We have that wonder of wonders, a judge actually getting what the law should be correct. For what is being said is that we should not change the laws on assisted suicide – and definitely not on euthanasia – but should instead ignore the laws we’ve got when necessary. Or even convenient. Which is indeed the correct way to be thinking about these things.
Any system of killing people is going to have mistakes in it. It’s one of the great and oft used arguments against capital punishment. Even today in the US there’s a general understanding that if we could absolutely and convincingly prove that an innocent was executed then support for the death penalty would plummet.
So, sure, for some people that euthanasia, that assisted suicide if you prefer, will be the best end to a life. But that slippery slope of people being placed upon the Liverpool Pathway without their consent when they’re not even terminally ill could be true. Actually was true.
So, how do we deal with this? Well, what we want is a system in which that kill the old folks only happens when that really is the best end available. Also, only when they really wish it. Which leads us to a rather English compromise which we around here support:
Laws on assisted dying do not need abolishing because people should break them instead, a former Supreme Court judge has said. Delivering the opening speech of this year’s BBC Reith Lecture, Lord Jonathan Sumption QC, who retired from the bench in December, said: “I think the law should continue to criminalise assisted suicide,” before adding: “And I think that the law should be broken from time to time.” The 1961 Suicide Act, criminalises anyone assisting a death and currently, those found guilty of breaking the law on assisted suicide face sentences of up to 14 years in prison. He said that laws forbidding assisted suicide were needed to prevent abuse and to deal with relatives and friends of those who help people to die.
That is about the best we can do. For what happens if there is such a trial? That takes place before a jury, the jury being the people who decide whether there’s guilt there or not. And while English judges absolutely hate even the concept of jury nullification – essentially, Yup, guilty as sin but we’ll find not guilty because it wasn’t really a crime – everyone knows that it exists and always has done in the system. In fact, it being one of the points of having a jury system, that the jury can indeed tell the law, in all its majesty, to bugger off.
So, we continue to have laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide. And it continues to happen as it always has done. But we’ve that safeguard that those who do it know that they might be charged, might face trial. And that is what stops the system becoming egregious in topping the inconvenient. That good sense of 12 good men and true.