HL Deb 09 March 1961 vol 229 cc534-61

4.12 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Suicide to cease to be a crime]:

LORD SILKIN moved, after "commit" to insert "or attempt to commit". The noble Lord 'said: I beg to move the first Amendment on the Marshalled List. The Committee will see that under Clause 1 it is no longer to be an offence to commit suicide. I believe it is intended that that should apply also to attempts to commit suicide. A successful suicide, whether it was a crime or not, was not of very much effect so far as the person who committed it was concerned. However, it has been an offence, punishable by law, to attempt to commit suicide, which attempt was unsuccessful. It is now intended that both the successful suicide and the attempt should cease to be an offence.

On Second Reading I asked what was the practical effect of suicide being an offence, and what were the legal consequences. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, who was unfortunately suddenly taken ill yesterday, and is therefore unable to be here, although he had intended to come, gave us a statement about what he felt were the consequences. He said that it has been regarded as contrary to public policy to commit suicide, and therefore it has had certain effects on insurance policies. I do not know whether there are any others. However, the point is whether this change will affect similarly attempts to commit suicide.

In the course of the conversation which I had with the noble and learned Lord, when I sought his advice on the question of whether it was necessary to include in the Bill the words of my Amendment, he thought that if it were no longer an offence to commit suicide, it could not be an offence to attempt to commit suicide. That is, generally, the advice that I have been given. At the same time, the noble and learned Lord felt that it would be better if these words were included in the Bill and the Bill made abundantly clear.

It would seem to me that that is so. I should not dream of being dogmatic on legal questions, but it seems to me that there are two separate offences here: suicide is one offence; an attempt to commit suicide is another. They have both been offences under the Common Law. It could be that if you make one of them no longer an offence, the other might conceivably still remain an offence, particularly in the light of the legal consequences to which I referred a moment ago. It could be held that, although it was no longer contrary to public policy to commit suicide since there was no mention in the Bill of an attempt to commit suicide that might be regarded as contrary to public policy, even though not an offence. So I should be grateful if the noble and learned Viscount would consider incorporating those words into the clause, even out of an abundance of caution.

There was one other point, which was again referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in his speech. That was that it is anomalous that while to commit suicide, or attempt to commit suicide, will no longer be an offence, it will be an offence to aid, abet, counsel, or procure the suicide of another, punishable with imprisonment for up to 14 years. That could be interpreted as meaning that if it is punishable to aid and abet someone to do something which is not an offence, the Statute really meant that to attempt to commit suicide might still remain an offence. This is not unnaturally of tremendous significance. I say straight away that if the noble and learned Viscount tells me that an attempt is already incorporated in the clause, I shall be prepared to accept that. At the same time, I still think that it would be better if we had these words included. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 5, after "commit" insert "or attempt to commit".—(Lord Silkin.)


Like the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I should hesitate very much to give any dogmatic opinion on legal problems but it seems to me that to the ordinary man in the street there is a very distinct difference between committing suicide and attempting to commit suicide. They are the two things which, if I understood the noble and learned Viscount aright, he said went together in the law as it is now. If a man commits suicide and is successful, it seems to me that the law comes down in its majesty and penalises him in a way which reflects only upon his family, his relatives and his reputation; whereas if there is an attempt to commit suicide which does not succeed, the man himself is the sufferer under the law.

I am not making a judgment on this point but I think there are two very different things involved here. It might be said, especially on the Episcopal Benches, that, from their point of view, both acts would be equally wrong, and they would not like to see the words "or attempt to commit suicide" inserted in the Bill, so that attempted suicide would be absolved from being a crime. I am not advocating that, but it is a point of view. They are two separate things, and for the sake of clarity, unless they are redundant, perhaps the noble Viscount would consider inserting the words suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin.


I am grateful to both noble Lords for their speeches, and particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for raising this point. I do not think that the Amendment is necessary. I hope that the noble Lord will soon have an opportunity of discussing it with my noble and learned friend Lord Denning restored to health and then they can consider the validity or otherwise of my points. I think that logically we ought to deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, because I want to make it clear that there is no doubt that the Bill covers attempted suicide. The reasons for that I developed on Second Reading. I think that overyone who has looked into the matter would agree with me that the most important practical change made by the Bill is the abolition of the offence of attempted suicide.

With regard to suicide, we discussed on Second Reading the results of its being a crime. If the law were left unchanged, those results would remain even after death, although the person himself would not be personally concerned. With regard to attempted suicide, the Amendment is unnecessary, because the present rule that attempted suicide is a crime depends on the Common Law rule that an attempt to commit a felony is itself a crime. In this case, the felony in question is now being abolished. The Bill is constructed on the principle that, with the abolition of the law that suicide is a crime, the consequences of that law at once fall.

