14 MARCH 1958, Page 5

Suicide and the Law

By KENNETH ROBINSON, MP THERE is a touch of irony about the fact that, at a time when our chief preoccupation is the chances of mass-suicide, the law concerning individual suicide is beginning to claim public attention. England is almost the last country to regard suicide, and thereby attempted suicide, as a crime, a distinction we share with certain States in the US. Scotland has never taken this view, nor does any European country.

The punishment by law of attempted suicide came about in England almost by accident. Suicide is a common-law offence and, being a form of culpable homicide, a felony. Just over a century ago it was argued, by what Dr. Glan- ville Williams describes as 'a judicial syllogism, that since suicide was a crime, an attempt to commit suicide was a misdemeanour and punish- able at law. Thus, without any decision of Parliament, attempted suicide became an indict- able offence. As such it had to be tried before a jury until the Magistrates Act of 1933 empowered magistrates' courts to try the offence summarily with the accused's consent. Nearly all casts today are dealt with summarily.

Roughly 5,000 persons commit suicide every year in England and Wales. About two-thirds of them are men and the same proportion are over fifty years of age. The pattern of attempted suicide is different. The number of cases known to the police is only slightly larger, but they are equally distributed over the age-groups of the adult population and between the sexes. The actual number of attempted suicides is far larger than the official figures, perhaps six or seven times as great, the explanation being that few doctors would regard it as consistent with their ethical code to report their patients to the police. Casualty departments of hospitals take a similar view.

The unpredictable element in the law becomes apparent when we examine the fate of those who do come to the notice of authority. Practice varies widely from area to area. In some the police never prosecute; in others they seem to prosecute almost as a matter of course. Altogether about one case in eight finds its way to the courts. The basis on which the police select cases for prosecution is difficult to conceive and impossible to determine. Most courts, though not all, deal compassionately with the man or woman whom despair has driven to seek escape from life. Of the 600 or so cases tried every year well over half are placed on probation and about a quarter granted an absolute or conditional discharge. Some forty persons are sent to prison ever year, the average term being just under four months, and three or four, for some inexplicable reason, are fined. Nearly all the 600 are found guilty and thereby possess a criminal record.

Why does society demand this curious form of retribution, exacted only in a minority of cases chosen more or less at random?

No one suggests that the threat of imprison- ment any deterrent to suicide. If suicide were a rational act the removal of a penalty might even lessen the determination to succeed in the act. What sometimes happens today is that fear of imprisonment leads people to pretend to their doctor that the suicide attempt was an accident, thus making medical treatment almost impossible. One argument in favour, of the existing law is that it can be used to force the unwilling offender to undergo psychiatric treatment by making this a condition of probation. But who should decide which cases need treatment and whether as an in-patient or an out-patient? Neither the police nor the magistrate is qualified to judge, and most psychiatrists insist that treatment imposed on such offenders by the courts is unlikely to be success- ful. Carefully handled by a doctor, most at- tempted suicides are willing to accept psychiatric treatment.

The present law, as the Home Secretary pointed out recently, has its roots in deeply held religious belief. The Churches, to a greater or lesser degree, regard suicide as a sin, but that alone cannot make it a crime under the civil law. A few weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury drew the distinction, in another context, between a sin and a crime. Many people untroubled by theological considerations believe that man has an inherent right to take his own life if that life has become an intolerable burden. The case for reform does not, however, rest upon this argu- ment. The basic question is whether the State is entitled to concern itself with such acts.

Those who commit or try to commit suicide are mainly persons who have broken down under sudden emotional stress, who are suffering from an .acute depression-state or in whom prolonged strain has destroyed the will to live. Almost all can be classified as mentally sick. A few kill them- selves with calm deliberation to avoid the worst ravages of incurable disease. When a man is driven to the lengths of trying to take his life, and fails, what good can it do to anyone to keep him, in custody awaiting trial, to bring him before the courts and perhaps send him to prison for three or six months? While the great majority of magistrates and judges handle these 'cases with sympathy and understanding, a few take a different view of their responsibilities to society.

Medical opinion is strongly in favour of re- moving suicide and attempted suicide from the ambit of the criminal law. A committee of the British Medical Association set up to examine the subject recommended such a reform twelve years ago. Many lawyers have long taken the same view. Among the wider public the topic has in the past attracted little attention. Now that it has been raised in the press and in Parliament the response has been surprising. Opposition to reform is negligible. The Churches have raised no objection. The general feeling seems to be that it is time England caught up with the rest of the civilised world.