Suicide has been a crime in some parts of the world. However, while suicide has been decriminalized in some western societies, the act is still stigmatized 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.
- 1 History
- 2 Assisted suicide
- 3 Laws in individual jurisdictions
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
In ancient Athens, a person who had died by 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.
Even in modern times, legal penalties for the act of 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. Also, it is a crime to counsel, incite, or aid and abet another in attempting to suicide, and the law explicitly allows any person to use "such force as may reasonably be necessary" to prevent another from dying by suicide.
The common law crimes of attempting suicide and of assisting suicide were codified in Canada when Parliament enacted the Criminal Code in 1892. Eighty years later, in 1972, Parliament repealed the offence of attempting suicide from the Criminal Code based on the argument that a legal deterrent was unnecessary. The prohibition on assisting suicide remained, as s 241 of the Criminal Code:
- 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.
However, 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.
In 1993, the offence of assisted suicide survived a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General). The plaintiff, Sue Rodriguez, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in early 1991. She wished to be able to commit suicide at a time of her own choosing, but would require assistance to do so, because her physical condition prevented her from doing so without assistance. By a 5-4 majority, the Court held that the prohibition on assisted suicide did not infringe s 7 of the Canadian Charter of RIghts and Freedoms, which provides constitutional protection for liberty and security of the person. The majority held that while the law did affect those rights, it did so in a manner consistent with the principles of fundamental justice. The majority also held that the prohibition on assisted suicide did not infringe the Charter's prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. Assuming the prohibition did discriminate on basis of disability, the majority held that the infringement was a justifiable restriction.
In 1995 the Senate issued a report on assisted suicide entitled Of Life and Death. In 2011 the Royal Society of Canada published its report on end-of-life decision-making. In the report it recommended that the Criminal Code be modified so as to permit assistance in dying under some circumstances. 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. That report resulted in An Act respecting end-of-life care, which is set to come into force on December 10, 2015.
On June 15, 2012, in Carter v Canada (AG), the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the criminal offence prohibiting physician assistance of suicide was unconstitutional on the grounds that denying people access to assisted suicide in hard cases was contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee of equality under Section 15. This decision was subsequently overturned by the majority of the British Columbia Court of Appeal (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 landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on February 6, 2015 overturned the 1993 Rodriguez decision that had ruled against this method of dying. The unanimous decision in the further appeal of Carter v Canada (AG), stated that a total prohibition of physician-assisted death is unconstitutional. The court’s ruling limits exculpation of physicians engaging physician-assisted death to hard cases of “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and 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 ruling was suspended for 12 months to allow the Canadian parliament to draft a new, constitutional law to replace the existing one.
Specifically the Supreme 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 court decision includes a requirement that there must be stringent limits that are “scrupulously monitored.” This will require the death certificate to be completed by an independent medical examiner, not the treating physician, to ensure the accuracy of reporting the cause of death.
The newly (November 2015) elected federal government subsequently requested a six-month extension for implementation; the arguments for this request were scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in January 2016.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) reported that not all doctors would be willing to help a patient die. The belief in late 2015 was that no physician would be forced to do so. The CMA was already offering educational sessions to members as to the process that would be used after the legislation had been implemented.
In India, suicide is illegal and a survivor could face a jail term of up to one year and a fine under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. The Government of India has announced in 2014 its decision to repeal the law.
The act of suicide has not been criminalized in the penal law of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, no one is allowed to ask other to kill him/her. In addition, threatening to kill oneself is not an offense by the law, however, if this act of threatening is done by a prisoner in a prison, then that would be considered as violation of the prisons' regulations and the offender may be punished according to penal law.
According to the Act. 836 of the civil law of the Islamic Republic of Iran if a suicidal person prepares for suicide and writes a testament, if he/she dies, then by law the will is considered void and if he/she doesn't die, then the will is officially accepted and can be carried out.
According to the theory of "borrowed crime", because suicide itself is not a crime in penal law, thus any type of assisting in an individual's suicide is not considered a crime and the assistant is not punished. Assisting in suicide is considered a crime only when it becomes the "cause" of the suicidal person's death; for example when someone takes advantage of someone else's unawareness or simplicity and convince him/her to kill him/herself. In such cases assisting in suicide is treated as murder and the offender is punished accordingly. In addition, assisting in suicide is considered a crime under section 2 of the Act. 15 of the cyber crimes law of the Islamic Republic of Iran which was legislated on June 15, 2009. According to the mentioned act, any type of encouragement, stimulation, invitation, simplification of access to lethal substances and/or methods and teaching of suicide with the help of computer or any other media network is considered assisting in suicide and thus, is punished by imprisonment from 91 days up to 1 year or fines from 5 to 20 million Iranian Rials or both.
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, illegal. This is currently being challenged at the High Court, as of December 2012. As of 2014 assisted suicide remains illegal in Ireland.
Under section 309 of the Penal Code of Malaysia, whoever attempts to commit suicide, and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.
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 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.
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.
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. See also: Dumb Ways to Die#Censorship in Russia.
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 had no 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 a 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 of a medication but may not administer it.
In California, medical facilities are empowered or required to commit anyone whom they believe to be suicidal for evaluation and treatment.
- 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).
- B. Steinbock (2005). "The case for physician assisted suicide: not (yet) proven". Journal of Medical Ethics 31: 235–241. doi:10.1136/jme.2003.005801.
- Plato. Laws, Book IX
- Durkheim, Émile (1897). Suicide. New York: The Free Press (reprint, 1997), 327. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.
- Also called the Felo de se Act 1823, the Interments (felo de se) Act 1823, the Burials (Felo de se) Act 1823, and the Suicide Act 1823.
- James Fitzjames Stephen (2014). A History of the Criminal Law of England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108060745.
- Criminal Code,1892, SC 1892, c 29, ss 237, 238.
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- Euthanasia, Aiding Suicide and Cessation of Treatment, Report # 20, 1983. Law Reform Commission of Canada
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- An Act respecting end-of-life care, SQ 2014, c 2, s 78; CQLR, c. S-32.0001.
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- "Govt decides to repeal Section 309 from IPC; attempt to suicide no longer a crime". Zee News. December 10, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
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- 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.
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- See California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, for example.