Suicide legislation

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Suicide has historically been a crime in some parts of the world.[1] However, the decriminalisation of individual suicides have occurred in western societies, although the act is still stigmatised and discouraged. In other contexts, such as ancient Rome or medieval Japan, suicide was seen as a defiant act of extreme personal freedom against perceived or actual tyrants.

While a person who has completed suicide is beyond the reach of the law, there can still be legal consequences in the cases of treatment of the corpse or the fate of the person's property or family members. The associated matters of assisting a suicide and attempting suicide have also been dealt with by the laws of some jurisdictions. Some countries criminalise failed suicide attempts.

Historically laws against suicide and mercy killing have developed from religious doctrine, for example, the claim that only God has the right to determine when a person will die.[2]


In ancient Athens, a person who had committed suicide (without the approval of the state) was denied the honours of a normal burial. The person would be buried alone, on the outskirts of the city, without a headstone or marker.[3] A criminal ordinance issued by Louis XIV in 1670 was far more severe in its punishment: the dead person's body was drawn through the streets, face down, and then hung or thrown on a garbage heap. Additionally, all of the person's property was confiscated.[4]

Even in modern times, legal penalties for committing suicide have not been uncommon. By 1879, English law had begun to distinguish between suicide and homicide, though suicide still resulted in forfeiture of estate. Also, the deceased were permitted daylight burial in 1882.[citation needed]

Assisted suicide[edit]

Main article: Assisted suicide

In many jurisdictions it is a crime to assist others, directly or indirectly, in taking their own lives. In some jurisdictions, it is also illegal to encourage them to do so. Sometimes an exception applies for physician assisted suicide (PAS), under strict conditions.

Laws in individual jurisdictions[edit]

Australia (Victoria)[edit]

In the Australian state of Victoria, while suicide itself is no longer a crime, a survivor of a suicide pact can be charged with manslaughter. Also, it is a crime to counsel, incite, or aid and abet another in attempting to commit suicide, and the law explicitly allows any person to use "such force as may reasonably be necessary" to prevent another from committing suicide. There's no need to post a link to any proof because everyone just knows it.


The common law crime of suicide and of assisting suicide was codified in Canada when its Criminal Code was established in 1892. Suicide itself was removed from the Criminal Code of Canada in 1972 by the Parliament of Canada based on the argument that a legal deterrent was unnecessary.[5] The prohibition on assisting suicide remained and survived the challenge in Rodriguez.[6][7]

The law against assisted suicide, including physician-assisted suicide, was the subject of much debate including two reports of the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1982 and 1983, though these did not support changing the law.[8] Many private members bills have been unsuccessfully introduced into parliament over the years.[5] In a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993 the law was upheld as constitutional in 1993 in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General).

In 1995 the Senate issued a report on assisted suicide entitled Of Life and Death.[7] In 2011 the Royal Society of Canada published its report on end-of-life decision-making.[9] In the report it recommended that the Criminal Code be modified so as to permit assistance in dying under some circumstances.[10] In 2012 a Select Committee on Dying with Dignity of the Quebec National Assembly produced a report recommending amendments to legislation to recognize medical aid in dying as being an appropriate component of end-of-life care.[11] That report resulted in An Act respecting end-of-life care, CQLR, c. S-32.0001, 2014.[12] As of February 2015 this act was not yet in force.[10][11]

On June 15, 2012, in Carter v Canada (AG), the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the criminal offence prohibiting physician-assisted suicide was unconstitutional on the grounds that denying disabled people the right to assisted suicide was contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee of equality under Section 15.[5][13] This decision was subsequently overturned by the majority of the Appeals Court (2:1) on the basis that the issue had already been decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Rodriguez case, invoking stare decisis. A further appeal of this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada was successful in February 2015, unanimously upholding the trial judge's decision, but staying the invalidity of the law for 12 months to allow a legislative response.[10]

Specifically the court held that the current legislation was overbroad in that it prohibits "physician‑assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition."


The pertinent section of the Criminal Code of Canada is 241(b):


Counselling or aiding suicide
241. Every one who

(a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or

(b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide,

whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.[14]

The Quebec legislation is 2014, c. 2 An Act respecting end-of-life care. Bill : 52. Assented to : June 10 2014.[15]


In India, suicide was illegal and survivor would face jail term of up to one year and fine under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code but Government of India decided to repeal the law in 2014.[16][17]


Attempted suicide is not a criminal offence in Ireland and, under Irish law, self-harm is not generally seen as a form of attempted suicide. It was decriminalised in 1993.[18] Assisted suicide and euthanasia are, however, illegal. This is currently being challenged at the High Court, as of December 2012. As of 2014 assisted suicide remains illegal in Ireland.