And this is the point that I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to note. Those consequences include not only the rule that attempted suicide is a crime, but also the rule that complicity in another suicide is murder. If the Bill were to abolish expressly one particular consequence of the present rule that suicide is a crime, it might create the impression that the others were intended to be preserved and, therefore, that complicity in another suicide was to remain murder, notwithstanding that it could also be prosecuted as a new offence created by Clause 2 (1). I do not think that we want to do that. We want to get rid of any other conception except that it should be prosecuted under the new clause, because we have provided for the other possibility, with which I dealt at some length on Second Reading. That is the first point.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will be helped by the third item in the Second Schedule, which says that paragraph 15 of the First Schedule of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, is repealed, except as respects proceedings commenced before the commencement of this Act. That Schedule lists the indictable offences by adults which may be dealt with summarily, with the consent of the accused, and paragraph 15 contains the words "attempted suicide." They will be repealed. So, with the Common Law rule which I have stated and this repeal, it will be quite clear in construction that the crime of attempted suicide is abolished. I think that there is considerable importance in the point I have mentioned about the other consequence, and if the noble Lord would be good enough not to press his Amendment to-day, I hope that he will get a chance of discussing it with my noble and learned friend Lord Denning, and if they have any doubt or any other way of approaching it I shall he pleased to consider it. But, at the moment, I am satisfied that the Bill succeeds in doing what it sets out to do.


I shall certainly take the course which the noble and learned Viscount suggests and withdraw my Amendment. I think he has given a complete answer. In fairness to my noble and learned friend Lord Denning, I would say that he would agree with the noble and learned Viscount, but he did not wish to discourage me from putting down the Amendment. His own view was that it would not do any harm if it were included in the Bill, but I can see that there may be the consequences to which the noble and learned Viscount referred. So I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment, and if I have second thoughts, perhaps we can have another talk about it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?


In saying a word about this clause, I should like to inform your Lordships that the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle has asked me to say that he regrets not being here. He would have liked to take part in the discussion on this clause, particularly on the point to which I propose to refer. Suicide is no longer to be a crime, but it is still a social problem. The number of attempts at suicide run into tens of thousands a year, and every individual case of attempted suicide, and, even more, of successful suicide, represents an extremely unhappy period of a person's life to a point where he or she is driven to desperation. I do not think we ought to be content to rest on the fact that it is no longer to be an offence. It is our duty to do everything we can to help these unfortunate people who are driven to these desperate courses.

In the debate on Second Reading, the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, the right reverend Prelate and I all referred to the desirability of persons in this condition being seen by somebody. So long as attempted suicide is an offence (at any rate, where the attempt is discovered, though many are not because they create no injuries), these persons automatically get into the hands of the police, and thence are seen by psychiatrists or doctors or maybe taken to hospital for treatment or observation under the Mental Health Act. But under the Bill as it will now be, the police having no locus in the matter, it appears that the possibility of such persons getting treatment or being put in touch with social workers and mental welfare workers will become more remote. I take it that, except with the consent of a person or his relatives, or unless a person attempting to commit suicide was clearly certifiable, there would be no possibility of securing treatment. If I understood the noble and learned Viscount aright in his reply to the debate, I gather that he thought that the only way to ensure that a person received treatment compulsorily would be to make it an offence and thereby bring him back within the jurisdiction of the police. Of course, that is the last thing we want, and it is what the Bill is intended to prevent.

I wonder, therefore, whether there is not some way, possibly by amendment of the Bill or by administration, of ensuring that every person who attempts to commit suicide is seen by somebody, whether it is a psychiatrist, a mental welfare worker or somebody else. To place the decision in the hands of a person who is already ex hypothesi suffering from some kind of disturbance, whether mental or otherwise, does not seem to me to be a satisfactory course. The person who wants to commit suicide may not necessarily want to be helped or may not be in a condition to appreciate the value of help. One would like to have some means by which such a person can really be helped, even against his own wishes.

I should be grateful if the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor would give some consideration to this question. There is no Amendment on the Marshalled List and there is nothing we can do at this stage. But it is a vitally important matter, and it links up with the purpose of this Bill. It is not sufficient merely to ensure that the person is not punished for something for which in most cases he is not really responsible. Punishment and imprisonment are not the right form of treatment; but some form of treatment is necessary in the vast majority of these cases. If it can be secured under this Bill, then we shall have gone a long way to doing something for those people who are so desperately unhappy that they are being driven to these terrible recourses.


May I add one point on this matter? Normally what happens is that a relative or a friend in the house discovers that somebody has attempted to commit suicide and has to make a decision what to do. His first reaction usually is to send for the police, and when the police arrive their present action is dictated by their legal responsibility, plus common sense, plus sending for an ambulance. I hope, that the position of the police will not be reduced; that their duty in this respect will be clear and they will act and not be inhibited from going if a person sends for them. I presume that the relative could send for a doctor, an ambulance or the mental welfare officer. The normal person would be the patient's own doctor if he could be obtained, or an ambulance if the person is in extremis. I think the people who require guidance here are the ordinary members of the public who will have to take the first, step when they find someone who has attempted suicide.


Before the noble and learned Viscount replies, I should like to make one further observation. I appreciate that normally relatives will come into the picture, but a great many of the people who commit suicide, or attempt it, are lonely persons. As I said in my Second Reading speech, I think loneliness is one of the causes. One of the troubles in this world is that there are lonely people who have no relatives, no friends and no one to talk to. They are the people who are in most need of help, and they have no one who can take action.


I accept that at once from my noble friend. It will often be a landlady, or even the milkman observing bottles of milk uncollected, who will make the discovery.

4.35 p.m.


Again I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for raising an important and very human point. I should like to say, in answer to the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, without dogmatising about the powers of the police, that I am sure they will carry out to the best of their ability (there is nothing to stop them if somebody asks them to come) the function, which I am proud is a function of the police in this country and which people from abroad say they find in very few other places, of being the friend and helper of the population. I am sure they will do that, and no legislation will stop them.

