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Assisted suicide: GMC to devise new advice for doctors

The General Medical Council is looking at drafting new regulations to help doctors who are asked for advice for people who are considering ending their own lives. Although they feel the law in this area is currently very clear, they believe additional guidance is needed to prevent doctors being exposed to professional complaints.

Doctors are already bound by the law which states that helping or encouraging suicide is a criminal offence. The new guidelines would be designed to help in situations where although no law has been broken, the doctor still faces a complaint into their fitness to practice.

A working group from the GMC is drafting the new guidance, which will be put out for public consultation at the end of January 2012.

"The issue of assisted suicide is complex and sensitive. This new guidance will not change the legal position for doctors," said Niall Dickson, the Chief Executive of the GMC.

"We recognise that there are a range of actions which could be considered assisting a suicide, some of which could lead to complaints about doctors' fitness to practice," he added.

The aim of the guidance is to provide decision makers with a list of factors which they should consider when dealing with a complaint following an assisted suicide.

"Doctors, patients and others may find it helpful if we set out clearly how we will consider complaints in this area," said Mr Dickson.

The GMC has considered only three cases involving allegations about the conduct of a doctor following an assisted suicide, none of which resulted in any UK conviction. There have been no prosecutions of anybody attempting to assist a suicide since the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer, released new guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service in February 2010.

The guidelines were issued after the Debbie Purdy case. Mrs Purdy suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, a degenerative neuronal disease. She successfully argued that it was a breach of her human rights not to know if her husband would be prosecuted for accompanying her to the Dignitas clinic.

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

Assisted suicide and the law (FindLaw)

Find local specialist solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)