HL Deb 02 March 1961 vol 229 cc246-76

4.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, since he came to the Home Office my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been much concerned to bring our criminal law up to date, by modernising, where necessary, those provisions which are still in substance valid, and by removing those which are no longer in keeping with the needs and the outlook of the present day. This Bill is part of that programme of reform. The purpose of the Bill is to provide that it shall no longer be a criminal act, subject to the machinery and sanctions of the criminal law, to commit suicide or to attempt to commit suicide.

I do not think I need to say much about the history of the offence, except, perhaps, to point out the great variations there have been at different periods of history and in different parts of the world in the attitude to those who have taken their own lives. Greek and Roman philosophers regarded suicide as an act which was often praiseworthy. So, in recent times, have the Japanese. Yet I am sure I have no need to remind your Lordships that in this country, only 150 years ago, suicides were buried at crossroads by night with a stake through their hearts, in such horror was their action regarded.

The motives of those who commit suicide, or who attempt to commit suicide, are various. There has been a great deal of research on this subject, with the general conclusions of which I do not need to trouble your Lordships, except to bring out one or two points which I think are relevant to the Bill we are discussing today. However we regard suicide itself, whether as a sin or not, most of us would in general have at least grudging sympathy for the suicide's motives. We may congratulate ourselves that in similar circumstances we should not have done likewise and think that the suicide has taken a coward's way out. But the action of a Captain Oates who gave up his life in the hope that it would save his comrades commands the respect and admiration of us all.

Wherever and however we may place the motives of those who take their own lives in the scale of human values, I think we can agree that they have little or nothing in common with what we should nowadays generally characterise as criminal intent. It is for this reason that it has for some time been widely felt to be inappropriate that we should continue to regard this act as a criminal offence. The suicide has put himself beyond the reach of punishment; the existence of the offence in our criminal law has not proved an effective deterrent to others, as over 5,000 suicides a year are known to the police in England and Wales. And the continuing criminal character of the conduct does nothing but add to the distress and pain of the relatives and friends of the deceased. For these reasons my right honourable friend has concluded that the criminal offence of suicide should be abolished.

My Lords, attempted suicide presents rather different problems. Many cases of suicide are the outcome of intolerable mental stress amounting to mental illness. It is even more true that most cases of attempted suicide flow from some form of mental stress or unbalance. Recent research suggests, for example, that those who attempt suicide are often making an appeal for help, and that the underlying motive, if not the expressed one, may well be to secure a more satisfactory relationship with those around them as a result of their suicidal attempt. Experience shows that happier relationships can, in fact, be established after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. At all events, I think we can agree that, as with suicide itself, attempted suicide also has none of the characteristics of criminal conduct. On the contrary, it is very often a sign that medical and social help is wanted.

For many years now the practice of the police has been to institute criminal proceedings only where there are no relatives or friends willing to give help and accept responsibility, or where the person making the attempt has refused to accept help from those about him. The success of this practice in reducing the number of occasions when a prosecution has been necessary can be seen in the figures. In 1959, there were 4,980 attempts to commit suicide known to the police, but criminal proceedings were brought in only 518 cases. The figures for previous years are similar. Indeed, the only justification for retaining the offence has been that it has provided a means of bringing before the courts, and perhaps helping, those who have made suicidal attempts. It has never been suggested that the retention of the offence has provided any deterrent, nor do the figures bear out such a suggestion.

Besides the 5,000 or so attempts which come to the notice of the police every year, it has been estimated that a I further 25,000 attempts are made and concealed because of the social and criminal stigma attaching to the act. Criminal proceedings are not the best way of dealing with people who are in distress or disturbance of mind, however sympathetic the approach of individual police officers, the courts and all those who come in contact with them. The stigma of having been subject to the criminal law does sometimes cause real harm and distress; and there is not infrequently added the stigma of having been in prison. I have in mind not so much the rare cases in which the court thinks it necessary to pass a sentence of imprisonment, but the much more numerous cases in which the court, very properly, remands the accused in custody to obtain a medical report to assist it in deciding how best to deal with the case. Nor is it right to make use of criminal proceedings when the object is primarily medical or therapeutic. Provided, therefore, that this object can be achieved by other methods, the Home Secretary has concluded that attempts to commit suicide should also cease to be offences against the criminal law.

This view is supported by the considered opinion of those most closely concerned with this problem, from the aspects of ethics and religion, medicine and the administration of justice. No doubt many of your Lordships have already read the booklet on the subject issued by the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility, in which the view is put forward that suicide and attempted suicide should cease to be crimes. And here I would say how glad I am that the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle is with us to-day and is to join our debate. A joint council of the British Medical Association and the Magistrates' Association have come to the same conclusion. My right honourable friend has also had in mind the fact that the law of England and Wales is almost alone in treating suicide and attempted suicide as criminal offences. As your Lordships may be aware, they are not criminal offences under the law of Scotland; and inquiries made recently showed that in the other countries of Western Europe they are regarded as constituting essentially a psychiatric problem which need not, and should not, be brought within the ambit of the criminal law.

The only problem has been the practical one of whether alternative and more appropriate methods are available for providing help where it is needed or has been rejected. I think I can assure your Lordships that this will be the case. Arrangements have been made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Health to ensure that persons who are brought to hospital having attempted suicide are examined by a psychiatrist, who can consider whether treatment or supervision is needed. Under the provisions of Part IV of the Mental Health Act, 1959, it is possible to detain for 28 days' observation a person who appears to be suffering from mental disorder and who ought to be detained for his own health or safety. This short period of compulsory detention can be initiated either by the application of the nearest relative or by that of a mental welfare officer. In these circumstances it has been thought possible and right to introduce this reform in the law, which is effected by Clause 1 of the Bill.