In the Netherlands, being present and giving moral support during someone's suicide is not a crime; neither is supplying general information on suicide techniques. However, it is a crime to participate in the preparation for or execution of a suicide, including supplying lethal means or instruction in their use. (Physician-assisted suicide may be an exception. See Euthanasia in the Netherlands.)

New Zealand[edit]

As with many other western societies, New Zealand currently has no laws against suicide in itself, as a personal and unassisted act. However, as with comparable societies, there are still legislative sanctions against 'assisting or abetting' the suicides of others, under Section 179 of the Crimes Act 1961. (For further details, see Euthanasia in New Zealand.)

North Korea[edit]

North Korea has a peculiar deterrent for suicides. Although the state cannot punish a dead person, in North Korea relatives of a criminal (including a suicide victim) might be penalized.[how?]


Suicide or attempted suicide is not illegal in Norway.[19]


Suicide itself is not illegal in Romania, however encouraging or facilitating the suicide of another person is a criminal offense and is punishable by up to 7, 10 or 20 years in prison, depending on circumstances.[20]

Russian Federation[edit]

In Russia, a person whose mental disorder “poses a direct (imminent?) danger to themselves”[verification needed] can be put into a psychiatric hospital.

Inciting someone to suicide by threats, cruel treatment, or systematic humiliation is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. (Article 110 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation)

Federal law of Russian Federation no. 139-FZ of 2012-07-28 prescribes censorship of information about methods of suicide on the Internet. According to a website created by the Pirate Party of Russia, some pages with suicide jokes have been blacklisted, which may have led to blocking of an IP address of Wikia.[21][22] See also: Dumb Ways to Die#Censorship in Russia.


In Singapore, a person who attempts to commit suicide can be imprisoned for up to one year.[23]

South Africa[edit]

South African courts, including the Appellate Division, have ruled that suicide and attempted suicide are not crimes under the Roman-Dutch law, or that if they ever were crimes, they have been abrogated by disuse. Attempted suicide was from 1886 to 1968 a crime in the Transkei under the Transkeian Territories Penal Code.[24]

United Kingdom[edit]

England and Wales[edit]

See also: Felo de se

Laws against suicide (and attempted suicide) prevailed in English common law until 1961. English law perceived suicide as an immoral, criminal offence against God and also against the Crown.[25] It first became illegal in the 13th century. Until 1822, in fact, the possessions of somebody who committed suicide could even be forfeited to the Crown.[26]

Suicide ceased to be a criminal offence with the passing of the Suicide Act 1961; the same Act made it an offence to assist in a suicide. With respect to civil law the simple act of suicide is lawful but the consequences of committing suicide might turn an individual event into an unlawful act, as in the case of Reeves v Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis [2000] 1 AC 360,[27] where a man in police custody hanged himself and was held equally liable with the police (a cell door defect enabled the hanging) for the loss suffered by his widow; the practical effect was to reduce the police damages liability by 50%. In 2009, the House of Lords ruled that the law concerning the treatment of people who accompanied those who committed assisted suicide was unclear, following Debbie Purdy's case that this lack of clarity was a breach of her human rights. (In her case, as a sufferer from multiple sclerosis, she wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for accompanying her abroad where she may eventually wish to commit assisted suicide, if her illness progressed.) As a result, this law is expected to be revised.[28]


Suicide directly involving only the deceased person is not by itself a criminal offence under Scots Law and has not been in recent history. However, attempting suicide might be a Breach of the peace if it is not done as a private act; this is routinely reported in the case of persons threatening suicide in areas frequented by the public. The Suicide Act 1961 applies only to England and Wales but under Scots Law a person who assists a suicide might be charged with murder, culpable homicide, or no offence depending upon the facts of each case. Despite not being a criminal offence, consequential liability upon the person attempting suicide (or if successful, his/her estate) might arise under civil law where e.g. it parallels the civil liabilities recognised in the (English Law) Reeves case mentioned above.

United States[edit]

