I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
At the outset I would like, as I am sure would all Members of the House, to extend sympathy to the relations and friends of those who died in such tragic circumstances last week. Those tragic events serve to remind us of the turmoil and torture to which some people, outwardly leading normal lives, can be subject and of the consequences of their actions for others.
The purpose of this Bill, the Criminal Law (Suicide) (No. 2) Bill, 1993, is to abolish the crime of suicide and thereby remove the stigma of criminality from those who feel that the taking of their own lives is their only solution.
Although no person has been prosecuted in connection with a suicide or an attempted suicide in the recent past, the possibility still exists under the common law system inherited from England that a person could be prosecuted for attempted suicide and receive a sentence of life imprisonment.
Suicide itself is not a statutory offence but it is a felony at common law. Similarly, attempted suicide is not a statutory offence. However, under the common law any attempt to commit an indictable offence — and suicide would be classed as an indictable offence — is itself an indictable offence. Because attempted suicide is a common law offence and as there is no statutory provision limiting the penalty which may be imposed, a court may impose whatever fine or term of imprisonment it considers appropriate, up to and including life imprisonment, on a person convicted of attemped suicide.
There is one statutory provision dealing with attempted suicide but its sole purpose is to provide summary jurisdiction to deal, in certain limited circumstances, with a person who confesses to attempted suicide. The statutory provision does not affect the substantive law on suicide or attempted suicide when prosecuted on indictment. The statutory provision I refer to is section 9 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act, 1871, which was amended by section 85 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1936.
As I have explained, suicide is a felony and as such, any person who is an accessory before the fact to a suicide or who counsels, procures or commands a person to commit suicide may be tried, convicted and punished in all respects as if he were a principal felon. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanor and a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the commission of any misdemenour is liable to be tried, indicted and punished as the principal offender. The provisions governing these matters are set out in the Accessories and Abettors Act, 1861.
Having given the House a brief outline of the existing law on suicide I must confess that I cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the question as to why suicide was made a criminal offence in the first place. The common law's approach to suicide reflects the attitude of a more brutal age. Indeed, the attitude to suicide up to the 19th century could be described as almost vindictive. One would think that a person who has killed himself would be beyond any sanction of the law. However, this was not the case. Up to 1870 the property of a person who committed suicide was forfeit to the State and it was only in 1882 that the British Parliament outlawed the practice of interring the remains of a person who had committed suicide in a public highway with a stake driven through the body. Nonsensical though it may seem, it was the practice at one time to hang people who had unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
The criminal law serves no purpose in dealing with the human tragedy of suicide. It does not prevent people committing suicide, it does not deter attempts at suicide and there is certainly no justification for treating people with suicidal tendencies as if they were criminals. Suicide is the ultimate cry of despair. An attempt at suicide may well be a plea for help but it certainly should not be classed as a criminal activity. What these people need is assistance and they should be given every encouragement to seek it. They should not be afraid to disclose their problems for fear of criminal prosecution. What is needed is compassion, sympathy and sound medical help, not criminal sanctions. I am sure I will have the support of this House in decriminalising suicide.
I turn now to the Bill itself. It has long been accepted that suicide should be decriminalised and it was intended to include measures to abolish the felony of suicide in a comprehensive Bill which would reform and update various aspects of the criminal law which derive from the common law. Unfortunately for reasons which I will not go into now, publication of that Bill has had to be delayed. When I took office as Minister for Justice earlier this year I decided that there should be no further delay in putting forward the Government's proposal on decriminalising suicide. I arranged for a separate Bill dealing solely with this issue to be brought forward and this has now been published and is before the House.
The Bill itself is extremely short, only three sections. The main provision is section 2 (1) states clearly and concisely that "suicide shall cease to be a crime". Abolishing the offence of suicide also automatically abolishes the offence of attempting to commit suicide. A similar situation arises in the case of the offence committed by a person who is an accessory to suicide or attempted suicide. The abolition of the offence of suicide means that it will no longer be an offence under the common law to be an accomplice to suicide or attempted suicide.
The abolition of the existing offence of being an accomplice to suicide gives rise to certain dangers. The sanctity of human life must be respected and the law cannot condone a person who wilfully encourages or assists the taking of a human life even if the actual act is self-inflicted. For this reason section 2 (2) of the Bill makes it an offence for a person to aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide or an attempt at suicide of another person.
The subsection provides that a person convicted of such an offence shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years. This is less than the existing penalty of life imprisonment but it still marks out the offence as being serious. The reason that a severe penalty is being provided for is to cover situations where a person deliberately procures the suicide of another for his own motives. For example a dominant personality, rather than committing murder, might induce his intended victim to commit suicide. A depressed person with suicidal tendancies if caught in a moment of despair would be easy prey for a manipulative person who had anything to gain from his death.
Subsection (3) of section 2 in effect provides for a verdict of complicity in suicide as an alternative verdict in cases where a person is charged with murder or manslaughter. If the facts support it, the jury may return a verdict that the accused aided, abetted, counselled or procured the suicide of another person as an alternative to a verdict of murder or a verdict of manslaughter. This type of scenario is most likely to arise in the case of a suicide pact where one person survives. The jury will have to decide on the basis of the evidence whether the accused killed the other person and is therefore guilty of murder or whether the accused was merely an accomplice to the suicide of the other person and therefore guilty of an offence under subsection (2).