Coming back to the point, I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle cannot be here. Curiously enough, I had a letter prepared to send to him on this point which I did not see until after the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was good enough to tell me that he would raise it on the Question that the clause stand part. I am sure that my right reverend friend would not object to my giving the substance of that letter to the House. I will send the letter to him so that he can study it, and I am sure that he will read the debate. I was not absolutely certain, when I had to reply to the right reverend Prelate, whether he had in mind the restoration of leaving the offence; but I dealt with that point, because he mentioned at one time that he would like the wrongfulness of the matter underlined. I think I convinced him—and certainly the rest of the House was with me—that that would be a retrograde step.

What the right reverend Prelate certainly had in his mind was the provision of some form of compulsory power on the lines of the powers contained in Part IV of the Mental Health Act, 1959. I considered that carefully, in consultation with my right honourable friend the Minister of Health, and I came to the conclusion that it would not be practicable to adopt it. In the great majority of cases a person who attempts to kill himself will receive treatment, either because the attempt has resulted in physical injury which makes it necessary for him to be admitted to hospital—and the Minister of Health is making arrangements to ensure that in all such cases the need for psychiatric treatment will be considered—or because his mental condition is such that the compulsory powers conferred in Part IV of the Mental Health Act, 1959, will be applicable. Of course, the admission for observation really meets the situation here, and, as I understand the position, that can be at the instance of relatives or of the mental welfare officer, if it is brought to his attention. The Home Office and myself have considered it and we believe there will be few cases in which a person attempting suicide will not receive, either voluntarily or under compulsion, the care and treatment he needs.

An express provision in the Bill extending the compulsory powers would in practice be required to deal with this small number of cases only. But this is the difficulty: there is nothing in the nature of the attempts to distinguish the small minority; therefore, the provision would have to be drafted so that it would apply to every person who attempted to take his own life, whether or not he agreed voluntarily to receive treatment, or was receiving treatment as a result of his injuries. That is one of the difficulties of legislation, and that is the difficulty which faced us. When I state that, I think noble Lords will see that such a provision would be open to serious objection. It is simply not true, in some of these cases, that the person concerned is suffering from any mental illness, and there is to me a of the offence of attempted suicide or great difficulty in subjecting such a person to treatment designed for those who are mentally ill. That relates to the case where there is no mental illness but where there is, as the noble Lord has said—and I quite agree with him—intense and tragic depression and loss of faith in the goodness of life.

The effect of including a provision of this kind in the Bill would be to take away from attempted suicide the stigma of criminal conduct and replace it by a presumption of mental illness to which, in the eyes of some people, some stigma still attaches. The powers contained in the Mental Health Act were carefully considered. I shudder to recall that I made 82 speeches on that measure in your Lordships' House. But your Lordships did ensure that it was very carefully considered, and I do not think it would be right to extend those powers except for the strongest reasons.

Therefore, although I have great sympathy with the suggestion, I am so far faced by a difficulty which seems to me insurmountable, and I could not, with my present state of mind, include a provision which would mean, in effect, that the fact that a person had attempted to kill himself should be evidence of mental disorder. I hope noble Lords will consider that point. It may be that my present view is one from which argument would shift me, but that is the view I have formed at the moment. That is all I propose to say to the right reverend Prelate, but, of course, I will consider what your Lordships have said, and I hope your Lordships will consider my difficulties. If any of us can see any way through, I shall be pleased to consider it. I think we were all most impressed in the last debate by the picture drawn so poignantly by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, of the state of mind of these people.


May I put one point to my noble and learned friend on which I feel a little difficulty? I apologise for the fact that I was not here at the very beginning of these proceedings, and, therefore, my point may possibly have been answered. This clause simply abolishes the crime. It does not say that when the crime is abolished, an attempt at suicide is even an unlawful act. The problem which puzzles me is this: What would be the position of a person who sees another person attempting to commit suicide? I imagine that any one of us, whatever the position in law, would feel it to be his duty to intervene and even to use force to prevent the attempt from succeeding. But when this clause is on the Statute Book, I am not quite clear that such an attempt to prevent suicide might not be an actionable assault. I do not know if my noble and learned friend has fully considered this, and I do not know how far the matter ought to be dealt with; but I think there may be that problem. If we simply do away with the crime, there may be a great legal difficulty—at any rate, a theoretic legal difficulty—for the person who sees an attempt and may have no legal right to interfere.


The first matter that comes to relieve my mind is that the problem must have been thrown up by a self-inflicted wound. I do not mean in the Army, but for somebody in civil life. It must have constantly happened when, not going so far as to cut the throat, but, "I will cut off that hand that has offended me" or something of that sort. Speaking from memory (my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest is here, and he will supplement or correct my memory), I cannot remember that it has ever been considered as an assault for which anyone is answerable in law to take action to prevent another person from being hurt. I have stated it in quite ordinary terms, but I think that is really the answer to it—I notice that my noble and learned friend nods assent. I think that is really an answer to my noble and learned friend's point, and I am sure that the next time he is put in the position of having to consider the problem, he will not let anything in my reply prevent him from helping the person.


