital to make it clear what would and would not be a criminal offence under the bill.

Neither body is taking a position for or against the controversial proposals.

Alison Britton, convener of the Society’s Health and Medical Law Committee said: “This is a highly emotive and complex subject, and it is imperative that if this legislation is to pass that it is crystal clear in what it allows and what it does not. As currently drafted there is a lack of definition in the bill as to what constitutes assisted suicide and therefore what would be legal. There is a very strong need to clarify what is meant by assistance, and the demarcation lines of where assistance stops and homicide starts are in no way clear.”

For the Faculty, David Stephenson said there was a danger under the complexities of the bill that those helping others to end their life could face prosecution because of simple errors.

He suggested a reconsideration of provisions to tighten up the definitions which provided the dividing line between what was and what was not permitted.

"It seems to me that if you do not get it right, then it is individuals who will suffer," said Mr Stephenson.

"Better to get it right now rather than get it right through a process of a series of criminal prosecutions in the High Court where individuals are at risk of losing their liberty."

He added: "This is a complicated system and we do not want to expose people who have made simple errors to prosecution. There has to be some means of preventing these people being prosecuted, but whether the balance has been struck properly here, I would doubt it. I think the 'savings' section has to be looked at again with rather tighter definitions."

The Society also raised concerns about the provision to allow a solicitor to act as a proxy to sign the request for assisted suicide for a person who is blind, unable to read or unable to sign themselves.

Coral Riddell, head of the Society’s Professional Practice team said: “This bill introduces significant moral and ethical issues to the proxy function that solicitors have been asked to undertake. While the issue remains untested among the Scottish legal profession, in its current form the proxy process requires an assessment of capacity by a solicitor in a matter which may be life ending, and creates a potential tension for solicitors in terms of their professional obligations.

“Within the context of assisted suicide and the significant and irreversible nature of the act of ending one’s life, it is our view that a medical practitioner would seem to be better qualified and better placed than a solicitor to assess whether or not a person has the necessary capacity to understand the effect of a proxy signature in relation to assisted suicide.”

Asked about the proposed 14 day time limit from when the second assisted suicide request is approved to when the act must be committed, Ms Britton replied: “Any legislation which is passed needs to consider the individual. What if the person is coming towards the end of the 14 day time limit and needs another couple of hours? How will this be enforced? There are also questions around the safe storage of these fatal drugs during this 14 day time period, and how they are to be disposed of if they are not used. This needs to be given much further thought.”

The bill is being taken forward by Patrick Harvie MSP, carrying on the proposal begun by the late Margo MacDonald MSP.

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