Legislative Scrutiny: Coroners and Justice Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the British Humanist Association


  I am writing to outline my concerns around the Coroners and Justice Bill, in my capacity as Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). The BHA is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief.

  We base our responses on the humanist principles that individuals should have the right to live by own personal values and the freedom to make decisions about their own lives, as long as these do not result in harm to others. Humanists consider the often conflicting ideas and unpredictable consequences arising from, for example, new developments in medical science, using reason, evidence, compassion and shared human values, as far as possible.

  We do recognise, however, that there are values that are not shared by everyone. Humanists do not share the attitudes to "interfering with nature" or "playing God" or the same definitions of personhood held by some religious believers. We respect the rights of those holding religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and the limits of medical intervention not to participate in some procedures, but we do not believe that the beliefs of the religious, when they are based on supernatural arguments, should be imposed on others.


  We are very concerned that the revised definition of the partial defence to murder of diminished responsibility in the Coroners and Justice Bill will have a significant and negative impact on those people that might be termed genuine "mercy killers': those who have actively helped a seriously ill loved one to die, in response to persistent requests for help to end their life. By changing the definition of diminished responsibility it is likely that "mercy killers" who have acted rationally in response to persistent requests from a seriously ill loved one will face custodial sentences.

  Under the current law, anybody who ends the life of another can be convicted of murder and receive a life sentence—even if the act is a compassionate response to a dying person's request for help to die (a "mercy killing'). At the request of the Home Secretary in 2004, the Law Commission undertook a review of the partial defences to murder. On "mercy killing", the report stated, "at present, in such cases, a conviction for murder, with consequent mandatory life sentence, can only be avoided by a "benign conspiracy" between psychiatrists, defence, prosecution and the court, to bring them within diminished responsibility .... It is however a blight on our law that such an outcome has to be connived at rather than arising openly and directly from the law".[28]

  The BHA does not endorse "mercy killing" or the current "benign conspiracy'. However, "mercy killings" are taking place, and it is necessary that the law addresses these cases appropriately. We are extremely concerned that the revised definition of diminished responsibility will actually make things worse for genuine "mercy killers" and seriously impact upon their human rights.

  The proposed new definition of diminished responsibility set out in the Coroners and Justice Bill requires that to use the defence, the defendant must have a "recognised medical condition" ... "at the time" at the time of the act. In addition, for the defence to apply, the recognised medical condition would need to be shown to have substantially impaired "the defendant's ability to understand the nature of their conduct, to form a rational judgement, or to exercise self-control". The new definition would not help the person who eventually concedes to persistent requests from a terminally ill loved one to help them die, if their help can be shown to be rational, for example, if they understood the consequences of their action, and do not suffer from depression or some other mental abnormality. Clearly such a person will have acted rationally, in a controlled fashion and in the full knowledge and understanding of the implications of her/his conduct, which will make it extremely difficult to apply the defence.

  The likely effect therefore, is that many genuine "mercy killers" will be given custodial sentences. This would seem to go against the wider spirit of the proposed changes, which are intended to make the Law of Murder more just. It is particularly surprising, and the practice of the law in "mercy killing" cases was not considered by the Ministry of Justice in its recent consultation on changes to murder law.

  While the current law may allow the courts to connive to treat genuine "mercy killers" compassionately, it is clear that the revised definition will put a stop to this. What little protection "mercy killers" currently have against harsh sentencing, and potentially, mandatory life sentencing, will be completely removed. As such, the proposed change to diminished responsibility will have a significant and potentially damaging impact on a particular group of offenders: Government has a responsibility to thoroughly investigate this before making any changes, and I would urge the Joint Committee on Human Rights to investigate this important issue.

January 2009

28   The Law Commission Report No. 290, Partial Defences to Murder, August 2004, page 17. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 26 March 2009