|The Suicide Act 1961|
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Long title:||An Act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to suicide, and for purposes connected therewith.|
|Statute book chapter:||9 & 10 Eliz.2 c.60|
|Royal Assent:||3 August 1961|
|Status: Current legislation|
The Suicide Act 1961 (9 & 10 Eliz.2 c.60) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It decriminalised the act of suicide so that those who failed in the attempt would no longer be prosecuted.
Suicide may be defined as the act of intentionally ending one's own life. Prior to the Suicide Act 1961 it was a crime to commit suicide and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded also could potentially be prosecuted. In part, that reflected religious and moral objections to suicide as self-murder. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had formulated the view that whoever deliberately took away the life given to them by their Creator showed the utmost disregard for the will and authority of God and jeopardised their salvation, encouraging the Church to treat suicide as a sin.
The Suicide Act was, however, a significant piece of legislation for, while section 1 treated the rule of law that suicide is a crime as "abrogated", section 2(1) stated:
- A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or attempt by another to commit suicide shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years".
This created a new offence of 'complicity in suicide', but the effect is unparalleled in this branch of the law because there is no other instance in which an accessory can incur liability when the principal does not commit a criminal offence. The situation with a conspiracy to assist a suicide is likewise unique: if an individual incapable of committing suicide for him or herself enlists the aid of an outside party in performing the act, that party may be charged with conspiracy. The wording of s1(1) Criminal Law Act 1977 provides that a conspiracy will come into being if, when everything has been done to realise the agreement, some conduct:
- (a) will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement...
No offence will necessarily be committed by the suicide victim if the agreement is carried out, but the fact that it is legally impossible to commit the crime of suicide is irrelevant under the Criminal Attempts Act 1981.
Human Rights Act 1998
The first human rights challenge to s2(1) was mounted in 2001 under the European Convention on Human Rights in Pretty v Director of Public Prosecutions (2002) 1 AC 800 with the ECHR rejecting the application in Pretty v. UK (2346/02) shortly before her death by natural causes . Diane Pretty was suffering from motor neurone disease and was paralysed from the neck down, had little decipherable speech and was fed by a tube. She had only a few weeks to live, claimed to be frightened and distressed by the suffering and indignity, and wanted her husband to provide her with assistance in ending her life when she felt unable to bear it any longer, although she intended to perform the final act herself. Because giving this assistance would expose the husband to liability under s2(1), the DPP was asked to agree not to prosecute. When this agreement was refused, the case began. Article 2 of the Convention provides:
- 1. Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No-one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
This direct challenge to the legislation sought to assert an individual's right of autonomy against public policies protecting the sanctity of human life. Mrs. Pretty's full capacity for informed, rational consent was not disputed by opposing counsel. In Re B (Adult: Refusal of Medical Treatment) (2002) 2 AER 449 the court had already decided that a patient could refuse treatment knowing that this would result in death. However, the court in this case drew a distinction between passively allowing death through omission and active assistance in suicide, as per R v Brown (1993) 2 All ER 75 (the famous Spanner case), which ruled that a person cannot lawfully consent to anything more than the infliction of minor injury. Thus, the standing adjudication in English common law is that, as dying is an inevitable consequence of life, the right to life under the Convention necessarily implies the right to have nature take its course.
- Smartt, Ursula (2009). "Euthanasia and the Law". Criminal Law & Justice Weekly 173 (7): 100.
- The Suicide Act 1961, as amended, from the Office of Public Sector Information.