The Suicide Act of 1961 was probably one of the briefest Acts of Parliament ever passed. It simply said that it was “the rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit suicide is hereby abrogated”, and went on to make it illegal to assist someone to end their own life.
This should have been the last time the phrase ‘committed suicide’ was ever used, but sadly the phrase is still in common use.
In a criminal court the standard of proof is ‘guilty beyond all reasonable doubt’ and because we have a presumption of innocence, it falls to the prosecution to prove the case. In civil courts the burden of proof is ‘on the balance of probability’.
When the chief executive of PAPYRUS and I went to meet the newly appointed chief coroner for England and Wales, His Honour Judge Peter Thornton, we wanted to ask him why coroners appeared to be adding to the stigma around suicide.
They appeared reluctant to return a suicide conclusion (formerly known as ‘verdict’) and in some high profile cases, where the person clearly took their own life, they returned a conclusion of accidental death, or a narrative conclusion, which may not be counted in the official statistics.
We felt that the reason for this was the application of the highest standard of proof – beyond all reasonable doubt, when reaching a conclusion. In truth, it seemed that some coroners were setting an even higher standard – beyond a shadow of doubt, and that would be an almost impossible standard to reach.
The chief coroner accepted that the standard ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ is generally the standard applied in criminal cases and that it was not an appropriate standard to be used in determining if someone had taken their own life, given the decriminalisation of suicide in 1961.
In a civil trial, one party’s case needs only be more probable than the other. The test is the balance of probabilities.
A court of law commences a trial with no knowledge; hence the blindfold on the iconic statue of Lady Justice. Lady Justice also has a set of scales in her hands; the scales of justice.
As each party presents the evidence to the court, the scales begin to tip. At the end of the trial, the winner is the party which has tipped the scale in their favour. If the case can be proven by 51 percent then the scales are tipped and the case is proven.
In the case of a suicide the coroner must represent the interest of the deceased person. The coroner is not there to ‘prosecute’ the deceased person but to determine if they intended to take their own life.
The chief coroner told us that many coroners have said that suicide could be proven on the balance of probabilities – it was much more likely that the person took their own life, but not beyond all reasonable doubt.
There might be no reasonable doubt if the deceased person had left a clear letter stating what they intend to do, but if they did not – then it is harder to decide their intentions.
Therefore suicide conclusions are currently very hard to return and we believe there to be a significant under-reporting of suicides. In addition, because it is that much harder to return a suicide conclusion, it continues to stigmatise suicide. We continue to use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ which causes offence to those who have lost a loved one in this way.
Following a number of legal challenges, by relatives who did not want the stigma of a suicide conclusion, the high court decided in 1974 that suicide should be decided using the same standard of proof as is used for criminal cases ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ – effectively deciding that the criminal test should be used when deciding if a person killed themselves.
PAPYRUS has been campaigning for years to change the burden of proof to the balance of probabilities where the coroner will have to decide if it was ‘more probable than not’ that this person caused their own death.
The recent Health Select Committee agreed with us that the burden of proof should change to the civil standard and we are waiting for the Ministry of Justice to change the law.
We are also pressing that society ceases to use the anachronistic phrase ‘committed suicide’. My son, who took his own life in 2009, did not ‘commit’ anything, so the phrase is both inaccurate and outdated.
The phrase offends those who have lost a child to suicide and we are asking the press to use more suitable terminology. It is difficult to understand why, despite our repeated requests, some highly influential papers still feel compelled to use the phrase ‘committed suicide’.
Perhaps journalists with the capacity to learn will stop using the phrase.
Stephen Habgood is chairman of PAPYRUS – Prevention of Young Suicide.