I am very grateful for the answer which the noble and learned Viscount gave to the points that I raised. As I said on Second Reading, I was not concerned to stipulate necessarily that every person who attempts suicide should be seen by a doctor; in fact, I put even more stress on being seen by a representative of the Church, or by a social welfare worker. But I feel that such people ought to be seen by somebody. I do not think we ought to accept the position that if a person attempts to commit suicide but does not succeed, that is the end of it. He can go and try again; and he is left with all his troubles, all his loneliness, and so on. I do not know in what form this matter can be raised again. Possibly one could put down an Amendment on the Report stage just to raise the matter and perhaps the right reverend Prelate will be here. I certainly feel that any person attempting to commit suicide—wherever the attempt, of course, is discovered: there are some that are never discovered—should be seen by somebody, whether it be a psychiatrist or some social worker.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2:

Criminal liability for complicity in another's suicide

2.—(1) A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.

4.50 p.m.

BARONESS WOOTTON OF ABINGER moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "counsels". The noble Baroness said: I should like to discuss this Amendment and the subsequent Amendments to the Schedules together. The subsequent Amendments could perhaps be moved formally. The point of the Amendment is that there is, I think, an important point of distinction in principle between "counselling" and "aiding and abetting" Counselling is something which takes place before an action is decided upon. Aiding and abetting is an action which takes place when the deed aided or abetted is, in fact, going to be done. This seems to me to put counselling on a rather different footing from aiding and abetting. I have no doubt that in the vast majority of cases all of us, if we found ourselves, as we sometimes may, in the unhappy position of being consulted by somebody who contemplates suicide, would give the most earnest counsel that we could not to do it. But there might be, I think, the very occasional exception, which becomes of greater importance if the suicide itself, as this Bill contemplates, is not to be a crime.

The very occasional exception which I contemplate is the occasion when a person who is dying, and knows that he is dying, contemplates suicide and wishes to discuss the matter beforehand with his most intimate relative or friend. There could be no more intimate or graver conversation that could take place, perhaps between two spouses, than one on this topic. I can see that the person consulted might feel bound to say, "Well, if that is the way you feel, I cannot find it in my heart to persuade you against it"; or, alternatively, "If that is the way you feel, I am bound to say that perhaps if I were in your position I should feel the same". Either of those statements might be interpreted as counselling suicide, and it seems to me that they ought to be allowed, and that the whole conversation ought to be permitted, not under the shadow of a very grave criminal charge. Such a shadow, indeed, might prevent not only counsel of that kind but even counsel of a negative kind, since the person contemplating suicide might be afraid to discuss it with his or her nearest and dearest, lest the spouse were put in the position of wishing to give advice that would lay him or her open to this serious charge. For those reasons it seems to me that we could dispense with counselling suicide as an offence so long as we retained the procuring, aiding and abetting.

I cannot think of any example in which the evil case, the case of the man who tries to get someone to commit suicide and helps that person to commit suicide in order to get hold of his money, would not be sufficiently covered by the words "procuring", "aiding" or "abetting". But I should like to leave the loophole for what seems to me might be a case which commands the deepest sympathy of all of us. In the sort of case I have described it is a private matter of conscience. There could be very different opinions among people of different faiths and attitudes, but it is a private matter of conscience and which ought to be private between the two people intimately concerned in it. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 7, leave out ("counsels").— (Baroness Wootton of Abinger.)


Perhaps I might first put the general answer to the point raised by the noble Baroness and then deal, so far as I can, with the point that she raised in her speech. Of course, as she is well aware, the expression "counsels or procures" is the ordinary way of referring in Statutes to being an accessory before the fact of a crime, and the expression is used in the general enactments providing that an accessory before the fact may be dealt with as a principal offender; the Accessories and Abettors Act, 1861, Sections 2 and 8, dealing with felonies and misdemeanours respectively, and the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, Section 35, dealing with summary offences. The difference between counselling and procuring is, I would admit to the noble Baroness, probably slight, but it would cause confusion if one were to alter a particular Act when it is in the general Act. That is one's legislative problem.

On the point which the noble Baroness put so clearly and so movingly a moment or two ago, I think that the leading case on aiding and abetting draws the line also in respect to counselling. Mr. Justice Hawkins gave the judgment, and perhaps I might quote the words, because I think they are helpful: To constitute an aider or abettor, some active steps must be taken, by word or action, with intent to instigate the principal or principals. Encouragement does not, of necessity, amount to aiding and abetting. It may be intentional or unintentional. A man may unwittingly encourage another in fact by his presence, by misinterpreted gestures, or by his silence or non-interference—or he may encourage intentionally by expressions, gestures, or actions, intended to signify approval. In the latter case he aids and abets; in the former he does not. It is no criminal offence to stand by a mere passive spectator of a crime, even of a murder. Non-interference to prevent a crime is not itself a crime. But the fact that a person was voluntarily and purposely present witnessing the commission of a crime, and offered no opposition to it, though he might reasonably be expected to prevent it, and had the power so to do or at least to express his dissent, might, under some circumstances, afford cogent evidence upon which a jury would be justified in finding that he wilfully encouraged, and so aided and abetted. But it would be purely a question for the jury whether he did so or not. I think that the point is put more closely to the one that is worrying the noble Baroness in Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law—that is the textbook. It gets quite close to the point. The learned author illustrates it from Oliver Twist. The only play which the great activity of your Lordships has allowed me to see in the last six months is Oliver. I cannot remember whether this point is highlighted in the musical version; but again, if the House will bear with me while I read the quotation from Stephen, it says Fagin (Chapter 27, Oliver Twist) after getting Sikes to say he would murder any one who should betray him, wakes up Noah Clay-pole and makes him tell Sikes that the girl Nancy had betrayed him, and, as Sikes rushes out in a passion, says, 'You won't be too violent, Bill; I mean, not too violent for safety.' I think that the whole conversation taken together would be evidence to go to a jury, that Fagin did 'counsel' or 'procure' the murder committed by Sikes, which would make him an accessory before the fact; but if he had confined himself to merely telling Sikes what Claypole said he had heard, it would not have been enough. I think that those both show that there has to be a clear, positive element before the counselling comes into play.

