People could be spared prosecution for “mercy killings” conducted out of compassion for loved ones.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has opened a consultation on the legal guidance on homicide, which proposes a list of factors for and against charging suspects.
Prosecutions would be less likely if the deceased had reached a “voluntary, settled and informed decision to end their life” and in cases where the suspect was “wholly motivated by compassion”.
People would also be less likely to face jail if they attempted to take their own life at the same time as part of a suicide pact, or reported the death to the police and assisted the authorities.
Max Hill QC, the director of public prosecutions, said: “Suicide pacts and so-called mercy killings are tragedies for the family and friends of those involved.
“It is a sensitive and emotive topic which can be very divisive and provoke strong views, but our prosecutors may need to decide whether the legal test for criminal charges has been met. The individual circumstances of every case must be carefully weighed up when considering whether it is in the public interest to charge.”
Mr Hill said all homicides were serious, and added: “We will always prosecute cases of murder and manslaughter where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest.”
The consultation also lists proposed factors that would increase the likelihood of prosecution, including killings where the victim was under 18 or lacked the mental capacity to make an informed decision to end their life.
Other relevant factors are a history of violence and abuse by the suspect, financial reward on the victim’s death, or killings by doctors, nurses and people with a duty of care.
The CPS said its proposals are not intended to change the number of prosecutions, or “decriminalise” murder, manslaughter or attempted murder.
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The authority said its guidelines aimed to give clear advice to prosecutors and to ensure there is transparent and consistent decision making in the sensitive cases. The consultation will run until 8 April.
The Dignity in Dying group, which campaigns for changes to separate assisted dying laws for the terminally ill, welcomed the plans.
Chief executive Sarah Wootton said: “This proposed new guidance recognises that mercy killing and suicide pacts are different from murder and manslaughter, and that they should be treated differently by our criminal justice system.
“Differentiating acts of compassion from serious crimes is an important milestone on the road to law change, as well as a clear indication that the blanket ban on assisted dying does not work.
“But this does not legalise assisted dying – only parliament can do that.”