UK laws on euthanasia and assisted suicide explained amid calls for a vote on legalisation

Euthanasia, or medically assisted death, is currently illegal in both the UK and the wider British Isles. 

Though that may soon change.  

Currently any medic or person who performs euthanasia can face prosecution for manslaughter or murder.

Even helping a terminally ill person take their own life, called assisted suicide, is an offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

While no specific law on assisted suicide exists in Scotland, helping someone end their own life could lead to a prosecution for culpable homicide in circumstances where a court determines a person’s death was not entirely voluntary. 

In theory, such laws also apply to Brits specifically helping their loved ones seek a medically assisted death overseas in countries such as Switzerland. 

Scottish courts have said helping and accompanying someone seeking a medically-assisted death in a country like Switzerland would not normally attract prosecution. 

Those who go, or plan to go, to clinics like Dignitas alone would not be breaking any laws. 

The Crown Prosecution Service investigated 182 cases of assisted suicides between April 2009 and March 2023, the latest data available.

It is not known where they took place, however.  

Four were successfully prosecuted. Another was charged but acquitted, and eight were escalated to homicide or other serious crime. 

Another four are ongoing.  

It should be noted the offence of assisting suicide is not specific to medical cases.

Recorded offences may also include attempts to bully or pressure healthy people into killing themselves. 

Figures from Dignitas have recorded over 400 Brits dying via its service since 2009. 

Some form of assisted dying or assisted suicide is legal in at least 27 jurisdictions worldwide.  

And Scotland could be first UK nation to join them.

A member’s bill on medically assisted death is expected to be debated in Holyrood next year.

Any draft bill would need to be scrutinised by Scotland’s health committee, before being debated for the first time and put to a vote. So, even with majority support, the law would not change overnight. 

Other places in the British Isles, though not part of the UK, are also seeking their own change of law. 

The Isle of Man is currently debating proposals on assisted dying.

Its legislature, the Tynwald, is due to produce a report imminently. If legalised, only those with six months to live would be allowed to do so. They must have also lived there for at least a year. 

Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, passed an ‘in principle’ decision in 2021 to legalise assisted dying, with subsequent consultations taking place. 

The process will see politicians debate how to implement a law later this year. If the assembly approves the policy proposals, it would see them draft a law — a process that would take between 12 to 18 months.   

Once a draft law is approved, there would be another 18-month implementation period before it takes effect.

Proposals would allow those with a terminal illness or experiencing ‘unbearable suffering’ to end their life.

It will require people to have been ‘ordinarily a resident in Jersey for at least 12 months’ to be eligible.