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Voluntary Requests, or Vulnerable Adults? A Critique of Criminal Sentencing in Assisted Suicide and ‘Mercy Killing’ Cases


Katrine Del Villar, Lindy Willmott and Ben P White

This article examines the sentencing remarks in all publicly reported Australian cases on assisted suicide and mercy killing since 1980. Themes emerging from judicial reasons for sentencing confirm that many traditional aims of sentencing – such as specific deterrence, retribution or rehabilitation – are inapposite in cases where relatives or friends act outside the law to end the suffering of a loved one. Pronounced leniency in sentencing, observed across the spectrum of cases, demonstrates a gap between the law on the books and the sentences imposed in practice. We identify inconsistent outcomes, both in charges laid and sentences imposed, which have the potential to undermine public confidence in the rule of law. We conclude that criminal law simultaneously provides both too much protection and insufficient protection for members of the community. We recommend law reform to enable judges to better distinguish between voluntary and non-voluntary assisted suicides and mercy killings.

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(2022) 45(2) UNSWLJ 449: