HC Deb 30 July 1924 vol 176 cc2068-71
Brigadier-General SPEARS

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to suicide. I ask the special indulgence of the House in moving for leave to introduce a Bill concerning a subject with which I am so thoroughly unfamiliar as the law. My excuse for venturing on the perilous undertaking of trespassing within the legal maze is that I have long felt that something ought to be done to amend the law in regard to what is known as the "suicide pact," and I feel certain that the majority of the House will be in sympathy with the object of the Bill. The law of this country at present is that, if two people determine to commit suicide together, and the bargain is acted upon, and if one of those people should survive, then the survivor is held to be guilty of murder. To the beet of my knowledge, and I have made the most thorough inquiry that I could, in no other civilised country are people actually convicted of murder in such a case. In fact, attempted suicide itself is not considered, in most countries, to be a crime punishable by law, the general opinion being that expressed in the Code of the State of New York, which states that, although suicide is deemed to be a grave public wrong, yet, from the impossibility of reaching the successful perpetrator, no forfeiture is imposed.

I should have liked to deal with the question of attempted suicide, but I have left it entirely out of this Bill. I have left it out in order to avoid any controversy whatsoever, in the hope of securing a First Reading for the Bill without a Division. I believe that most people in this country resent the inhumanity of the law as at present applied to the survivor in a "suicide pact," and I will give a single example of what I mean. At the end of 1922, a man named Symonds and a girl named Wall decided to commit suicide by throwing themselves under n train. At the last moment Symonds changed his mind, and attempted to save the girl. He was unable to do so, and she was killed, and in his endeavours to save her both his legs were so badly injured that they had to be amputated. Symonds was tried for murder and was found guilty and condemned to death, and leave to appeal was refused, as the Court of Criminal Appeal held that the law on this subject was perfectly clear, and that the Judge has made no mistake when ho directed the jury that the survivor in a "suicide pact" was guilty of murder. The Lord Chief Justice, in delivering judgment, said that if the law required amending, it was not a matter for the Courts, but was a matter for the Legislature. I understand that Symonds was respited by the Home Secretary and is now in prison, but that the duration of his sentence has not yet been determined.

It is for this House to decide whether we are going to adhere to this cruel law, which leaves us so far behind other nations. If an individual in this country attempts to commit suicide, he is not held to be guilty of any very serious crime, and the main idea of magistrates in dealing with him appears to be to see that the attempt shall not be repeated; but where two people determine to commit suicide together, which generally means a sadder story, then, although the, survivor is obviously in a far worse plight than is the single individual who has merely attempted to commit suicide, yet, owing to our anomalous law, he is regarded as a murderer. At the beginning of this month a woman named West, 22 years old, was found in a room with a man, with the gas turned on. The man was dead; but she recovered, and she only escaped being tried for murder owing to the fact that a letter which was found in the room was in the man's handwriting, and was held not to be evidence against her at law. She, therefore, only escaped being tried for murder through a legal quibble.

The Bill which I ask leave to introduce is a very short and simple one, and is in the following words: A person who incites another person to commit suicide, or agrees with another person that both shall commit suicide, shall not, even if that other person, upon such incitement or agreement, does commit suicide, be deemed on that account to be guilty of wilful murder, but shall, whether or not such incitement or agreement is acted upon, be guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof be liable to penal servitude for a term not exceeding five years. Of course, I do not pretend that this is a final form of words, and if and when the Bill goes to a Committee we shall be glad to consider any Amendment that will make its intention more clear. Although, in my opinion, the survivor in the case of a "suicide pact" ought not to be held guilty of a crime that the law can punish, it will nevertheless be seen that I have included a severe penalty which may be inflicted, and my main reason for so doing has been to secure the passage of the Bill without opposition. I hope that the House will give me leave to bring in this Bill, and so will justify me in having thus ventured within the realms of the law, which I am myself totally incapable of understanding; and that the House will accept, as my only excuse for having done so, my intense desire that we in this country should not remain so far behind other countries in showing mercy to these unhappy people who appear to me to be, perhaps, the most unhappy of all—people who, having felt that life was too much for them, find that, after all, they are compelled to face it, and this time to face it alone.

Major-General SEELY

I hope the House will not give a First Reading to my hon. and gallant Friend's Bill. People who enter into "suicide pacts" ought to go through with the job, and, if one of them dies and the other survives, he deserves his fate at the hands of the law I cannot help thinking that this applies to all forms of suicide. political and other.

Question, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to suicide," put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Brigadier-General Spears, Viscountess Astor, Mrs. Wintringbam, Lieut.-Colonel Rudkin, Mr. Maxton, Mr. Ramage, Captain Berkeley, Mr. Wallhead, Lieut.-Colonel James, Mr. Lansbury, and Sir Douglas Newton.

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