LEGAL BRIEFING

A Dutch doctor has been convicted of murder for ending a dying patient's life.

Dr Wilfred van Oijen injected the 84-year-old woman with 50mg of an anaesthetic drug, Alloferine. He broke three of the rules under which euthanasia is decriminalised in the Netherlands: he performed it on a patient who had not requested it - she was beyond the stage at which she could make a 'serious and considered' request as required by the rules - he reported it as a natural death, and he failed to seek a second opinion from an independent doctor.

He was convicted last month but given no punishment because the court took the view that he had acted 'according to his conscience'. He is still practising as a GP. A British court would have no choice but to impose a life sentence.

There is much misunderstanding in the UK about how euthanasia operates in the Netherlands.

The rules under which doctors may escape prosecution were laid down by the Dutch supreme court in 1984, when it decided that doctors may claim the defence of 'necessity' in some circumstances if charged with murder. Most important are that euthenasia is performed only at the patient's request and there must be unbearable and lasting suffering with no hope of reprieve.

Under the current system, a second opinion must be sought from an independent doctor who is specially trained and who sees the patient and makes a report.

The process is only now being incorporated in legislation. A bill is expected to be accepted by the majority of the upper house in April, allowing patients to ask for euthenasia by advance directive.