Again, as I am sure the noble Baroness appreciates, the law requires that the act counselled should in fact have been committed. I will not go into the cognate question of incites; I think the noble Baroness has probably considered it. It is rather a different point and, of course, it has now to be looked at in view of the offence which still remains—who-ever aids and abets, counsels or procures the offence of suicide or an attempt. I only wanted the noble Baroness to know that I have considered that point, and I could deal with it should the occasion arise. But I think, in view of the two quotations I have given, that there is not really a danger unless that positive element is present. I should like to consider it again, because I always like to consider points that have been raised on the Committee stage. I will consider it, and before the Report stage I will write to the noble Baroness if anything else occurs to me on what she has said. At the moment, I do not think it is necessary to leave out the word.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for his assurances and for his exceedingly lucid reply. It was just because suicide is no longer to be a crime that I was proposing to move that we should depart from the standard form of words for counselling or procuring, or aiding and abetting a crime. I anticipate with great interest being able to read at leisure the two quotations which the noble and learned Viscount has been good enough to give us; and though the immediate impact upon myself is not perhaps quite what the noble and learned Viscount intended, in view of his assurance that a clear and positive element is necessary for the counselling to become a criminal offence, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.5 p.m.

LORD SILKIN moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "fourteen" and insert "seven" [years]. The noble Lord said: This is an Amendment to Clause 2 (1) which constitutes an entirely new offence: that of aiding, abetting, et cetera, the suicide of another. As has been said before, both on Second Reading and on this occasion, it is an extraordinary thing that it is to be an offence to aid and abet something which, if successful, is not an offence. However, I am not objecting to its becoming an offence; I think that the exercise of influence on another to commit suicide should not pass with impunity. The only question is, what is the appropriate maximum sentence to be inflicted if such a person is found guilty?

I realise that the Government has had the benefit of the advice of Lord Justice Sellers, the Chairman of the Sellers Committee. That Committee have recommended a maximum of fourteen years, and that has been included in the Bill. Nevertheless, I think that this is too severe, even as a maximum. I realise that in many cases the courts would not dream of imposing anything like fourteen years, or even seven years, if seven years were substituted, but I still think that, in the last resort, it is an offence not of action in itself, but merely of assisting another, at the worst, to do something which the other person is already set on doing. Even in the worst of cases a sentence of seven years strikes me as being adequate for the purpose of either a deterrent or as an expression of the measure of our disapproval of such conduct. It is difficult to say dogmatically that one term of sentence, fourteen years, is wrong and that seven is right, or vice versa; but my own reaction is that seven years as a maximum is right, and I hope that the noble and learned Viscount will be able to give it sympathetic consideration. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 10, leave out ("fourteen") and insert ("seven").—(Lord Silkin.)


I hope that my noble and learned friend will not accept this Amendment. My reason is this. There is one most unpleasant way of procuring another's suicide—that is, by blackmail. The blackmailer may possess some quite trifling piece of knowledge about his victim which, for purely social reasons, the victim does not wish to be disclosed; and the terms of blackmail may be made more and more severe until the victim simply cannot afford to go on paying the requisite amount of money, and so in the end, out of pure despair, he commits suicide. I do not think this can be considered anything less than murder. I believe the noble and learned Viscount earlier to-day described encouraging suicide as murder, and that surely would be so in this case. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, must remember that this term of fourteen years is only a maximum penalty, and that if it were a much less severe case the Judge need not necessarily pass the maximum sentence. But I think the maximum should be there for cases like that.


I did not mean to intervene, but I agree with my noble friend in asking Her Majesty's Government to keep the fourteen years, although not being a lawyer I am not sure in my own mind whether suicide as a result of blackmail would, in fact, be covered by this clause. I should like the maximum of fourteen years kept, for this reason: clearly, it is not a sentence that would be given except in very rare circumstances, but there are cases, such as those where a person procures, aids and abets the suicide of a person of rather feeble mind, perhaps of feeble mind, possibly to procure his money at his death. I am taking, perhaps, an extreme example, but there one gets the suicide of a person who is very much open to suggestion and persuasion, and in practice I cannot see any difference between a case of that kind and a particularly revolting murder. I feel that a sentence of fourteen years should be kept for cases of that kind, for, as I say again, while that would not normally be the sentence, the courts should have a very heavy sentence in their power for exceptional circumstances.

5.13 p.m.


