Following recent stories in the media, this blog is focussing on the legal issues surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide.
What is Euthanasia?
Deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering
What is assisted suicide?
Assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves.
Is Euthanasia / Assisted Suicide legal?
Both are illegal in the UK.
However Euthanasia is legal in some countries such as Switzerland.
Can I travel to other countries for Euthanasia?
Depending on that country’s law, you can travel to a country where euthanasia is legal, to die. Indeed the Dignitas organisation (which provides Euthanasia services in Switzerland) published statistics showing that as at 31 December 2018 1,341 of its 9,064 members were resident in Great Britain.
However, whilst euthanasia or assisted suicide may be legal in that country, they remain illegal in the UK and this can cause serious problems for anyone in the UK who helps you. There is a risk of that person being prosecuted for assisting a suicide and they could also risk losing any inheritance they would otherwise have been entitled to under your estate.
In the recent case of Ninian v Findlay  the widow of Alex Ninian accompanied her husband to Switzerland for his assisted death. Arriving back at the United Kingdom, the Crown Prosecution Service considered that it had sufficient evidence to prosecute the widow for the offence of assisting a suicide, but in the circumstances decided it would not be in the public interest to do so. The court considered that Mrs Ninian was the sole beneficiary of her husband’s £1.8million estate under the terms of his Will. The Forfeiture Act 1982 gives the court the discretion to prevent a person who has unlawfully killed or assisted in the death another from benefitting as a result of the killing, and this benefit includes receipt of an inheritance from the deceased’s estate.
In this instance, Mrs Ninian was not prosecuted, nor was her inheritance lost, as the court held that Mr Ninian made a clear decision to end his life, despite his wife trying to dissuade him for many months. She had co-operated fully with the police and had acted in compassion; her claim was also unopposed due to there being no children of the marriage.
It is clear from this that another case could have approached these circumstances very differently, and there will also be cases where the circumstances are not as favourable to the widow. Therefore anybody considering euthanasia or assisted suicide under the current law should be very aware of the impact that their decisions might have on their close family, and should plan very carefully to minimise the risk of liability falling on them.
What are the alternatives if I cannot or am unwilling to travel abroad to die?
Whilst Euthanasia is illegal in the UK, patients in the UK who are terminally ill have the right to refuse treatment, so “passive euthanasia”, where treatment that might extend someone’s life is withdrawn, such as a life support machine being turned off, is legal.
How can I request that my treatment is withdrawn at the appropriate time?
If you still have the ability to make decisions, you can refuse further treatment.
You can make an advance treatment directive (a “living Will”) setting out the circumstances in which you would want treatment to end if at that you are unable at that time to communicate or make the necessary decisions.
You can make a Health and Welfare Lasting Power of Attorney appointing an attorney to make these decisions on your behalf in the event that you are unable to do so yourself.
Which is better, a Living Will or a Lasting Power of Attorney?
This will depend upon your circumstances.
You can make a living Will which takes effect immediately, whereas a Lasting Power of Attorney needs to be registered at the Office of the Public Guardian before it can be used by your attorneys, which can take 2 or 3 months.
You make your own decisions in a living Will, whereas you are trusting your attorneys to make decisions in your best interests, and they may not make the same decisions as you might have done.
However, living Wills need to be drawn precisely to the particular condition you end up suffering from, also has to state the precise circumstances when treatment is withdrawn, and If you wish to refuse life-sustaining treatment in circumstances where you might die as a result, you need to state this clearly in your advance decision. Therefore living Wills can end up having no effect at the time when you need them.
Furthermore, your views might change, or medical treatment options might change, meaning that the instructions contained in your living Will becomes out of date.
Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) are much more flexible, as your attorneys can consider the circumstances and views at the time when decisions are needed, and then to make decisions based on what they think you would have wanted, at that time.
It is also important to note that Health and Welfare LPAs will mean that your attorney’s views will take precedence over any other close family of yours. A Lasting Power of Attorney may therefore be particularly attractive to you if you have close family members who you would not want to involve in your medical decisions, as you can use LPAs to appoint alternative people to make these decisions for you
Can you use your Living Will to arrange your Euthanasia or ask your Attorney to assist in your suicide?
No. These cannot be used for unlawful purposes.
This is clearly an area in which the law may change or evolve. There are steps which you can take to act within the UK law, but also steps you can take to protect your family if you do choose to proceed with Euthanasia overseas.
At Jordans Solicitors we are proud to be a member of the Law Society’s Wills and Inheritance Quality (WIQS) Scheme. We also have specialist solicitors who are members of STEP (the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners). Jordans Solicitors is also recognised as a Dementia Friendly firm with many of our staff being Dementia Friends. We can also assist with Lasting Powers of Attorney and Living Wills, and also with other issues such as Wills or dealing with probate issues after death. Our Private Client solicitors are based in Wakefield, Dewsbury, Selby and Horsforth. Feel free to call us on 0330 300 1103 or request a call back.