The 1961 Suicide Act

1 Suicide Act 1961

"Self-murder" became a crime under common law in England in the mid-13th Century. It was not only an offence against God, but against the King and against nature. They were tried posthumously by a coroner's jury. If they were convicted as having murdered themselves, this was "felo de se" (a felon of himself ). Their goods, including all household items and money, debts owed to them, were forfeit to the Crown The result was that when someone "committed" suicide, especially if he was the head of the household, the family would be reduced to abject poverty.

'Self-murderers' were denied a Christian burial, their bodies were buried `profanely'. The individual was buried, often at a crossroads, naked and with a wooden stake through the body. It was to be interred at night, placed naked and face down.

A diagnosis of melancholy (traditional description of depression) would often be described during this period as "the devil's bath", a state from which Satan "compelled such crazed souls to think such damned thoughts. Depression was believed to be the primary means used by the Devil to insert suicidal thoughts among the spiritually weak.                  Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

                                                                                                            Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

Public attitudes were changing  towards suicide in the 1900's. A growing resistance to a law which seemed too harsh. A greater willingness to see suicide as the result of an unbalanced mind. Jeanette Stockell, was a casualty nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in London in the 1950s, says they were legally obliged to inform the police whenever an attempted suicide was brought in. "I worried about this... it did not seem appropriate for the police to be involved".

The general public was also less willing to follow the church of England teachings. Writing in the Listener in June 1959, Alisdair Macintyre said, "The Church of England does not express the religion of England any more".

In 1936, considering verdicts available to coroners' courts, a government committee recommended that the verdict "felo de se"no longer be available in cases of self-killing, but should be replaced by a non-committal statement that the deceased "died by his own hand". More recently, the law has changed again, A Coroner can now apply the less stringent civil  "balance of probabilities" rather than the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt".  The change follows the death of a man called James Maughan, who was found hanging in a cell at a prison in Oxfordshire. The three appeal court judges acknowledged that the conclusion that Maughan had killed himself was distressing for his family as they held strong Catholic beliefs. They  quoted a statement from Catholic deacon David Palmer that "indicated the teaching of the Catholic church is that suicide is contrary to love for the living God and is considered a grave sin".

The 1959 Mental Health Act was a major influence in changing the law on suicide: The Act's provisions would cover most of the cases of attempted suicide in which it was considered necessary to remove the victim. Section 136 gave powers to a police constable to take a person from a public place to a place of safety (psychiatric hospital). Ken Robinson was a Labour MP (see above). He was a significant initiator and contributor to both the 1959 and 1961 Acts,

The provisions of the Act had an important influence on the Church of England committee which considered suicide law. In the "legal" section of the booklet titled "Ought Suicide to be a Crime?", the first words of the first recommendation were "Attempted suicide should cease to be a crime..."The very small committee never made any attempt to discover the views of church members other than themselves.

'Why did the Church not oppose decriminalisation ?' Most church people did not know it was happening, and would have opposed it if they did. 

Rab Butler (see above) first became a conservative government minister before the second world war. By 1960 he had been Minister of Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal and Home Secretary. Butler took a life long interest in issues of mental health. He served as President of the National Association of Mental Health (later MIND) for many years and had personal experience with suicide. His aunt threw herself under an underground train at Victoria station.

The original proposal to decriminalise suicide was Kenneth Robinson. Kenneth Robinson put his first Parliamentary Question about suicide law to Rab Butler on 6 February 1958. He followed it with nine oral and four written questions on the subject over the next two and a half years. It was the potential criminal stigma, and even possible imprisonment," Robinson argued, that "leads people to pretend to their doctor that the suicide attempt was an accident, thus making medical treatment almost impossible. "Those who commit or try to commit suicide are mainly persons who are under sudden emotional stress, or are suffering from an acute depression. When a man is driven to the lengths of trying to take his life, and fails, what good can it do to anyone to keep him in custody awaiting trial, to bring him before the courts and perhaps send him to prison for three or six months ?" 

Dr. Doris Odlum, a consultant psychiatrist, (see above) also played a key part in the passing of the Suicide Act. Dr. Odlum's most important platform in terms of the change in the suicide law was her chairmanship of the BMA/Magistrates Joint Committee. Chad Varah (founder of the Samaritans) describes his own position, and how Dr. Odium overcame it: "She wanted my support in getting attempted suicide decriminalised. She thought if I was against it she would not succeed. At the beginning I was doubtful about the wisdom of it. Someone who had attempted suicide and not died could be brought before a court and be made to consider various forms of help. The magistrate would say, "You need psychiatric help. I require you to present yourself to hospital and if you refuse I will send you to prison, and I think it would not be good for you, but I do have the power to do it.' That is what happened throughout the Met area. Doris said, 'If only the rest of England was like that. You would not believe what goes on - the stupid magistrates want to punish attempted suicides. You in London have no problem, but for that to happen everywhere it needs to be decriminalised.' So I did give her my support.