My Lords, one consequence of the fact that suicide and attempted suicide will no longer be criminal offences is that, if nothing more were done, any person who aided or abetted the successful or attempted suicide of another would similarly not be guilty of a criminal offence. The moral culpability of assisting another person to commit suicide varies widely. The assistance may be no more than providing at the earnest entreaty of the sufferer, drugs for a person who is suffering from painful and incurable illness. At the other extreme, the person assisting may have advised and assisted the suicide, from whose death he derives financial advantage. Even when we decide that the motives of a person who seeks to take his own life should no longer be the concern of the criminal law, we cannot say the same of those who are involved in bringing about the death of another. We must therefore ensure that complicity in the attempted or successful suicide of another does not cease to be an offence.

My right honourable friend felt that this was a problem which could most appropriately be considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, of which Lord Justice Sellers is Chairman, and he accordingly referred it to that body. Their Report was published as a White Paper in October last, and it is upon that Report that the present Bill is based. I hope that your Lordships will allow me to pause here for a moment to express my own gratitude to my right honourable friend Lord Justice Sellers, and his colleagues, for the work they have done. The Committee came to the conclusion that the most satisfactory solution to the problem with which we are faced would be to create a completely new offence of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another or an attempt by another to commit suicide.

The arguments on which they based this conclusion are set out in their Report (if your Lordships have not seen it, it is Command Paper 1187) and I shall not rehearse them now. Recognising that the culpability of some who may be convicted of this offence may be very grave, they proposed that the maximum sentence for the offence should be fourteen years' imprisonment. Effect is given to this proposal in the Bill. As your Lordships at once understand, it will of course be open to the courts, in a proper case, to impose a much less severe sentence. For the same reason, that this may be a very serious offence indeed, the Home Secretary has accepted the Criminal Law Revision Committee's recommendation that trial by a court of quarter sessions should be excluded. It is true, as I have already said, that offences under this Bill may be committed in circumstances in which the moral culpability will be very small. It will not be possible to reach that conclusion, however, until all the circumstances have been fully investigated; and we think that where a person is charged with an offence which may involve the death of another, the trial should be before a court of assize. The fact that in any particular instance death may not have resulted does not, we think, affect this conclusion. The requirement that proceedings shall not be instituted except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will ensure that consistency is maintained.

To explain one other provision relating to this new offence, perhaps I may be allowed to say a word about suicide pacts. The circumstances in which these are undertaken may be as various as those in which people commit suicide, or attempt to do so, alone: the motives which lead two, or perhaps more, people to conclude that this tragic course is the only solution to their problems may be no less sincere and their distress may be just as great. A pretended suicide pact may, however, provide a means for an unscrupulous person to rid himself of another with whom he has become entangled or from whose death he hopes to derive advantage, a person who may very likely be younger or more easily influenced, in a way in which he may hope to escape serious punishment, and perhaps even to attract sympathy. I do not think I need elaborate to your Lordships the possible circumstances. Most of us have known of cases of that kind, and experienced the variations which I have mentioned. It is clear that we need to retain adequate sanctions to deal with such an offender in the serious case.

The existing provisions covering the circumstances are contained in subsection (1) of Section 4 of the Homicide Act, 1957. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to quote it: It shall be manslaughter, and shall not be murder, for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other or to he a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third person. May I just repeat the last lines, because they are important for the remaining provisions of this clause: for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other or to be a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third person. Broadly, this provision covers two situations. The first arises where the suicide kills himself in pursuance of a suicide pact. The survivor under the existing law will be guilty of manslaughter. But he will also be guilty of the offence we are creating under this Bill. It is therefore proposed to repeal the words "killing himself or" in subsection 4 (1) of the Homicide Act. This will leave these circumstances to be dealt with by the present Bill.

The other situation arises when the deceased, who is a partner to a suicide pact, dies not by his own hand but at the hand of the survivor or a third party. A clear distinction can be drawn between this situation and what we normally understand by suicide. This situation may have resulted from a genuine suicide pact, in which case the two things will be very similar, though still distinguishable. On the other hand, it may differ from murder only in that the deceased consented to his own death. For this reason it was provided in the Homicide Act that it should be manslaughter. My right honourable friend does not think that the introduction of the new offence in any way alters the considerations which led to the inclusion of the provision I have mentioned in the Homicide Act and, with the exception of the small repeal I have already referred to, he does not propose to interfere with that provision.

This leaves one small difficulty. The police, or whoever it is who comes upon the partners in a suicide pact, may find one of them dead but may succeed in reviving the other. There may be no way of telling which partner, say, turned on the gas tap; or the police may have reason to disbelieve the story of the survivor. The decision may, therefore, be taken to prefer charges under the Homicide Act. At the trial, however, evidence may be adduced, or the survivor may satisfy the jury, that it really was the deceased who was responsible for his own death. In these circumstances the survivor will have committed no offence under the Homicide Act, and the Bill therefore provides that he may in that case be found guilty of the lesser offence created by this Bill.

My Lords, this is a limited measure, but it is one which we hope will secure general support. It will serve to relieve many people from one further cause of distress and anxiety in the circumstances which they already find sufficiently distressing. We hope that only good will flow from it, and we envisage no evil consequences. The Bill is supported by religious opinion, the medical profession and magistrates. I hope that I have now said enough to commend it also to your Lordships. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be most grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for the way in which he has introduced this most humane measure. I am not sure about the legal effect of enacting that suicide will cease to be a crime. I do not know whether the fact that a person commits suicide leads to certain consequences in law as regards his estate, or in any other way. Nor do I appreciate from the Bill itself that it is intended to cover also attempted suicide. That, however, is a Committee point, and perhaps I can deal with it at a later stage.

Suicide is at present an offence; it constitutes an approach, a distinct moral approach, to life. We are at the moment taking the view, until this Act is passed, that the community has a responsibility to preserve the life of a person who wants to end it. As recently as 1957, in the Homicide Act, we actually legislated on that assumption; but to-day that assumption is going. We are taking the view that it is no longer the business of the community to preserve the life of a person who wants to end his life. Whether or not suicide is a sin is a matter which is not for this House, but in the future it will certainly not be an offence.

