Gilderdale case prompts fresh calls to clarify the law on assisted dying

From The Times, 26 January 2010 (story by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor)

One devoted mother who helps her sick daughter to end her life with tablets and morphine walks free from court with a suspended sentence.

Another is jailed for murder, to serve a minimum of nine years, after injecting her brain-damaged son with a lethal dose of heroin.

The two contrasting cases have reignited the debate over “right to die” and whether those who assist a loved one to end their suffering should be subject to criminal law.

Both involved a loving parent who could not bear to see a child suffer. Both, therefore, were acts of mercy. But there were key differences: Frances Inglis’s son, Thomas, 22, who had brain damage, had never indicated an intention to die. His mother believed him to be in pain and could not accept an encouraging medical prognosis.

Kay Gilderdale’s daughter, Lynn, 31, had attempted suicide. She had considered it over time and contemplated going to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. When a first attempt at suicide failed, her mother set about trying to help her to end her life.

Last July Keir Starmer, QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, outlined 16 “public interest factors” in favour of a prosecution and 13 factors against taking legal action in order to bring clarity to existing assisted suicide legislation.

Mrs Gilderdale was charged not just with attempted assisted suicide but also with attempted murder. A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that this was because the evidence suggested that her daughter may not have died from an assisted suicide. “It was not clear cut: there was a sequence of events and the toxicologist could not prove which of these stages resulted in death,” he said.

The case exposed the acute difficulties for prosecutors, judges and juries alike, and adds to the pressure for greater clarity in the law.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “Ultimately, the Government needs to review the law in this area. As this case highlights, at present the law is a mess.”

However, Peter Saunders, director of Care Not Killing, said that the law acted as a powerful deterrent to protect vulnerable people from exploitation and abuse.

Judges should have a wide discretion to temper justice with mercy. Then they can show compassion in hard cases without giving a green light to murder.

 

 

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