Dr. Odium then persuaded the Joint Committee (BMA and Magistrates) to agree that attempted suicide should be removed from the criminal courts. 

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On the 18th September 1959 Parliament was dissolved, and the election took place on 8 October. The result was an overwhelming Conservative win. The new Parliament assembled on the 20th of October 1959, the day after publication of the Church of England booklet "Ought Suicide to be a Crime?"


Yet despite this, only days after returning from his honeymoon, on 4 November 1959, Butler referred part of the suicide issue to his new Criminal Law Revision Committee. They were not asked to consider the actual de-criminalisation of suicide and attempted suicide; that was firmly reserved for the Home Secretary Rab Butler to decide. The Committee were only asked to consider what amendments in the criminal law might be required.

The next day, 5 November, was the day the new Parliament put its first questions to the Home Secretary. During these, Kenneth Robinson asked Butler "if he will introduce, during the present Session, legislation to amend the law relating to suicide and attempted suicide". Butler's answer was oblique, but positive. However, suicide did not appear on any of the lists of proposed Government Bills. It does appear mid-way down the list for private members. "The ballot" is the procedure in which backbench M.P.s draw, lottery-fashion, for chances to introduce a Private Member's Bill. 

                                                                                                          Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

On 15 February 1961 the Suicide Bill was published and placed in the House of Lords; known as "1st Reading". Not a single change was made to the Bill in is passage through Parliament, and the final Act was the same as this Bill at 1st Reading.

Twice in the short speech Kilmuir referred to the support of "religious opinion, the medical profession and magistrates" for the Bill. The debate that followed did not last long. Five people spoke; none of them opposed the Bill: The Bishop of Carlisle diffidently raised the age old question of suicide and natural law: "I cannot help but think that natural law would determine the taking of one's life as unlawful." However the Bishop did not pursue it, and neither did he oppose the Bill.

The Committee stage and 3rd Reading were all completed without difficulty and the Bill emerged from the Lords unchanged. Having completed its progress through the Lords, the Bill was then sent to the House of Commons, where it did not surface until July.

There was no public discussion at all during this interim period on the issue of suicide law reform, but then, there was much else to claim the world's attention: (Soviet Unionman into space, Cuban Bay of Pigs crisis).

On 14 July the Suicide Bill had its 2nd Reading in the House of Commons. It was a Friday, and the Suicide debate began at 3.27 pm In those days the House always adjourned at 4 PM sharp on Fridays. Fridays in Parliament were rarely considered newsworthy by the media.The Bill was introduced with a short opening speech by the new junior Minister, Charles Fletcher-Cooke. It was a very thin House. Kilmuir spoke for a bare eight minutes, At the end, he pointed out that "I have been short, and I feel that other hon. Members may be equally short, because this is a matter which we all want to see on the Statute Book." Five of the following six speakers did co-operate; most spoke for under three minutes. All supported the Bill.

Eric Fletcher (Lab., Islington East) made the most religiously oriented speech of the whole Parliamentary debate, "to make a change in what has been the law of England ... for nearly 1,000 years; indeed, since the time of King Edgar ... suicide has been regarded as the most heinous of felonies - the felony of self-murder. It has been said that no man has a right to destroy his own life, because life is a gift from God, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility. Suicide, like murder, is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, and in some ways it is more grievous than murder because it precludes the opportunity for repentance."

Kenneth Robinson, a modest speech that lasted less than two minutes. But then, at 3.59 Leo Abse, Labour MP for Pontypool, rose, and began to speak, and was in mid-sentence when the hour struck. The Hansard reads: It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned. It was a distinct possibility the Bill would lapse, having been "talked out".

                                                                                                           Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

But the Bill was not lost. A time slot was found, not on the Monday or Tuesday following, but on Wednesday 19 July at 11.54 p.m., just before midnight, the Bill returned to the floor of the House and Abse continued his speech. He spoke for 23 minutes, in support of the reform.. The Bill had its Committee stage on Tuesday, 25 July. During the deliberations, only one speech was made on Clause 1, the part of the Bill which decriminalised suicide.

Kenneth Robinson,spoke : , "about one in ten have been brought to the courts, making about 600 charges a year. Most of those were discharged or put on probation, but an average of about 40 per annum have been sent to prison for attempted suicide. The average length of sentence is rather more than three months, and in some cases it has been six months or even longer."

The 3rd Reading of the Suicide Bill took place on 28 July, another Friday. As the Committee had proposed no amendments, and the Bill was unchanged from its 2nd reading, this final stage was very short. Kenneth Robinson had the last word, at 1.17 PM and the Bill then passed without a division. Again, the attention of Parliamentary reporters was elsewhere. The Royal Assent to the Bill was given at 6.31 PM on 3 August, 1961.

Thanks to Sheila Moore's 2002 Ph D. Thesis: for some details covered in this blog.

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Friday, 24 September 2021

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