Statement on the Suicide Act

Maria Eagle

17 September 2008

Justice Minister Maria Eagle has made a statement on clarifying the law on assisting suicide to deal with the misuse of the internet.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle):

There has been growing concern in recent years about whether current law is adequate to deal with misuse of the internet to promote suicide and suicide methods. The government shares the concerns that have been expressed about such misuse, in particular about suicide websites and the influence they may have over vulnerable people, especially young people.

In response to a question from my honourable friend the Member for Bridgend (Madeleine Moon) on 11 March 2008, my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) said that we were looking at this issue and would make an announcement as soon as possible (Official Report, column 141) . The government subsequently accepted in full the recommendations of the Byron Review including that consideration should be given to whether the law in this area could usefully be clarified. This statement sets out our conclusions.

The law of suicide comprises two offences. The first is the offence under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring a suicide or a suicide attempt; and the second is an offence under section 1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 of attempting to aid, abet, counsel or procure a suicide or a suicide attempt. Actions to assist or attempt to assist suicide can be carried out on- or off-line.

The complexity of the law in this area stems from the unusual nature of the offence in section 2 of the Suicide Act which provides accessory liability in respect of something which is not of itself criminal. We believe that the law as it stands is capable of catching the sort of material that is causing concern and, more generally, the encouragement of suicide through the medium of the internet. But in practice the application of the law, particularly in terms of what constitutes an attempt to commit the section 2 offence is complicated. It is difficult both to understand and to explain.

Accordingly, we have concluded that the scope of the current law should not be extended but that the existing statutory language of section 2 of the Suicide Act should be simplified and modernised in a way which will make it clearer for everyone to understand. Simplifying and modernising the language of the law should provide reassurance that the law is capable of reflecting the new ways of communicating and accessing information. This approach also builds on a recommendation from the Law Commission that there is a strong case for updating the language of section 2.

We therefore intend to legislate to update the Suicide Act as soon as Parliamentary time allows. And with the support of my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins) and the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the Northern Ireland Executive (Michael McGimpsey), the legislation will also include Northern Ireland. The updated legislation will comply, as does the existing law, with the requirements of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.