It may be that this change in outlook has been influenced by the very fine pamphlet which has been issued by the Churches and which I have had the pleasure of reading. It may be that we really do hold life less sacredly to-day, in view of the fact that we are devising weapons which can destroy half the population of a whole nation, some of whom may have no particular blame for anything for which the weapons are being discharged. At any rate, we are making a very definite departure from what has been hitherto our approach to human life.

I think we ought to appreciate exactly what we are doing. I commend it. I feel that if a person wants to end his life it is no part of the business of the State to prevent him, still less to punish him for having failed in his attempt. But I think it right, while we are discussing this question, that we should examine the underlying motives of people who commit suicide. The noble and learned Viscount told us that there are, roughly, 5,000 persons who commit suicide in a year. That number has been increasing, not only in this country but in many other countries. It is rather strange that in countries where the standard of living, the material standard of living, is higher, it is increasing more rapidly than here. The suicide rate in the United States, and in Sweden, is substantially higher than it is in this country, although their standard of living is high. I should say, offhand, that the probability that suicide is caused by material reasons, material sufferings, has been greatly reduced in recent years, even though the number of suicides is increasing.

Clearly, a person who commits suicide is finding life unbearable for a variety of reasons. I think the most common cause may well be that a person is suffering unbearable pain and at the same time, suffering from an incurable illness. That clearly gives rise to the question, which I know is not before the House at this moment, as to how far it is blameworthy on the part of someone who is near and dear to this kind of person, and who witnesses the sufferings and is asked to aid and abet in the killing, and who actually takes part in the killing, and as to how far he is to be punished for having done so. But that, again, is a matter which I hope to raise at a later stage. There is such a thing as mercy killing; there are many advocates of that, and there are people who would place in the hands of the medical profession the right to kill a patient, at his or her request, in certain circumstances. I myself should probably agree with the doctors that their business is to preserve life and not to end it. But it is, to a certain extent, evading the question to say that in cases where the doctor knows that the consequence of what he is doing is that the person who is suffering so grievously will in any case end his life if he possibly can.

There is the question of mental stress, which the noble and learned Viscount touched on. I should like to tell the House of my own experience of this kind of thing, which I am sure has given rise to a great many cases of suicide, and to see whether there is anything that can be done. I think that here the Churches have a very great part to play. For many years of my life I was what is described as a "Poor Man's Lawyer"; that is to say, I used to go out to various parts of London, and people came to me to tell me their troubles—they were not necessarily legal troubles. I think that for a long time the majority were housing difficulties, which were very, very oppressive to the people concerned. But what I found to a great extent was that people had their difficulties of all kinds and really wanted a sympathetic listener, not necessarily to advise them but to listen to their troubles. It always seemed to me so pathetic that that should be a need of anybody in this country; that people should not be able to find a sympathetic audience anywhere but should have to come to a complete stranger, under the guise of seeking legal advice.

Here, I feel, is a place for the Churches, in particular. It does not matter whether the person concerned is a member of their particular faith or of any faith at all. I think the members of the clergy have a special opportunity and a special gift for listening to people's troubles and, if they need advice, advising them. The awful thing was that in so many cases that I came across these troubles, these so-called troubles, were trifling. A word of advice, even a word making these people feel that they were not alone in this kind of trouble, and that so many of us went through the same thing, would help. A favourite gambit of mine was to tell them, "Well, I have the same thing myself". In many cases that was a tremendous comfort. But I feel that many of the cases one saw during the years (I was not able to keep continuous contact with these people) or at any rate a number of them, must have ended in suicide. That struck me as the state they had reached. These people could be saved if, somehow, we could provide a more sympathetic contact, and better opportunities for people to talk over their troubles, or at least somebody to listen to them. This Bill is a step in the right direction. I hope that we shall not be content with a situation in which we have an increasing number of suicides every year, and that, with 25,000 attempts every year, we really shall try to do something to prevent this, whatever the causes may be.

Finally, there is one legal point to which I should like to refer. The noble and learned Viscount has mentioned Section 4 of the Homicide Act, under which it is manslaughter for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other, or to be a party to the other being killed by a third person. I take it that that is intended to deal with cases where, genuinely, two people decided to commit suicide and one of them (to quote the example given by the noble and learned Viscount) turns on the tap. The penalty under Section 4(1), I believe I am right in saying, may be imprisonment for life. I must confess that I find it a little difficult to distinguish between that kind of offence, where people are genuinely deciding to end their lives, which the noble and learned Viscount tells us under this Bill is no longer to be regarded as a crime, and those cases where a person aids and abets which also are referred to in the Bill itself. The aider and abettor is to be liable to a charge of manslaughter and to a term of imprisonment not exceeding fourteen years. The other person, whose culpability, in my view, is not necessarily any greater (I think the noble and learned Viscount attempted to draw a distinction, but I myself do not see the distinction very clearly, certainly in cases of a suicide pact), may be liable to imprisonment for life. Anyway, I think that, in either case fourteen years is too severe. But these are Committee points, and I hope we shall have an opportunity of coming back to them.

I welcome this Bill, and I think that everyone in this House will. We may have something to say at a later stage upon it. But I hope—and I want to emphasise this—that neither the Government nor the Churches, nor, indeed, any one who has any influence in these matters, will be content with merely recording the number of suicides and the number of attempts, and with making the legal consequences less stringent. I hope they will all do everything they possibly can to reduce the number of these suicides and attempts—and, incidentally, of course, to reduce the terrible sufferings that must exist for a long period before these people attempt to commit suicide.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by joining in the thanks to the noble and learned Viscount for the way in which he has presented this Bill, and, if I may also be allowed a personal word, by expressing my appreciation of the welcome that your Lordships so kindly gave to me in coming here to speak. I have nothing more than my own small contribution to make, and I make it in the way in which Members of this House offer what they can to a discussion. But it is indeed encouraging to be assured of a welcome, and always to be certain of a courteous hearing.

It is, indeed, a very solemn problem with which we are dealing. Your Lordships have heard the figures, giving the number of people who committed suicide in the year 1959–60 and the number who were unsuccessful in their attempts. We could probably say that to-day there are upwards of 30,000 men and women who have attempted suicide and have failed. As we think of those 30,000 people, distraught in mind and soul, there is only one decent response in the heart of any man or woman, and that is the response of compassion; and I have come here to support this Bill in general because I believe it is motivated by compassion. But compassion is not enough. Society has a basic duty to protect life, and many of our laws are designed for that one purpose. In passing, I would just say that I do not find myself able to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his statement which, unless I misunderstood seemed to say that a person had an inherent right to take his own life, and that society had not the right to prevent it. That I would question; but I do not want to go into it at this stage. I believe that society has a basic duty to protect life; and, therefore, society must take account of suicide in terms of law as well as in terms of compassion—compassion and law.

The problem which this Bill seeks to solve is to frame a law which aims at doing three things: ministering compassion, protecting society and upholding the sanctity of human life. Those three objects need to be kept clearly in mind. In my judgment, the Bill secures the first object—that is, compassion—by taking suicide out of the criminal list, and I shall be very glad indeed to support that clause. It is right, and I believe that it should be so dealt with. In Clause 2, the Bill attempts to secure what I referred to as the second and third objects—the protection of society and the upholding of the sanctity of life. Clause 2 makes it a crime to encourage or assist or tempt anyone to take his own life. It is concerned with the protection of life in society.

Now while Clause 2 helps to protect society, I am not satisfied that it is sufficiently strong to uphold the sanctity of life, and it is on this point that I want to concentrate. I want to be assured that in this Bill there is something of law that secures and makes very clear to everyone the sanctity of human life. To abrogate the rule of law whereby suicide is a crime is right; but in doing so there must, in my judgment, be enough left in the law to convey to everyone that to take life, one's own life, is literally a dreadful thing, contrary to natural instinct and contrary to natural law. I am satisfied, as I say, that Clause 2 is strong enough to show how dreadful it is to assist in helping another to take his life—it does that; it prescribes the penalty—but I submit that it is not strong enough to show how dreadful and how contrary to nature it is to take one's own life.

In proceeding with this Bill, we have to think of how it will be interpreted, not by those who are experts in the law or by those whose minds are trained to think in very exact terms; we have to think- of how a change in the law will be interpreted in the setting of society as it is, of society in general. It may be a surprise to many of your Lordships to hear me say this, but I believe it is true, that a large proportion of people regard what is lawful as permissible and therefore right, and what is unlawful as for-bidden and therefore wrong. We may lament that they should make legal distinctions coincide with moral distinctions, but it is understandable that many people just take that as the normal way of looking at things. If I were persuaded that this Bill contained a strong enough witness to the sanctity of life, I would wholeheartedly support it, and I want to support it. At the moment I am not so persuaded. I hope it will not be regarded as an impertinence—it is not meant to be—if I say that I am not even satisfied with this report produced by a Committee of my own Church, because I feel that there is not strong enough witness borne in it to what I call the sacredness of every human life. I want the Bill amended to make it crystal clear that suicide, even when legally permissible, is still a dreadful offence against nature.

I know it is a difficult subject, and I have only an amateurish knowledge of natural law, but I cannot help but think that natural law would determine the taking of one's life as unlawful. I want this law carried out in such a way that the person who attempts suicide unsuccessfully is not punished for the attempt. I do not want punishment brought in at all; it is not appropriate. I want to see some notice taken of the unfortunate person who attempts suicide and fails, and that he or she is given medical treatment. If that provision were in the Bill, the law would be administering not punishment but compassion, through medical treatment. At the same time, it would be seen that the law took cognisance of an attempt to commit suicide, and thus would be a dissuasion against suicide which all can understand. As the Bill stands at present, it seems to me that, if enacted, this law would take no notice at all of an unsuccessful attempt at suicide unless such attempt had been prompted or assisted by another person.

I did not know that the noble Viscount was going to make reference to the Mental Health Act, but I was going to make one or two remarks about it. The Mental Health Act seems to me to indicate a way through this difficulty of taking punishment away and putting in its place treatment, of substituting compassion for penalty. As I understand the Mental Health Act, people who suffer from mental illness need not seek medical advice; but if they become really difficult, then it is possible for the law to intervene and to give to two doctors the right to ask a magistrate for compulsory power to treat that patient. I think I am right in that interpretation. There is in the Mental Health Act compulsory power to treat a patient who does not seek treatment of his own freedom. If a person attempts to commit suicide and fails, I should like to see some similar kind of provision. The noble Viscount indicated that if a person who attempted suicide were brought by a relative to a hospital to receive treatment, that would be all right; but if he refused to go, I do not know of any power which could insist on that person's taking the treatment which the very act of attempting suicide clearly indicates he needs. I should like to ask that that point be looked at very carefully so that some provision may be made for such a case.

I should like to refer once again to the statement which I understood the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to make. First of all, he claimed that society really had no right to stop a person who wanted to take his own life. That I would not accept. Then he went on to say—


My Lords, I have allowed the right reverend Prelate to say that once without interrupting, but this is the second time. What I tried to say was that this seamed to me to be the conception of the Bill. Seeing that it was no longer to be a crime, and that society was not required to take note of suicide or attempted suicide, it appeared to me that we were no longer regarding it as the business of society to preserve life.


My Lords, I am glad to have that explanation and I fully withdraw all I have said. If I have misrepresented the noble Lord in any way, I apologise for it. I was going on to say that later the noble Lord said something Which appealed very much to me. He said that he had found in his experience many people who were so distraught that they were in danger of trying to commit suicide. What they needed was someone to talk to and with Whom to share their troubles and their lives. With that I am in full agreement, and I should like to see some provision like that embedded in this law, so that there was a statutory body, not a court of law but some authorised person, to whom such a sick person Who had attempted suicide and failed might go, or might be compelled to go. In that way he would receive treatment and compassion of the kind we should seek to administer.

To sum up, I want to support the Bill because I want compassion, not punishment, administered to the person who tries to commit suicide but fails. I want this done in such a way that the law will still clearly proclaim the sacredness of human life. I want the law to be clearly dissuasive against the unnatural act of taking one's own life. I am not versed sufficiently in the law to be able to form an Amendment, but I hope that if the point I have been trying to make is regarded as sufficiently serious, then a real effort will be made to do this, and I feel sure that I shall receive all the help of noble Lords versed in the law to formulate such an Amendment. It may be very difficult, but I sometimes think that all things are possible with lawyers. We are legislating for people who will be distraught in mind and soul and looking into the gate of death. We are dealing with a basic sanctity, the sanctity of human life. I believe that the preservation of that sanctity is basic for the wellbeing of any society. I believe that it needs to be preserved at all costs, and so my submission to your Lordships is a solemn one. I want to do everything possible through the law and at the same time to guard that view of life which regards life as a mystery, a wonderful and sacred thing which has been given to man by other than himself.


My Lords, may I ask the right reverend Prelate a question before he sits down? I have endeavoured to follow his argument and was impressed by the fact that, in the opening passages of his speech, he said that it was dreadfully wrong to do something that was against nature. The suicide is indeed resisting the strongest instinct, the instinct of self-preservation. Would the right reverend Prelate follow that up and say that it is wrong to resist natural instincts?


My Lords, I would say that I cannot accept that a man has the right to take his own life; that that is contrary to a basic thing in nature that is even deeper than normal instincts and that is at the very root of life itself. There cannot be anything for man if he acts contrary to life and imposes his own death.

5.3 p.m.


My Lords, if your Lordships approve this Bill, it will end a most interesting chapter of our English law, because for nearly a thousand years suicide has been regarded as the most heinous of felonies—the felony of self-murder. In consequence attempted suicide was a crime, a suicide pact was murder, and helping another to commit suicide was also murder. I say "for nearly a thousand years", because it was King Edgar, nearly one thousand years ago, who decreed that it was a crime for a man to take his own life, denied him burial rights and laid down that all his Goods were to be forfeited.

The reason for that law was stated by Blackstone to be founded, as it was, on our religion. The law of England, he said, wisely and religiously decreed that no man had power to destroy life except by commission by God, the author of it. He said that it was twofold; that one was spiritual. He said that to commit suicide was invading the prerogative of the Almighty, by rushing into His presence uncalled for. The other was temporal, against the King, because the King had an interest in the preservation of all his subjects. Those being the reasons for the law, the punishment which we inflicted for hundreds of years was twofold. First, on the corpse we inflicted ignominious burial. The suicide was buried at a cross-roads with a stake through his body and a stone on his face. Indeed, that continued until 1824, and the last suicide who was buried at the cross-roads was at Grosvenor Place. Even after that, until 1882, a suicide had to be buried by night; and ever since 1882 up to this day, according to the law of the Church of England, a suicide is not entitled to Christian burial. You will remember the gravediggers' scene in Hamlet and how Shakespeare puts into the mouth of the gravedigger these words: Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation? It never has been so. I expect that now that suicide is to be no longer a crime and I am glad to say it—a suicide will be permitted by Ecclesiastical Law a Christian burial, maybe with an alternative form of service recommended. That would be a final end to the law of dishonour in the courts. That was one angle of the punishment.

The other angle was to forfeit the goods, lands or leases of a suicide to the King. The great case, on which Shakespeare founded the scene of Ophelia, was the case in which Sir James Hale threw himself into the river at Canterbury, and the question was whether his widow would be entitled to his lease of the Graveney Marshes on his death. The Judges held that the widow was not entitled, and it went to the Crown. That forfeiture existed until 1870, when we abolished it. But there is one form of forfeiture which exists to this day and which I hope this Bill, when passed, will do away with—monies on insurance policies.

I should like to give your Lordships a concrete case in which I was con- cerned some 20 years ago, the case of a Major Rowlandson. He owed some £40,000 to his creditors but he had £80,000 on life assurance policies, which said that they were payable even if he died by his own hands, sane or insane, after the first year. They were due to expire at three o'clock on a summer afternoon and he had not got the money to renew the premiums. At quarter past two, he went to his solicitor in Chancery Lane and saw him, came out at quarter to three, hailed a taxicab and said to the driver, "Drive me to my flat in Albemarle Street and as you pass St. James's Palace clock, look at the time and note it." The taxi driver did so. It was three minutes to three. The cab was going up St. James's Street when the driver heard a shot and got out of his cab. There was Major Rowlandson, dead, at one minute to three, just in time, you might think, for the insurance policy monies to be payable. But the insurance company refused to pay. I happened to be led in the case by Sir William Jowitt, who tried to persuade the jury that Major Rowlandson was of unsound mind, but the Judge directed the jury that he was doing the act of a gallant English gentleman, killing himself for the sake of his creditors. The jury found him of sound mind, and although we appealed on the law right up to this House, it was held in your Lordships' House, sitting judicially, that no man could take a benefit from a crime, and suicide was the most heinous crime known to the law. So the policy monies were not recoverable, and the premiums were not recoverable, because suicide is a crime by English law.

It is different in Scotland, next door, where it has never been a crime; it is different in South Africa, where it is not a crime. But in most other parts of the Commonwealth it still is a crime and still will be, by law, if this Bill passes. The consequence is that policies are not payable and insurance companies can repudiate their liabilities contracted to pay on death. One of the benefits of this Bill when it passes is that suicide will no longer be a crime and insurance companies will have to honour their liabilities on their policies; all forfeitures will be gone; all dishonouring of the corpse will be gone.

What about attempted suicide? Suicide was a crime, and attempting to commit suicide was also a crime. If suicide ceases to be a crime now, attempted suicide will cease to be a crime; and one is very glad of that. I have had cases of attempted suicide before me, and what one always did was to bind them over and arrange for medical treatment. But now, since the Mental Health Act, 1959, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, it is unnecessary for any action to be taken in the courts. There is procedure laid down in that Act for application to be made through the relatives or the doctors and medical attention can be given. So there is no need for attempted suicide to be a crime any more. It will not be a crime, but will be treated medically and mentally.

But there is another consequence of suicide's being a crime. In the old days anyone who aided and abetted a suicide, as that was self-murder, was charged with complicity in it. Suicide pacts have been dealt with in the Homicide Act; they are now manslaughter in the survivor. But what about the case dealt with in Clause 2 of this Bill, aiding and abetting suicide? if we do away with suicide as a crime, logically we do away with any aiding and abetting, because you cannot aid and abet a crime when it is no longer a crime. Indeed, it is illogical to have this clause in here, but it may be needed (we get to difficult questions here) to deal with a case where a patient who may be in great pain and distress wishes to end his days and the doctor leaves him with a sedative or a sleeping draught to take him on his way. Under the 13ill as now framed, the doctor will be guilty of an offence punishable with 14 years' imprisonment for so doing. It is aiding and abetting an offence which is not an offence, if your Lordships see what I mean, and it is quite illogical.

Nevertheless, you might get the troublesome case where a man was anxious that his wife should commit suicide and might be quite ready to aid and abet. So perhaps (I would not commit myself further) Clause 2 of the Bill may be necessary. All I can say is that it has never been found necessary in Scotland, and Scotland has not made suicide a crime. But some people may think that you should not even make this aiding and abetting. But if you do, perhaps I might join hands with the right reverend Prelate on this point, and it might be as well to say that suicide is still unlawful, although it is not a crime, and therefore you can aid and abet it. That is the only way out of the illogical difficulty. Those are just comments made in passing. This Bill heralds the end of a long chapter in our English law, and I suggest it is much to be welcomed.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, it is a special pleasure to me to welcome this for more reasons than one. First, I have the pleasure and privilege of being associated with the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, and to find myself supporting his proposal and no longer in controversy with him. I should like to associate myself, too, with the remarks that have already been made in appreciation of the lucid and humane way in which he has placed this proposal before your Lordships.

Secondly, I am glad to welcome this Bill because it represents a change of heart in Her Majesty's Government in a direction which I am sure is much appreciated by noble Lords on both sides of the House. It proves that Her Majesty's Government are not only able to have a change of heart, but can have that change fairly quickly and in a very welcome direction. It is, after all, barely more than three years since the Home Secretary resisted a suggestion that the law might be changed, as is now proposed, on the ground [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 581, col. 1327] that the concept of suicide as a crime has its roots in religious belief. And he was not able in February, 1958, to accept that alteration of the basic concept would be universally acceptable.

It may well be that the origin of the concept that suicide should be a crime is rooted in religious belief, and it would ill become me, in the presence of the right reverend Prelate opposite, to discuss the religious aspect of this matter. But I may perhaps be permitted for a moment to remind your Lordships of some aspects of the history of this matter. The early Christians were, I think, very much disposed to suicide; and perhaps they were so disposed through excessive rationality. They assumed that by an early departure from this life they could escape not only its miseries, but also its temptations, and that they would thus equip themselves with a clean passport to the blessed state of the next world. It was, I think, because of this tendency to favour suicide that St. Augustine felt himself called upon to discourage the practice; and it was he, I think, who first described it as "a destestable and damnable wickedness". Indeed, St. Augustine went so far as to say that even those virgins who attempted to commit suicide to save their virtue should not do so, since chastity was a virtue of the mind and will rather than of the flesh. Suicide then became a crime, as well as a sin, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has pointed out. Perhaps we could now say that in a more sophisticated age, even if we do not take a more cheerful view of life upon this earth, we are more disposed to discriminate between crimes and sins. It is still possible to hold that the taking of life, whether one's own life or that of another, is a grievous sin, and, at the same time, that it is unnecessary, unwise, and inhumane to make it a crime.

Secondly, surely we can make this change partly because we must appreciate that suicide is in some measure socially caused. It is a significant fact that the statistics of suicide within this country follow a consistent pattern. Within even the County of London, the boroughs with the high incidence have high suicide rates consistently year after year. They are those parts of London in which many people live alone in lodging houses or hotels, or in which there is a floating and unstable population and little settled family life. They are not necessarily the areas of the greatest poverty—indeed, they are often the areas of comparative prosperity. But they are the areas of social disorganisation and lack of cohesion. For that, it is not so much individuals but society which is responsible.

This is not a small problem, the noble and learned Viscount has pointed out. Your Lordships have often discussed the grave blot upon the contemporary scene which is due to the numerous deaths upon the roads. For every six persons who are killed upon the roads, nearly five persons take their own lives, and the problem of suicide is therefore comparable to the grave problem of the casualties resulting from road accidents. I think it is not always appreciated quite how much this is a problem of the young, which makes it the greater tragedy. Of the attempted suicides that are known to the police, more than half are of persons under the age of 40. More than 180 are attempts made by persons under 17 and, most tragic of all, eighteen attempts were made last year by people under 14. Even of the actual successful suicides, a score were made last year by persons under 17. Not only is it a problem of the young, but it is also a problem, sometimes, of the particularly gifted young. Your Lordships may be aware that in Oxford and Cambridge—Oxford—particularly—the suicide rate is enormously higher among undergraduates than it is for the same age groups in the rest of the community.

