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Suicide legislation

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Title: Suicide legislation  
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Subject: List of countries by suicide rate, Suicide, Suicide epidemic, Advocacy of suicide, Honor suicide
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Suicide legislation

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 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.[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]

In 1823 the ‘Burial of Suicide Act’ of 1823 abolished the legal requirements of burying Suicides and other people at crossroads.[5][6]

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.

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

Australia (Victoria)

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] Many private members bills have been unsuccessfully introduced into Parliament over the years.[8]

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.[11][12][13]

In 1995 the Senate issued a report on assisted suicide entitled Of Life and Death.[12] In 2011 the Royal Society of Canada published its report on end-of-life decision-making.[14] In the report it recommended that the Criminal Code be modified so as to permit assistance in dying under some circumstances.[15] 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.[16] That report resulted in An Act respecting end-of-life care, which is set to come into force on December 10, 2015.[15][16][17]

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.[8][18] 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 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.[15]

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."


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.[19][20]


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.[21] 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.


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.[22]


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

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

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.


Suicide or attempted suicide is not illegal in Norway.[23]


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.[24]

Russian Federation

In Russia, a person whose mental disorder “poses a direct (imminent?) danger to themselves” 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.[25][26] 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.[27]

South Africa

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.[28]

United Kingdom

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.[29] 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.[30]

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,[31] 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.[32]


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

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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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."[36] Physician-assisted suicide is legal in some states.[37] 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.[38]

In California, medical facilities are empowered or required to commit anyone whom they believe to be suicidal for evaluation and treatment.[39]

See also


  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. ^
  3. ^ Plato. Laws, Book IX
  4. ^ Durkheim, Émile (1897). Suicide. New York: The Free Press (reprint, 1997), 327. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Criminal Code,1892, SC 1892, c 29, ss 237, 238.
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 241, as amended by RSC 1985, c 27 (1st Supp), s 7.
  10. ^ Euthanasia, Aiding Suicide and Cessation of Treatment, Report # 20, 1983. Law Reform Commission of Canada
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ , [1993] 3 SCR 519.Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General)
  14. ^ Royal Society of Canada:End-of-Life Decision Making. 2011
  15. ^ a b c
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^ , SQ 2014, c 2, s 78An Act respecting end-of-life care; CQLR, c. S-32.0001.
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Singapore Penal Code (Cap 224, Rev Ed 2008), s 309
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ 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
  36. ^ Interview with Nadine Strossen, David Shankbone, Wikinews, October 30, 2007.
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ See California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, for example.

External links

  • Large Europe majorities for assisted suicide: survey
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