Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. The loss of any human life is a tragedy and suicide is particularly so because it is self-inflicted and should, therefore, be avoidable. In 1991 over 300 people in Ireland committed suicide, that is close to one a day and approximately three-quarters of those who committed suicide were male. Young men in the age range of 15-25 years are in a particularly high risk category for suicide. The factors giving rise to suicide in society have been the subject of debate and research for some time but there is no one simple explanation. Studies in Ireland have highlighted that there are many factors involved. These include physical and mental illness, alcoholism, personality structure and social isolation. Although a high proportion of those who commit suicide in Ireland are unemployed, studies suggest that financial poverty itself is unrelated to rising suicide rates; rather it is the poverty of relationships and social opportunities that affects the rate of suicide. The assessment of suicide risk is notoriously difficult and few individuals who threaten suicide actually go on to complete the act.
The rate of suicide in Ireland has risen since the 1960s. Even allowing for discrepancies in statistics one study suggests the real rate of suicide doubled in the period 1968-87. Notwithstanding this increase, the rate of suicide in Ireland is still relatively moderate and is considerably lower than the rate in countries such as Denmark, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
The tragedy of suicide and the sense of bereavement of those who have lost a loved one to suicide is not helped by the fact that suicide is still a criminal offence. In my address to this House on 28 April I made my position clear. I see no justification for maintaining suicide as a criminal offence and I hope to see this Bill decriminalising suicide enacted as soon as possible. There is no evidence whatsoever that making suicide a crime has ever prevented a suicide and I suspect the stigma of criminality attached to suicide may have actually prevented an open approach to the issue as well as adding to the grief of the family and friends of the deceased.
People who are prone to suicide need help, not the threat of criminal sanctions. They need to be able to discuss their problem openly without fear of the taint of criminality. My aim in introducing this Bill is to take the act of suicide out of the scope of the criminal law and to put it firmly in the arena of health in the broadest sense where it primarily belongs. Suicide should not be a criminal activity but it is a problem that requires a caring and sensitive response from society at all levels.
Before I go on to discuss the detailed provisions of the Bill it may be helpful if I touch on the existing criminal law as it affects suicide. Suicide is a common law offence. It was not created by Statute but formed part of the ancient unwritten law of England as interpreted by judges. I cannot offer a satisfactory explanation as to why it was originally made a criminal offence other than because it was regarded as self murder. The fact that the perpetrator of the crime of suicide was dead did not prevent the common law from imposing penalties. Up to 1870 the property of a person who committed suicide was forfeit to the State and it was the practice in England to bury a person who committed suicide at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. This practice was only prohibited in England in 1882 by the Interments (felo de se) Act, 1882 —Felo de se being the legal Latin term for suicide. The relevant provision was section 2 which states, and I quote:
It shall not be lawful for any coroner or other officer having authority to hold inquests to issue any warrant or other process directing the interment of the remains of persons against whom a finding of felo de se shall be had in any public highway or with any stake being driven through the body of such person ...
There are also reported instances where persons who, having attempted suicide and survived, were subsequently hanged.
Suicide is a felony under the common law and all felonies may be tried on indictment. Under the common law any attempt to commit an indictable offence is itself an indictable offence and by virtue of this attempted suicide is therefore under the existing law an offence. A person convicted of attempted suicide may be sentenced by the courts to any term of imprisonment up to life or to a fine or to both at the discretion of the court.
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 misdemeanour and a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the commission of any misdemeanour 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, 1961.
I now turn to the Bill itself. It is extremely short, only three sections. The main provision is section 2 (1) which 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 attempted 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.
Section 2 (3) 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 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 once 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.
Suicide raises many issues outside the scope of this Bill. 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 on 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, for the information of the House, I should say that the strategy for dealing with suicides in the prisons is as recommended in the Report of the Advisory Group on Prison Deaths which was published in August 1991.
The report has 57 recommendations and so far 50 of them have been or are being implemented. These 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 increase from three to six and will include a female psychologist for 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; the introduction of a service by the Samaritans in seven places of detention which will shortly be extended to the remaining five places; the 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 of 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; the improvement in GP services; the improvement in the arrangements for special observation of prisoners at risk; the revision of the Rules for the Government of Prisons, 1947; improvements in committal arrangements; training with resuscitation equipment; and provision of in-cell sanitation — a seven year programme.
The remaining seven recommendations are more long term in nature and will be taken into account as the prison system develops. They include the provison 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".
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 think it would be appropriate at this stage to make reference to the Private Members' Suicide Bills introduced by Senator Neville in the Seanad. He presented his first Bill in 1991 and then a second slightly expanded Bill in 1992 and a third in 1993. He very graciously withdrew his own Bill when I first published my proposals at the end of April.
I regret that a commitment I gave to this House that the Government's Bill on the decriminalisation of suicide would be introduced here first was not acted upon. I regret that because matters were outside my control and, because of arrangements between the Whips in the other House, it was not possible to come to this House with the Bill first.
It has to be acknowledged that Senator Neville has played an important role in keeping this issue in the public eye and he is to be admired for his dedication to this issue and complimented on the work he has done. I know we both share the same aim, which is to decriminalise suicide, and I hope I will get the full support of this House in achieving this aim.
I commend this Bill to the House.