It is true, as the noble and learned Viscount has said, that it is only in very exceptional cases that the police take proceedings—in only, I think, about one in ten of the cases that come to their knowledge. It is also true that the courts in general deal with those cases with compassion. Nevertheless, last year a score of people were sent to prison on charges of attempted suicide. No doubt that sentence was passed largely for their own protection, or for the protection of the community, but I am sure we are all of one mind that in this day and age we have far better resources and far better means of protecting those persons from their own dangerous impulses than to incarcerate them, even in the best of prisons.

We may have a few doubts about some aspects of this Bill, particularly about the maximum of fourteen years in prison for aiding and abetting. We may have some doubts as to whether counselling must also be included along with aiding and abetting. But those are points which can be taken at a later stage, and they certainly do not impair the satisfaction with which we welcome this extremely humane and, perhaps, long overdue measure.

5.24 p.m.


My Lords, I must first express my deep gratitude to all who have spoken for their kindness, not only with regard to the Bill but with regard to myself. I am particularly glad, if I may say so, to have found a subject of agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, which is one of such importance and human compassion. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I deal with the points that were raised at rather more length than I should have hoped to do, because they are points of great importance, and I think to get this subject in perspective it is necessary that some impressions should be corrected.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, began with a passing reference to the legal rights that might be affected, and my noble and learned friend Lord Denning took up that point. I would assure Lord Silkin that we considered the matter very carefully before the Bill was introduced. Of course, it is correct, as Lord Denning said—if he will allow me to underline his words—that even where a policy expressly includes a term providing for payment on the suicide of a person insured, neither the sum assured nor the premiums paid will be recoverable in law because the courts refuse to give effect to such a term, on the ground that it is contrary to public policy that a person should benefit from the results of his own crime. If I understood my noble and learned friend Lord Denning correctly, his prophecy is that that will not apply when suicide or attempted suicide ceases to be a crime, and that the courts will not take the view that it remains contrary to public policy simply because it is morally wrong. That, as I understood it, was the noble Lord's view.

When I was thinking of my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, before my noble and learned friend spoke, I did not think that I should be able to give him as much comfort as that. I thought that, in my position as President of the Supreme Court in this country, I should have to say that it is a matter which my colleagues might have to consider. But as he has heard the consideration of one of my most brilliant colleagues, I think that helps him very much in considering the point. But there is the other point which weighed with us: that in fact the life insurance companies do not now make use of the public policy defence. If they wish to contract themselves they insert an appropriate condition. I should like to inform the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that the Life Offices Association, so far as my information goes, have expressed themselves satisfied that life insurance companies do not need a statutory provision to protect their interests, that the interests of the assured will not be adversely affected by the Bill and that no provision regarding insurance is necessary. I thought that would ease that aspect of the noble Lord's thoughts.

Then the noble Lord came to the terribly difficult subject of mercy killing. I think most of us feel—I certainly do —that the danger in regard to mercy killing is that it might be used, or people might be encouraged to use it, without a real sense of responsibility, and a dangerous practice might be set up. Obviously the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, had in mind the question when it was well safeguarded by medical opinion and the like. But I think, however much you do that, if you admitted the principle there would be a real danger of the spread of its use.

I am affected in my consideration of this by the personal experiences I had when I bad to examine the Government of Nazi Germany in preparation for the Nuremburg trials. There, of course, they passed from mercy killing to the elimination of useless lives; and, speaking from memory, I think 275,000 of allegedly useless lives, of old and sick people very largely, were taken by the Nazi Governnient on that basis. I know there is a world of difference between that and what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was talking about, but it shows that the slope on which he contemplated the embarking is one which can quicky become a slippery one, and I should want to consider it carefully before I changed my view. My own view is largely a religious view, but I am quite prepared to consider other views that do not share my religious feeling in the matter; I am quite prepared to consider them on their logical and rational merits. But I feel, from both points of view, that once one has made the departure one is embarking on a very stormy and difficult sea.

The next point that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, asked me about was the question of suicide pacts. May I remind him of the way in which they are dealt within the Homicide Act? In subsection (3) of the section to which I referred it is stated: For the purposes of this section 'suicide pact' means a common agreement between two or more persons having far its object the death of all of them whether or not each is to take his own life, but nothing done by a person who enters into a suicide pact shall be treated as done by him in pursuance of the pact unless it is done while he has the settled intention of dying in pursuance of the pact. The next subsection puts the onus on the defence to prove that the person charged was acting in pursuance of a suicide pact. I have referred to that because it shows the importance that we attached—and I do not think there was any criticism of this attitude and intention when the Homicide Bill went through Parliament—to showing that the suicide pact must be proved by the defence to be a genuine suicide pact, and what was done must have been done "while he had the settled intention of dying".

The difficulty is that a suicide pact varies from the case which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, quoted, where it is really no different from a person's committing suicide alone but there are simply two people who decide to do it together and each is applying the same mental processes as the one. That is the one case. There may well be the difference I mentioned as to method. But it varies from that to something very akin to murder, and that is the case where one of the parties is so much the stronger personality that he induces the other to take part in the suicide pact and he may well have at the back of his mind the thought that he may not die.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, will agree with me from her experience, but the cases that one has to watch very closely are cases where a man gets thoroughly bored with a younger woman and wants to get quit of the entanglement and of being saddled with her personality in his life. It is all a matter of one's own experience, but that is a kind of case where the bogus suicide pact could be used and where it would be very easy, with emotional letters and so on, to create the facade of a true suicide pact. But even if one cuts out the case where there is the bogus element, there is still the case where somebody has forced a weaker personality to go into this scheme. Therefore, I think that there it was thought that it should be treated as manslaughter, that the life sentence should be retained and that it should be a matter for the court to discriminate between the different types.

