Suicide has historically been treated as a criminal matter in many parts of the world. While it's technically true that a person who has successfully committed suicide is in some respects beyond the reach of the law, there could still be legal consequences in the cases of treatment of the corpse, or fate of the person's property. 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, to take their own life, or, in some jurisdictions, to even 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 to attempt or commit suicide, and the law explicitly allows any person to use "such force as may reasonably be necessary" to prevent another from committing suicide.
England & Wales
Suicide (and thus also attempted suicide) was illegal under English Law, known as Felo de se, but ceased to be an offence with the passing of the Suicide Act 1961; the same Act makes it an offence to assist a suicide. While the simple act of suicide is lawful 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 wish eventually to commit assisted suicide, if her illness progresses.) As a result, this law is expected to be revised.
In India, attempted suicide is an offence 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 cannot be construed to include within it the ‘right to die’ as a part of the fundamental right guaranteed therein, and therefore, it cannot be said that section 309 is violative of Article 21.
Attempted suicide is not a criminal offence in Ireland. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal however. Under Irish law self-harm is not generally seen as a form of attempted suicide.
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.)
In Russia, 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)
Suicide is not an offence under Scots Law. However the offence attempting suicide is a Breach of the Peace. There was no legislation in England and Wales until 1961 when the Suicide Act was passed. A person who assists a suicide might be charged with murder, culpable homicide or no offence at all depending upon the facts of each case.
In Singapore, a person attempting to commit suicide can be imprisoned for up to one year.
Historically, various states listed the act as a felony, but all were reluctant to enforce it. By 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a crime (North and South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma, which repealed its law in 1976). By the early 1990s only two US 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 Wackwitz v. Roy in 1992.) As a common law crime, suicide can bar recovery for the family of the suicidal person 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, not voluntary, act of the victim in order for the family to be awarded money 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 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 became legal in Washington state 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 can prescribe a lethal dose but cannot administer it.
In many jurisdictions medical facilities are empowered or required to commit anyone whom they believe to be suicidal for evaluation and treatment. See Code 5150 for example.
- Plato. Laws, Book IX
- Durkheim, Émile (1897). Suicide. New York: The Free Press (reprint, 1997), 327. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.
- House of Lords Judgment - Commissioners of Police for the Metropolis v. Reeves
- 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.