It is always an arguable matter what a maximum sentence should be, and sometimes, one would say, a matter of first impression, but in this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, candidly admitted, we have had the advantage that this point has been considered several times before; because the existing law is that abettors and accessories before the fact to suicide are guilty of murder and subject to imprisonment for life. The maximum penalty proposed for the new offence will, therefore, be lower—and, as I said, this was recommended by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, a most distinguished and experienced body who, after consideration, came to the conclusion that this was the proper penalty.

As I mentioned on Second Reading, however, the Committee, in their Report, noted that all previous proposals for reform had envisaged a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for the offence of abetting the suicide of another, and these were in the Draft Code proposed by the Criminal Code Bill Commission in 1879. But the curious thing is that paragraph 173 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in 1953—which, if my arithmetic is right, was 74 years later—made the same recommendation. The Commission which examined the Question on behalf of the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility, for their pamphlet, Ought Suicide to be a Crime? came to that conclusion also—that it should be a matter for life sentence.

If we go through the Commonwealth we find that the maximum sentence for the offence of aiding and abetting suicide in Canada, New Zealand and the States of Australia, is also life imprisonment. In Europe, in countries where suicide is not a crime, the act of aiding and abetting suicide remains criminal and is punishable by maximum sentences ranging from 3 to 12 years. I think I have given a fair account, but it is interesting that there have been four Committees in this country, three of them quite recent, who took that view; and we have the standard accepted in the Commonwealth. The reason for that has already been stated by my noble friend, Lord Derwent—that this offence varies from something very venial, as when two people enter into a suicide pact when they are of the same mental and physical status and, although they decide to do it together, are really two people committing suicide at once. That is one case where, of course, the entry into the pact gives the element of encouragement to the other.

Then we come to the case to which I drew attention on Second Reading, and my noble friend, Lord Derwent, had similar cases in mind, where one party is in a completely different position from the other and where, in effect, there was inducement to get someone to commit suicide by a bogus suicide pact, which, as my noble friend said, would be something very close to murder. That is one form of aiding and abetting, and the offence comes down in seriousness from that point. I feel, therefore, that one has to provide a fairly stiff sentence. In the case mentioned by my noble friend, Lord SoM̃ers, the person would be dealt with for blackmail, and my noble friend can take it from me that the punishment for blackmail is quite adequate even to deal with what I think we should all agree is as abominable an offence as one could think of. I am not disputing the point. That is one of the most serious aspects of blackmail—that in some very sad cases people are driven to suicide. But those responsible would be dealt with for blackmail, and my noble friend can rest assured they would be adequately dealt with. If your Lordships would allow me a slight irregularity (because I should like your indulgence) I would point out that this is a new offence. There is another Amendment down—


Before the noble and learned Viscount comes to that, could I ask a question? I admit it is asked out of my ignorance. Is not the case for the Bill stronger than he stated, in this respect? I understand that in this country a sentence of life imprisonment actually does not mean more than 12 or 14 years and that it is very rarely that a man is kept in prison for life whereas I understand that in the Dominions, to which the noble and learned Viscount referred, a life sentence, as in America, actually means a life sentence, and there are several instances in the Dominions, as in the United States, of people being kept in prison for 20 or 30 years?


My noble friend, Lord Winterton, who has great experience and has always taken an interest in Home Office problems, is absolutely right about the procedure here. So far as I know, he is right in the other limb of the argument: that one can find countries—I think certain States of the United States—where people can be kept in prison for a longer period than we think is possible, except in the very exceptional cases where one has to protect the public by keeping someone in prison. I should not like it to be thought that that is not done here: it is done where it is considered essential in the interests of protecting the public. But it is done very seldom, because one knows the terrible penological effect of keeping people in prison beyond a certain time. The point raised by my noble friend Lord Winterton was absolutely apropos, if I may put it that way.

I was just going to deal with a similar aspect of it and. I was asking the indulgence of the Committee. Of course, this is a new offence, but the other one under the next Amendment is an existing offence. I think it would be convenient, as I am dealing with the point, to give certain figures now which I think will be helpful to the Committee. The broad proposition is that where a person may be guilty of complicity in the death of another it is right that a serious penalty should be available. I have tried to develop that point. It should be available because the circumstances will differ so much. In 1957, in the Homicide Act, Parliament decided that the maximum punishment for what is really this offence when created in the furtherance of a suicide pact should be imprisonment for life. I was just going to make the point of my noble friend Lord Winterton. I say that it would not be right to have a substantially smaller maximum for the new offence created under the Bill; and, as he says, there is very little practical difference between life imprisonment and the fourteen years, although the fourteen years is historically a smaller sentence.

I now want your Lordships to consider the matter that is covered by the next Amendment, which would substitute the same punishment of seven years for the offence under the Homicide Act. The reason I will deal with again; I do not want to avoid dealing with points put by any noble Lord. But I had got out, for the purpose of dealing with the next Amendment, the figures in regard to manslaughter, because, as many of your Lordships will know, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is penal servitude for life. Manslaughter is also an offence which ranges from something little more than civil negligence to something very near murder. Therefore we have to have a big range of sentences for it.

In 1959, of 75 persons convicted of the offence of manslaughter where a maximum sentence of life imprisonment applied, 64 were sentenced to imprisonment. I want to make clear that these figures are not in respect of the other manslaughter under the Homicide Act; they relate to manslaughter generally. Of 75 persons convicted, 64 were sentenced to imprisonment. The interesting point is the variation of the different degrees of seriousness of the offence. The lengths of the sentences imposed in these cases were: six months and under, 4; over six months and up to one year, 6; over one year and up to two years, 12; over two years and up to three years, 9; over three years and up to four years, 3; over four years and up to five years, 7; over five years and up to seven years, 6; over seven years and up to ten years, 7; over ten years, 10.

