LONDON, England / The Guardian / Society / Asisted Suicide / September 2, 2010
Friends are believed to have helped Douglas Sinclair, 76, who had multiple system atrophy, travel to Switzerland to die
By James Meikle and agencies
A room at the Dignitas house, near Zurich, in which people end their lives. Photograph: David Levene
Douglas Sinclair, who had multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological condition, travelled to an assisted dying clinic in Zurich where he died on 28 July.
He had been living in a care home in Jarrow, South Tyneside, since December last year, and feared his condition was deteriorating to a stage where he would no longer be able to attend the Dignitas clinic, his lawyer said today.
Those arrested are understood to be close friends; one is a former neighbour. Sinclair, a retired engineer, had a daughter. His wife died more than 10 years ago from leukaemia.
Sinclair's daughter, Helen, 41, defended her father's decision, telling the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside: "My father was a popular and caring man …. He will be greatly missed by all those who knew him. He was devastated by the loss of his wife, my mother, and since his illness decided to end his life with dignity in the manner of his choosing.
"Although this was disturbing and upsetting for me, I respect his decision and hope others respect my wishes to grieve in private."
Christopher Potts, Sinclair's solicitor, said he had "a very clear understanding of how his condition could be expected to deteriorate" and "a dread he would suddenly suffer a collapse in his already fragile health which meant that he could not physically get himself abroad in order to attend a Dignitas clinic".
Potts said that in January he was present at a care conference attended by Sinclair, social services and health officials, legal advisers and a representative from the care home. "While some individuals may have felt personal objections to what he intended to do, everybody present accepted he was competent to make that decision and that, if that was his settled decision, there was no legal power to interfere with it."
It is believed the two people arrested took legal advice before Sinclair travelled to Switzerland. Potts, of the firm Patterson, Glenton and Stracey, accompanied them during police interviews after they were arrested. "They have explained what they did or did not do to police. It would be inappropriate to comment beyond that," he said.
"Both were interviewed under caution, both co-operated fully, they answered each question," he said. "They gave every co-operation to explain the events.
"The police have been very sensitive and have approached the case with an open mind. Their task is to collate the information and offer it upwards to the Crown Prosecution Service and the director of public prosecutions. That will take months, not weeks."
A statement from Northumbria police said: "A 47-year-old woman and a 48-year-old man from South Shields have been arrested on suspicion of intentionally doing an act to assist or encourage suicide following the death of a 76-year-old man in Switzerland. Both have been bailed pending further inquiries."
No one has been prosecuted for aiding suicide since new guidelines were issued by the DPP, Keir Starmer, in February. These did not decriminalise the offence, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, and put greater emphasis on the motives of the suspect rather than the condition of the person who died, such as whether they were terminally ill.
Pressure group Dignity in Dying said the incident strengthened its argument for a change in the law. It was "a sad reminder of how our current law is failing dying patients and their loved ones", said chief executive Sarah Wootton.
She said: "Much better would be an assisted dying law with upfront safeguards, which would investigate a request to die when the person is still alive and alternative options can be set out.
"This would better protect potentially vulnerable people, provide choice at the end of life for those suffering unbearably and prevent those who act compassionately towards another's request to die from lengthy and distressing investigation whilst grieving for the loss of a loved one."
Naomi Phillips, head of public affairs at the British Humanist Association, said: "It is deeply saddening that people face the threat of arrest and prosecution … should they accompany loved ones abroad for an assisted death. We need a law on assisted dying that is sensible, ethical and forward thinking."
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