Subsection (4) is a technical provision which means prosecutions can only be taken by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Because of the nature of the offence of complicity in suicide it is considered right that there should be some central control on the initiation of prosecutions under the new offence created by subsection (2).
Section 3 is a straightforward repeal of section 9 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Amendment, Act, 1871, which was amended by section 85 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1936. The section provides that where a person is charged with and confesses to attempted suicide before a judge of the District Court he may be convicted and imprisoned for any period not exceeding three months unless he does not consent to having his case heard by the District Court or unless the judge is of opinion that the charge is fit to be made the subject of prosecution by indictment rather than to be disposed of summarily.
This provision will be superfluous when the offence of suicide is abolished. Indeed, if the provision was not to be repealed it might cause confusion as to the abolition of the offence of attempted suicide.
As its short title suggests the Bill purports to deal only with the criminal law aspects of suicide. I am well aware that the question of suicide raises a significant number of issues outside the scope of the criminal law. It is horrifying to think that in 1990 and 1991 there were more than 300 suicides per annum or nearly one suicide per day in Ireland. This is not an issue about which we can be complacent. The complexity of the problem has been highlighted by a number of studies and reports. One of the better known studies was undertaken by Dr. Michael Kelleher and Ms. Maura Daly (a consultant psychiatrist) on suicide in Cork and Ireland and was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1990. They highlighted the many factors which in their opinion probably contribute to an individual act of suicide. These include physical and mental illness, alcoholism, personality structure and social isolation.
A statement made by the Psychological Society of Ireland in May 1992 also pointed out that suicide is a complex problem with sociological and environmental influences, medical and neurochemical influences and psychological influences. They remarked that suicide is everybody's business and should be dealt with in the public forum. The schools, the health boards' community care programme and the media were identified as important mediums of primary intervention in the area.
The society in their statement called for suicide to be decriminalised and this is now being done.
I have made the point that suicide raises many issues outside the scope of the criminal law but I do not wish to stray too far from the object of the Bill. However, as well as being responsible for criminal law reform I am also responsible for the operation of the prisons and suicide has important implications in this area. I would like to touch upon the question of suicides by persons in custody.
The number is running at between three and five a year. This has been a matter of concern to me and to my predecessors and I should, for the information of the House say that the strategy for dealing with suicides in prisons is as recommended in the report of the advisory group on prison deaths published in August 1991. The report has 57 recommendations and so far 50 of them have been or are being implemented. They include 24 hour medical orderly cover in eight closed institutions which was made possible by the appointment of 43 additional trained staff at a cost of £500,000 a year; an increase in the number of clinical psychologists which will shortly go up from three to six and will include a female psychologist to work in the women's prison; professional counselling of both prisoners and staff after a suicide is discovered; the installation of a cell-call system in all institutions to enable a prisoner in distress to call for help; introduction of a service by the Samaritans in seven places of detention which will shortly be extended to the remaining five places; provision of a dedicated phoneline to the Samaritans for prisoners' use which is now available in three places and which is to be extended to the remaining places as soon as possible; training for staff in suicide awareness; setting up a suicide prevention group in each place of detention to monitor developments in relation to suicide prevention and to take precautionary action on the spot; improvement in GP services; improvement in the arrangements for special observation of prisoners at risk; revision of the Rules for the Government of Prisons, 1947; improvements in committal arrangements; training with resuscitation equipment; provision of in-cell sanitation (a seven year programme).
The remaining seven recommendations are long-term in nature and will be taken into account as the prison system develops. They include the provision of a committal assessment centre, a new female prison, a new open centre for women prisoners and a special unit to cater for psychiatrically disturbed violent prisoners. The advisory group itself recognised the long-term implications of these recommendations.
While no effort is being spared in pursuing a planned programme of action in suicide prevention, it has to be said, regrettably, that no prevention programme can guarantee complete success. This is a fact which the advisory group acknowledged when they said: "if a person is sufficiently determined to commit suicide, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent him doing so". Constant and unremitting supervision of a prisoner at risk might be successful but again the report cautions that this could be "an obstacle to a person recovering from a trauma or crisis that puts him in the risk category in that the supervision itself would be oppressive." The group made the further comment that "whereas many people who commit suicide in prison are or have been regarded as at risk, suicides occur among inmates in respect of whom there is no indication whatever that they are at risk".
It will be clear that in the prisons, as in society at large, we are dealing with a highly complex phenomenon for which there are no easy remedies. In relation to prisons, I hope it is clear that all practicable steps are being taken to anticipate and prevent suicides. I wish I could confirm that these efforts will be fully effective but, given the complexities involved, I would prefer to confine myself to the hope that prison suicides will be kept to the absolute minimum.
I am grateful to you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to stray slightly from the scope of the Bill in addressing the question of suicides in prisons and would like to conclude by saying that I believe this measure will have the support of the House and express the hope that the decriminalisation of suicide, long overdue, might help in some small way to encourage those who might feel unable to seek professional help because of the criminal stigma attached to seeking such help.
I commend this Bill to the House.