The reason why I have troubled your Lordships with all these figures is that I think they establish my thesis, that we have great and varying degrees of seriousness. Therefore, when one is deciding what a maximum sentence should be I think one ought to take the examples which my noble friend Lord Derwent and I have given. They are not fantastic; they are things that might well occur; and I think one ought to provide for them by having, as the Committee suggested, a high maximum.


Would the noble and learned Viscount forgive me if I ask a question? His figures are not confined to the special "diminished responsibility" cases under the Homicide Act, but do they include those cases?


I should have thought that they would include all cases of manslaughter. I will find out; in fact, I have not been briefed. I had assumed that they did. Such cases would be cases where the conviction was of manslaughter, even if it came in under the Homicide Act. Of course, the noble Lady will remember that under the Act the suicide pact now becomes manslaughter. So I think that if the noble Lady will treat my argument on the basis that they include all the offences, that will be right. The point I am making is that there is this tremendous variation in seriousness. The second point I make is that the provision of a maximum does not mean that it is going to be applied in unsuitable cases. These cases will go before only the assize courts. They will always be dealt with by a criminal judge of great experience, and I am sure that he will do his utmost to see that the appropriate sentence is involved.

Therefore, for these reasons I do not think we ought to depart from the general view that has been taken recently. I do not think anyone can say that one is being really reactionary if one is supporting a smaller sentence than that suggested by the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment or the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility, and I do not think there is any question of that. We are not really in a field of criminology where we would throw such adjectives at each other. We are trying to find what is suitable punishment, maximum punishment, for this offence; and I would still keep a high maximum punishment to deal with the case which closely approximates to murder. I am sorry to have taken so long, but it is an important point.


This is, of course, a matter of judgment, but I should like to deal with one argument which the noble and learned Viscount put forward: that is, as to what was recommended by the Royal Commission as recently as 1953, and by other bodies, at a time when suicide was a crime, and in that context. I think the fact that suicide is no longer to be a crime makes a big difference; and I am sure the noble and learned Viscount will appreciate that. It may be that if the Royal Commission had reconsidered this question in the present context, they might have come to a different conclusion. In fact, I think it would have been quite logical that they should.

I do not want to trespass on the argument which the noble and learned Viscount put forward on the next Amendment (I should like to say a word on that later), but on the figures I would say that the question put by my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger is very pertinent. It could be that, if we analysed those figures and took out the cases which related to suicide, we should find (theoretically, it could be) that all the sentences which were imposed in relation to suicides were the small sentences, and the big sentences related to those convictions which were not suicides. Therefore, in the absence of more detail, I do not feel as convinced about these figures as the noble and learned Viscount himself was. Moreover, he himself gave the maximum sentences in countries where suicide is no longer a crime, and they all range below the fourteen years. I think he said that they range from three years upwards—three years to twelve, or three years to six; I forget which it was—but, at any rate, they were well under the fourteen years. Therefore, it is not an extravagant demand to say that we should put ourselves perhaps midway between the maxima of the different countries where suicide is no longer an offence.

I feel that this point is worthy of further consideration. I recognise that there may be very bad cases, but I should have thought that seven years was adequate, even for the worst kind of case which related to suicide. The noble and learned Viscount referred to murder, or something akin to murder, but I do not agree with him that any of these offences which are newly created under Clause 2 (1) are in any way akin to murder. They all relate to a person who is about to commit suicide. In the weak-minded case which the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, quoted, seven years, in my view, would be reasonable. However, I do not feel that I can press the matter any further at this stage. I should like to reconsider it, and I hope that the noble and learned Viscount's mind is also not closed on this matter, and that possibly we might come back to it at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.34 p.m.

LORD SILKIN moved, after subsection (3), to insert:

"(4) Section four of the Homicide Act, 1957, shall be amended by adding at the end thereof the following new subsection:— '(4) Notwithstanding any enactment or rule of law, the penalty for an offence under this section shall not exceed seven years' imprisonment'.

The noble Lord said: In tabling this Amendment, my object was merely to secure that the maximum penalties for the offence under this Bill and for the offence under Section 4 of the Homicide Act, 1957, were the same. It seems to me that, again, in Section 4 of the Homicide Act we are dealing with a suicide pact, and suicide is no longer a crime. Yet, as respects the survivor, he may be charged with manslaughter, and, as the law stands, is liable to imprisonment for life. Now this is undoubtedly too severe, even if we decide to retain the maximum penalty of fourteen years under the present Bill. In my view, the penalty under Section 4 of the Homicide Act should be lowered. We are dealing with much the same kind of offence: both relate to a suicide pact.

Perhaps, for the information of the Committee, I might read Section 4; it is very short: It shall be manslaughter, and shall not be murder, for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another … That is the first condition: the person must be acting in pursuance of a suicide pact—and that we are now ceasing to regard as a crime. It is no longer a crime; but if a person acts in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other or be a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third person", then is becomes manslaughter, and that person is subject to imprisonment for life. I feel that the aiding and abetting of somebody to commit suicide and the action in connection with a suicide pact are virtually of the same character, and should be treated in the same way. It is for that reason that I beg to move this Amendment. I realise that, from a technical point of view, having withdrawn the first Amendment relating to seven years, logically I should now alter my Amendment to make it fourteen years, but I am sure the noble and learned Viscount will not stand on technicalities of that kind. Therefore I beg to move the Amendment as it stands.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 19, at end insert the said subsection.—(Lord Silkin.)


