What to consider when looking at assisted suicide

  • Describe the main points of the Ninian assisted suicide case
  • Decribe why Mr Ninian's widow claimed relief from the forfeiture rule in his will
  • List the importance of legal advice
What to consider when looking at assisted suicide

The debate concerning the legalisation of assisted suicide in the UK is rarely far from the headlines.

Whether in the form of a further attempt by parliamentarians to change the law or a ‘right-to-die’ case reaching the courts or surveys – such as one recently published by the campaign group My Death My Decision, which purports to show overwhelming support among the British public for the legalisation of assisted suicide.

The arguments on each side are relatively well-rehearsed and do not need repeating here.

While assisted suicide remains illegal in this country – and potentially carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison – the prosecuting authorities have adopted a policy that draws a distinction between compassionate and malicious acts. The family member who selflessly assists a loved one to end their life will be treated leniently.

Under current guidelines, such a person is unlikely to face prosecution, although each case has to be looked at on its individual facts. Professional medical assistance to die will still result in prosecution.

Showing compassion

The common example of a compassionate case is that of help being provided to enable a loved one to fly to Switzerland to go to Dignitas for an assisted suicide.

That is what Sarah Ninian reluctantly did, and in doing so encountered a lesser-known consequence of helping someone to commit suicide: the application of the forfeiture rule.

Mrs Ninian and her husband married in 1983. Mr Ninian retired in about 1992 after a successful career in business and continued to be extremely active, becoming a successful travel writer and completing a PhD at the age of 80. In 2013, he was diagnosed with a progressive, incurable disease. 

Mr Ninian made the decision to go through with an assisted suicide in 2016. He did not tell Mrs Ninian about it initially, and when she found out, she attempted to dissuade him; but his resolve was not weakened.

Subsequently, he asked her to assist him with a number of administrative aspects of the process, including obtaining and sending Dignitas notarised copies of certain documents, such as his birth certificate, passport, their marriage certificate, his medical records and details on the bank transfer to Dignitas. He also provided a written statement about his decision to commit suicide and his home circumstances.

Notwithstanding his apparent determination, Mrs Ninian continued to try and dissuade her husband from assisted suicide but, as it remained his wish, she continued to help him.

By the time Mr Ninian was seen by a consultant in palliative medicine, his condition had deteriorated to a significant extent. In particular, he had poor mobility and found it difficult to communicate.

Even so, the consultant’s notes recorded that Mrs Ninian remained opposed to her husband ending his life at Dignitas.

Mr and Mrs Ninian were aware that her assisting him in his intended suicide might be a criminal offence. She wisely sought advice on her position from solicitors.