Saturday, 5 May 2012

A brief historical note on suicide

On 28 January 2004 Lord Hutton published his Report which amongst other things declared that Dr Kelly had committed suicide.  If, instead of the Inquiry, there had been a completed inquest then the coroner could only have arrived at a suicide conclusion if it could have been proved "beyond reasonable doubt"Hutton didn't say that suicide had been proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The literal definition of the word suicide is "self murder" and it might come as a shock to know that, less than a generation before Dr Kelly's death, prior to 1961 to be precise, suicide in this country was a crime.  In other words not only would a relative experience the turmoil of losing a family member but for evermore the person who committed suicide would be regarded as a criminal.  It must surely have been unique as a crime with the accused not being able to plea any mitigating circumstances.  Religion came into it as well: certainly at one time a suicide wasn't interred in consecrated ground, it wasn't unknown for the person's body to be buried on the parish boundary.

1961 saw the passing of the "Suicide Act" and in it we read:

Suicide to cease to be a crime
The rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit suicide is hereby abrogated.

It isn't too difficult to understand why the burden of proof for a verdict of suicide to be reached at a coroner's court was just the same as that for "unlawful killing", in other words what is described as a criminal level of proof.  Society's attitude to suicide, as evidenced by the change in the law in 1961, has changed but there is still a stigma attached to it.  If you were to sit on a coroner's jury then your consideration of a possible suicide verdict would have to be viewed in the same way as if you were a member of the jury in a criminal court where somebody was being charged with murder.

At an inquest it might be for instance that the possible explanations for the death, other than suicide or unlawful killing, could be eliminated.  Perhaps there is no, or insufficient. evidence to prove that the person was unlawfully killed.  That does not automatically mean then that the person committed suicide.  Suicide (including the intention to commit suicide) has to be proved "beyond reasonable doubt".  If that can't be done then the coroner has recourse to what might be termed a default conclusion: an open verdict.

From I think 2004 it was possible for a coroner to deliver a "narrative verdict", a narrative of the events surrounding the death without coming to a conclusion as to the reason for the death - unlawful killing or whatever.  Such a verdict has been used very recently in the case of Gareth Williams whose decaying body was found in a padlocked sports bag.  The coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, considered that on the balance of probabilities the death was illegal, but that is not "beyond reasonable doubt".  If she had concluded that Mr Williams died through misadventure then the police could say "case closed" but she didn't.

Back to David Kelly.  Suicide and the intent to commit suicide has never been proved beyond reasonable doubt.  An inquest is needed.


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