I should like to say a word in support of my noble friend Lord Silkin on this Amendment, because I fully share his view that the penalty for the crime of aiding and abetting and the penalty for being a party to a suicide pact should be the same. But I should like to take it just one step further than he did, because, as the law now stands, what is likely to be the less serious crime is going to carry the heavier penalty. In the case of a suicide pact, if it is a genuine suicide pact, the person who survives has in fact risked his own life; whereas, in the case of the aiding and abetting or persuading, the person who has persuaded, let us say, an old lady, that life is not worth living and that she should take a suitable amount of pills, has not taken any risk himself. He has done a horrible and dastardly thing purely in the hope of financial gain. I think that possibly in the course of this debate we have been rather exaggerating the ease with which persons not contemplating suicide can be persuaded to undertake this; but let that pass. If they can be so persuaded, I should have thought that in most cases—in practically all cases—the suicide pact, which must be established as a genuine pact, was a less heinous offence than the worst cases that would occur under the new Bill.


I hope your Lordships will bear with me for a short time so that we may get the difference between these offences absolutely clear, because it is slightly difficult. Section 4, subsection (1), of the Homicide Act, which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has just read, provides that it shall be manslaughter for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other or be a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third person. The Second Schedule of the Bill now before us provides for the repeal of the words, "killing himself or", and the effect will be that in future the survivor of a suicide pact will, when the other partner to the pact succeeds in killing himself, commit the new offence created by the Bill of aiding and abetting the suicide of another, which will attract the maximum penalty of fourteen years and not, as now, the penalty for the offence of manslaughter.

The distinction we have to make is that where the death of a partner in a suicide pact results from the act of the survivor or a third party, the offence committed will remain that of manslaughter, and under the existing law will attract a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life. I think the distinction is clear. What we were considering in the last Amendment was where a person takes his or her own life. In this Amendment the life is taken by the survivor or by a third party, and not by the person himself. Again, for those who are studying the matter so carefully, your Lordships will remember that the Criminal Law Revision Committee considered whether it would be desirable to repeal and replace the whole of Section 4 of the Homicide Act, since it was concerned with suicide. They reached the conclusion, however, that the offence of killing another, although it was in pursuance of a suicide pact, which is the subject of the section as amended by this Bill, and that of complicity in another's suicide, with or without a suicide pact, which is the subject of the Bill, are different in substance; and they recommended that the former offence should remain one of manslaughter and subject to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

One must again recognise that the circumstances of the offence may vary widely. Two people may be found in a gas-filled room, one dead but the other capable of being revived, with all the indications that a genuine suicide pact was intended and that both persons wanted to die. Whether it was the survivor or the deceased who turned on the gas will, I agree, make little difference as to the moral culpability of the survivor. It will, however, determine whether proceedings against him, if any, are brought under Section 4 of the Homicide Act, or under Clause 2 of the Bill. If proceedings were to be brought in such a case, it is unlikely that any court would consider awarding anything like so heavy a punishment as even the reduced maximum sentence of seven years suggested by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. On the other hand, as I have said—and I will not repeat it—the circumstances of a suicide pact may be such that the moral culpability of the survivor is great. He may genuinely have intended to die, but be of such a character that the prospect of death becomes more attractive if he can persuade another, perhaps to begin with against his or her will, to share it; or he may secretly have hoped to survive, provided that the other died. In such a case, the offence would be a grave one.

We say that the maximum penalty for an offence involving the taking of the life of another should be high, both to emphasise the grave view which the law takes of such conduct and to meet the worst cases that may arise. As I said to your Lordships before, the fact that the offence may attract a life sentence does not mean that the courts will award excessive punishment in appropriate cases. I gave your Lordships the figures, but I will look into them and try to get them broken down, so as to remove, if possible, the doubts which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has. In the meantime, I think the distinction which we now make in these cases between the person who takes his or her own life—and then deciding whether someone else aided or abetted—and the person who is killed either by the survivor or by somebody else, is worth keeping. After all, however sorry one may be, it is a very serious matter indeed to take human life. I think we should keep that distinction.

I do not want to take up too much time, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will forgive me if I do not go on further, because I know that other Business is to follow. I will consider very carefully what the noble Lord has said. I will consider the two cases together, and I will also consider the implied point in the two Amendments: that they should be treated similarly and not differently. But I felt that I should give your Lordships the view I have formed at the moment.


I will certainly withdraw my Amendment, but I should like to be in a position to put the matter before the House on Report stage. I think it is down for next Thursday, this day week.


If the noble Lord will allow me to say so, I feel that, in view of the most interesting discussion we have had, we certainly ought to have a separate Report stage. Long before I came into the Chamber I had come to that view, and I will do my best to consider, in the time available, the interesting points which have been raised.


If the noble Viscount can let my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger and myself have the figures he has promised well before next Thursday, I think we shall be in a position to consider this matter again. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Remaining clause and Schedules, agreed to.

House resumed.