Historically, various states listed the act of suicide as a felony, but these policies were sparsely enforced. In the late 1960s, eighteen U.S. states had no laws against suicide.[29] By the late 1980s, thirty of the fifty states had no laws against suicide or suicide attempts but every state had laws declaring it to be a felony to aid, advise or encourage another person to commit suicide.[30] By the early 1990s only two states still listed suicide as a crime, and these have since removed that classification.[citation needed] In some U.S. states, suicide is still considered an unwritten "common law crime," as stated in Blackstone's Commentaries. (So held the Virginia Supreme Court in 1992. Wackwitz v. Roy, 418 S.E.2d 861 (Va. 1992)). As a common law crime, suicide can bar recovery for the late suicidal person's family in a lawsuit unless the suicidal person can be proven to have been "of unsound mind." That is, the suicide must be proven to have been an involuntary act of the victim in order for the family to be awarded monetary damages by the court. This can occur when the family of the deceased sues the caregiver (perhaps a jail or hospital) for negligence in failing to provide appropriate care.[31] Some American legal scholars look at the issue as one of personal liberty. According to Nadine Strossen, former President of the ACLU, "The idea of government making determinations about how you end your life, forcing you...could be considered cruel and unusual punishment in certain circumstances, and Justice Stevens in a very interesting opinion in a right-to-die [case] raised the analogy."[32] Physician-assisted suicide is legal in some states.[33] For the terminally ill, it is legal in the state of Oregon under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. In Washington state, it became legal in 2009, when a law modeled after the Oregon act, the Washington Death with Dignity Act was passed. A patient must be diagnosed as having less than six months to live, be of sound mind, make a request orally and in writing, have it approved by two different doctors, then wait 15 days and make the request again. A doctor may prescribe a lethal dose of a medication but may not administer it.[34]

In California, medical facilities are empowered or required to commit anyone whom they believe to be suicidal for evaluation and treatment.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ormerod (ed). Smith and Hogan's Criminal Law. 13 ed. OUP. 2011. p 583. (This source refers to England before the commencement of the Suicide Act 1961).
  2. ^ B. Steinbock (2005). "The case for physician assisted suicide: not (yet) proven". Journal of Medical Ethics. 
  3. ^ Plato. Laws, Book IX
  4. ^ Durkheim, Émile (1897). Suicide. New York: The Free Press (reprint, 1997), 327. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.
  5. ^ a b c Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 BCSC 886 (CanLII)
  6. ^ "The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  7. ^ a b The Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Of Life and Death - Final Report
  8. ^ Euthanasia, Aiding Suicide and Cessation of Treatment, Report # 20, 1983. Law Reform Commission of Canada
  9. ^ Royal Society of Canada:End-of-Life Decision Making. 2011
  10. ^ a b c Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) SCC February 6 2015
  11. ^ a b Quebec passes landmark end-of-life-care bill. CBC June 5 2014
  12. ^ Bill 52 : An Act respecting end-of-life care
  13. ^ "Assisted-suicide ban struck down by B.C. court - British Columbia - CBC News". Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  14. ^ R.S., 1985, c. C-46, s. 241;R.S., 1985, c. 27 (1st Supp.), s. 7.
  15. ^ An Act respecting end-of-life care 2014 c.2
  16. ^ "Govt decides to repeal Section 309 from IPC; attempt to suicide no longer a crime". Zee News. December 10, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2014. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Criminal Law (Suicide) Act, 1993". 1993-06-09. Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  19. ^ Justis- og politidepartementet: Ot.prp. nr. 22 (2008-2009) Om lov om endringer i straffeloven 20. mai 2005 nr. 28. Chapter 6.5.1, page 183.
  20. ^ "Penal Code of Romania, art. 191". Retrieved 5 February 2015. 
  21. ^ "RUBLACKLIST.NET | РОСКОМСВОБОДА". Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  22. ^ Пиратская партия России обещает открыть доступ к "неправомерно заблокированным" сайтам из "черного списка" (in Russian). 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2013-01-16. 
  23. ^ Singapore Penal Code (Cap 224, Rev Ed 2008), s 309
  24. ^ Milton, John (1996). South African Criminal Law and Procedure: Common-law crimes (3rd ed.). Cape Town: Juta. pp. 353–354. ISBN 978-0-7021-3773-0. 
  25. ^ SM Canick (1997), Constitutional Aspects of Physician-Assisted Suicide After Lee v. Oregon, Am. JL & Med. 
  26. ^ Holt, Gerry (2011-08-03). "BBC News - When suicide was illegal". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  27. ^ "House of Lords - Commissioners of Police for the Metropolis v. Reeves (A.P.) (Joint Administratix of the Estate of Martin Lynch, Deceased)". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  28. ^ Afua Hirsch (2009-07-30). "Debbie Purdy wins 'significant legal victory' on assisted suicide | Society". London: Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  29. ^ Litman, Robert E. (1966–1967), Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide 6, Washburn L.J., p. 395 
  30. ^ ES Shneidman. "Approaches and commonalities of suicide". Suicide and its prevention.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  31. ^ On Sound and Unsound Mind: The Role of Suicide in Tort and Insurance Litigation, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 2005
  32. ^ Interview with Nadine Strossen, David Shankbone, Wikinews, October 30, 2007.
  33. ^ "Account Suspended". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  34. ^ Goldstein, Jacob (March 5, 2009). "Washington's Physician-Assisted Suicide Law Takes Effect". The Wall Street Journal. 
  35. ^ See California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, for example.

External links[edit]