Suicide has historically been treated as a criminal matter in many parts of the world. 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 tyrant/s.
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.
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. 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. By contrast, soldiers who had been defeated were expected to commit suicide in Ancient Rome and Feudal Japan.
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.
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
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, as well as second degree murder. 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.
Suicide is no longer a crime in Canada as it was removed from the Criminal Code of Canada in 1972 by the Parliament of Canada. The law against assisted suicide, including physician-assisted suicide, was declared constitutional in 1993 by the Supreme Court of Canada in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General). On June 15, 2012 a lower court, the BC 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. It is expected that the BC and federal government will appeal that ruling on the basis that the issue has already been decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Rodriguez case, however.
In India, attempted suicide is an offense punishable under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 309 reads thus: Attempt to commit suicide. "Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both."
A Division Bench of the Supreme Court of India in P. Rathinam v. Union of India (AIR 1994 SC 1844) held that the right to live of which Article 21 speaks of can be said to bring in its trail the right not to live a forced life, and therefore, section 309 violates Article 21. This decision was, however, subsequently overruled in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (AIR 1996 SC 946) by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, holding that Article 21 could not be construed to include within it the ‘right to die’ as a part of the fundamental right guaranteed therein; therefore, it was ruled that it could not be validly stated that section 309 is violative of Article 21.
In 2008 the Law Commission of India submitted a review to the government to repeal section 309. The Law Commission said "The Supreme Court in Gian Kaur focused on constitutionality of section 309. It did not go into the wisdom of retaining or continuing the same in the statute." The Commission has resolved to recommend to the Government to initiate steps for repeal of the anachronistic law contained in section 309, IPC, which would relieve the distressed of his suffering. In India, suicide is above "world-rate".
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. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are, however, illegal. This is currently being challenged at the High Court, as of December 2012.
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.)
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 has a peculiar deterrent for suicides. Although law cannot punish a dead person, in North Korea relatives of a criminal (including a suicide victim) might be penalized, as a form of collective punishment.
Suicide or attempted suicide is not illegal in Norway.
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 10 years in prison, depending on circumstances.
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 mentions the possibility[clarification needed] to censor 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.
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.
England and Wales
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. 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.
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  1 AC 360, 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.
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.
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 lacked laws against suicide. 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 felony to aid, advise or encourage another person to commit suicide. By the early 1990s only two states still listed suicide as a crime, and these have since removed that classification. 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. 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." Physician-assisted suicide is legal in some states. 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 but may not administer it.
In many jurisdictions, medical facilities are empowered or required to commit anyone whom they believe to be suicidal for evaluation and treatment.
- B. Steinbock (2005). "The case for physician assisted suicide: not (yet) proven". Journal of Medical Ethics.
- Plato. Laws, Book IX
- Durkheim, Émile (1897). Suicide. New York: The Free Press (reprint, 1997), 327. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.
- Carter v. Canada (Attorney General)
- 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.
- "Penal Code of Romania, art. 179". Retrieved January 29, 2013.
- "Пиратская партия России обещает открыть доступ к "неправомерно заблокированным" сайтам из "черного списка"" (in ru). NEWSru.com. 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2013-01-16.
- Singapore Penal Code(Cap 224, Rev Ed 2008), s 309
- 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.
- SM Canick (1997), Constitutional Aspects of Physician-Assisted Suicide After Lee v. Oregon, Am. JL & Med.
- When suicide was illegal, BBC
- House of Lords Judgment - Commissioners of Police for the Metropolis v. Reeves
- Litman, Robert E. (1966-1967), Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide 6, Washburn L.J., p. 395
- ES Shneidman. "Approaches and commonalities of suicide". Suicide and its prevention.
- 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
- Interview with Nadine Strossen, David Shankbone, Wikinews, October 30, 2007.
- Goldstein, Jacob (March 5, 2009). "Washington's Physician-Assisted Suicide Law Takes Effect". The Wall Street Journal.
- See California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, for example.