If that is the position, I do not see how we can really treat very differently cases of aiding and abetting suicide under this Bill. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has the Sellers Committee Report with him at the moment; I know, of course, that he has read it carefully. If he would look at paragraphs 5 and 8 he will see that, when they were considering the possible methods of dealing with the problem, they discussed a draft Bill and said: The main provisions are Clause 1, which abolishes the rule that suicide is an offence, and Clause 2 (1), which makes aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, an indictable offence with a maximum sentence of imprisonment for fourteen years. This provision is broadly similar to proposals put forward by the Criminal Code Bill Commission … the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in 1953…and the Committee under the Chairmanship of … [the] Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, which in 1959 examined the question of suicide on behalf of the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility… In paragraph 8 they say: The maximum penalty suggested in all three of the proposals mentioned in paragraph 5… those are the proposals which I have mentioned— … was life imprisonment, which is the maximum for manslaughter. We recognise that there is an argument for this, but we think that fourteen years would be sufficient for the gravest cases. Therefore what we have selected is, in fact, a lesser penalty than those suggested by these three bodies of considerable standing and repute: and I would ask noble Lords (penalty is never an easy question) to consider these serious cases where there is the counselling or procuring of suicide by people who are in a dominating position. Of course, in those cases one would have to cover the possibility that their motive was not even as good as that of the person in the genuine suicide pact: the motive might be something quite extraneous, or indeed mercenary. Therefore I hope that all those who have spoken to-day, as I am sure they will, because of their interest, will consider that point. I think it is a serious point, and I shall consider what they have said. I think that deals in the merest outline, though I will consider them all more carefully, with the +main points which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has raised.

The right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Carlisle, mentioned something which has given us the greatest difficulty and on which, after, I assure him, long consideration, we came to a different opinion from that which he expressed to-day: that is, as I understood the right reverend Prelate, that he felt that there ought to be some method of marking the wrongful character of the act of attempted suicide. That, I think, put broadly, is what he was arguing. It seems to me that there are really two answers to him, one of which, if I may say so with respect, he had discovered himself. The first was the Mental Health Act. Of course my noble and learned friend Lord Denning was right in pointing out to the right reverend Prelate that his idea of the working of the procedure in mental cases was really that before the Mental Health Act came into effect; and after much discussion the position has been changed from a magisterial inquiry to action on the report of two doctors.

If the right reverend Prelate will look again at Part IV of the Act, at the beginning of Section 25 and the succeeding sections, he will see that Section 25 deals with admission for observation. As I said in my opening speech, an application for admission for observation may be made in respect of a patient on the ground that he is suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree that warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital under observation for at least a limited period, and that he ought to be so detained in the interests of his own health or safety, or with a view to the protection of other persons. The right reverend Prelate will find the same basis in dealing with admission for treatment. As I said, that can be done at the instance of a member of his family and also of a mental welfare officer.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Viscount. I am aware that it can he done at the instance of a relative. But am I wrong in saying that if the patient, as the noble Viscount calls him, refuses to see a doctor there is no authority that can compel him to do so?


My Lords, he can also he admitted and detained, as I have said, on the application of a mental welfare officer. I want to deal with this point further, because I am bound to admit—and I think anyone who has studied this problem will agree with me—that there will still be some cases in which a person who has attempted suicide will reject help and there will be no power to ensure that he is given any treatment or supervision that may be needed. Such cases may arise where the attempt has not resulted in any injury sufficient to warrant admission to hospital and where there are no grounds for compulsory detention under the provisions of the Mental Health Act. The right reverend Prelate can take it from me that there are powers of compulsory detention. I will write to him carefully on the point, but he can take it from me.

The point is, however—and this is what I want the right reverend Prelate to consider—that the motives of these persons will vary. Some without any mental disorder (and I admit this) may seriously intend to commit suicide, and may eventually do so. Others may be suffering from a degree of mental disorder which does not give them what I quoted from the Mental Health Act, and therefore is not enough to make them liable to compulsory detention. Another class are those who may not seriously intend to commit suicide but who may want to make a nuisance of themselves. These, roughly, are the three classes which must be considered.

It has been suggested—and I am not sure that the right reverend Prelate's speech was not a reprise of this—that it would be desirable to create a new summary offence in order to provide a means of dealing with such persons. We considered this idea. We did not think that it was practicable. The principal object of the Bill is to remove from suicidal attempts the stigma which attaches to their being subject to criminal proceedings. In the great majority of cases means will exist for giving help and treatment if it is needed. The only justification for creating a fresh offence of attempted suicide would be to make provision for a small minority who could not otherwise be dealt with. Of course I cannot say with certainty how small that minority would be, but it is estimated that the number of persons would be very small, and the conclusion has been reached that it would not be possible to frame an offence covering the attempts of those few persons which would not also cover a much larger class of attempted suicides, as there is nothing in the nature of the attempts which distinguishes the minority who are neither liable to compulsory treatment nor willing to receive treatment voluntarily from the majority who can be satisfactorily dealt with. That is the point we have had to consider.

It may be said that the police could distinguish and would take proceedings only in the appropriate type of cases. That is a dangerous step to encourage in legislation that has been examined by Parliament. Therefore I would appeal to the right reverend Prelate to consider this point again, and not to pursue the line of endeavouring to create another offence of the kind I have suggested. I should be very willing to discuss the matter with him, but I should like him to know that we have considered it. I believe that that was the only other serious point raised.

I was very glad to get the support of my noble and learned friend Lord Denning. This year is the 400th anniversary of Bacon's birth, and whether there was anything underneath that reference in the gravediggers' scene to that famous case at the time, showing Shakespeare's unusual knowledge of law, I do not know. But I thank my noble and learned friend for his interesting contribution, and return full circle again to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. I was especially glad that she drew the picture which we must all recognise. Again, like everything else, it puts on each one of us, as individuals, a Greater responsibility to do what we can, apart from the special position of the Church which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, mentioned. I am sure that in dealing with that problem, so well stated by the noble Baroness, the step we are taking—abolishing the criminal characteristic—is a right one for their help as well as being one of humanity; and I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.