A SCOTTISH GP who helped patients end their lives has been criticised for taking the law into his own hands by a leading campaigner for assisted dying.

Dr Iain Kerr came under fire from Sir Graeme Catto, a former president of the General Medical Council (GMC) which registers UK doctors and now chairman of Dignity in Dying – a group which wants to give the terminally ill the option of killing themselves.

Sir Graeme, who lives in Aberdeen, said he disapproved of the help Dr Kerr gave to elderly patients who were intent on suicide.

Dr Kerr, who was a GP at Williamwood Medical Centre in Clarkston, East Renfrewshire, confessed to supplying sleeping tablets to a couple who wanted to end their lives together.

He also revealed he had advised another pensioner how to use anti-depressants he was taking to kill himself and visited the patient while they took effect.

Sir Graeme said: "Dignity in Dying is an organisation that is committed to working within the law to change the law. We simply do not condone healthcare professionals from medicine or nursing or any other group taking matters into their own hands. In Iain Kerr's case that is what he did."

Sir Graeme added that he did understand current legislation, which prohibits assisted dying, puts doctors in a difficult position when patients say their lives are intolerable. He said health professionals were either forced to end the conversation or change the subject.

However, he said he believed Dr Kerr's actions were unusual. He said: "I think there are very few Iain Kerrs. I think it is very difficult nowadays to act in that way. Prescribing arrangements are monitored very carefully after Harold Shipman, for example, and very few doctors now work on their own. Most work in teams with nurses and it is very difficult to take matters into your own hands in the way he did."

The couple who succeeded in their suicide bid after Dr Kerr gave them the sleeping pills killed themselves in 1990. The pensioner who used anti-depressants also died some time ago. A third patient who obtained sleeping pills for the purpose of suicide from the GP, but later destroyed them, died after taking a cocktail of different tablets in 2005.

Dr Kerr's treatment of this woman, known as Patient A, was the subject of a GMC hearing and he was suspended for six months in 2008.

Dignity in Dying wants to see the law changed so people given less than a year to live could terminate their own lives.

Sir Graeme said: "The kind of law we hope to have in place would not necessarily have directly benefited the patients Dr Kerr has been involved with, but it would help to ensure an open conversation would take place between patients and healthcare professionals which is simply very difficult at the present time."

Sir Graeme said about 15% of dying patients were sedated until their death. He added: "I am not in anyway criticising that. I just wonder how much is discussed with families or if well-meaning professionals say 'this patient is agitated let's sedate them'.

"How much better it would be for people to have these discussions up front and to know if their life became intolerable they had a way out."