Ex-NHS worker’s 6-month arrest ordeal after helping woman to end her own life
A former NHS manager is reeling following her six-month ordeal after she was arrested and interrogated by police for helping a paralysed woman access an assisted dying facility.
Sue Lawford accompanied Sharon Johnston, a 60-year-old woman who became tetraplegic following a fall, on her trip to the well-known Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where she had chosen to end her life.
The Swiss non-profit organisation provides physician-assisted suicide to people with severe or terminal illnesses.
Sue had returned to her home in Cardiff following Sharon’s death, where she was woken by police at 5.30am, arrested and placed in the back of a police van and driven to a station where she was locked up.
Officers searched her house for more than four hours before seizing her phone, electronic devices, passport, and documents relating to her work. They also took away electronic devices belonging to her husband, who had no connection with the case.
Sue was kept in a cell at Cardiff Bay Police Station for 16 hours, before being interrogated by Dyfed Powys Police, with a duty solicitor in attendance.
After more than 19 hours in custody, she was released ‘pending investigation’. That investigation was dropped after six and a half months, due to ‘evidential difficulties’.
A spokesperson from Dyfed Powys Police confirmed they had arrested a 69-year-old woman from Cardiff on suspicion of assisting suicide and said it was a “criminal offence in the UK to encourage or assist in the suicide or attempted suicide of another person”.
Assisted dying is illegal in England and Wales under the 1961 Suicide Act. It is also a crime for someone to encourage or assist a person to take their own life.
The highly-disputed Assisted Dying Bill passed its first hurdle last year in the House of Lords, but fell after running out of time in the parliamentary schedule. Previous attempts to introduce similar laws have all been defeated.
Sue said being under arrest for such a long time was detrimental to her mental health and also believed the saga showed the urgent need to reform the UK’s assisted dying laws.
Sharon had spoken publicly about her wish to have an assisted death in 2021 BBC documentary When Would You Want to Die? and Humanists UK arranged her participation.
Speaking to WalesOnline last October, Sharon said she intended to travel to Switzerland to end her life because she didn’t want to do “a botched suicide”.
As a single person with no close family Sharon, who used to run a pub and worked in a bookmaker’s, hated relying on others.
“I’m not depressed, I don’t feel sorry for myself,” Sharon said. “I feel trapped in a body that doesn’t work for me. I just want relief and dying is the only way. Life is horrible.
“I’m an outgoing person and I don’t want to live this life and it’s only going to get harder.”
On 14 February, Sue, a member of Humanists UK and campaign group My Death, My Decision, accompanied Sharon to Heathrow Airport, en route to Dignitas in Switzerland.
The organisations said that on the way to the airport Sharon was contacted by Dyfed Powys Police and Social Services several times and reassured both that she was okay.
They also said that Swiss Police called at Dignitas, where Sue and Sharon reassured them and they were satisfied there was no illegal activity.
The organisations reported that Sharon died peacefully early on the morning of 15 February, her last words being: ‘This is a lovely feeling.’
Sue a Londoner who had moved to Cardiff, was arrested the next day following her return from Switzerland.
Back in the UK, Sue’s possessions, and those of her husband, were only returned at the end of the investigation some six months on.
Sue said the situation had caused her “immense stress and anxiety” since her return to the UK, despite insisting Sharon’s decision was “clear as day”.
“A change in the law in the UK is long overdue,” she said.
“And it shouldn’t be limited to the terminally ill. Sharon’s situation was intolerable, yet could have continued for many years, and there are countless others like her without the means to end their lives on their own terms.”
Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision were founding members of the Assisted Dying Coalition and supported the right to die for individuals who are of sound mind, have a clear and settled wish to end their life, and who are terminally ill or incurably suffering.
While Sharon was not terminally ill as a result of her tetraplegia, Swiss law allowed her the right to die.
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, said the ordeal that Sharon and Sue went through was “totally unacceptable”.
“The fact that a humanist volunteer – an upstanding member of her community who specialises in helping others in times of need – was subjected to such ill treatment makes it all the more outrageous.
“People who are terminally or incurably suffering should be able to have a calm, peaceful death on their own terms and in their own country. No-one should have to experience what happened in this case.”
Chair of My Death, My Decision, Trevor Moore, said the story showed why current UK laws were “broken”.
“The lack of compassion they show in forcing an incurably suffering person to travel abroad for an assisted death, in the most difficult of circumstances, is shameful.
“For that to be followed by a heavy-handed criminal investigation of someone who acts out of the best of motives in providing help is appalling.
“That is why we urgently need a compassionate assisted dying law for England and Wales.”
The spokesperson from Dyfed Powys Police said they had arrested a 69-year-old woman in relation to the incident as well as a 29-year-old female from the London area.
“The circumstances of such cases increase the risk of vulnerable people being exploited and others making financial gain,” they said.
“A thorough criminal investigation is required to establish the facts of each case, requiring action to secure evidence that may be lost as time passes and prevent opportunities to dispose of relevant evidence.
“Following such an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Sharon Johnston the matter has been closed.
The two people who were arrested as part of this investigation have been told they will face no further action.”