The church has long held the view that suicide was a sin.
PAPYRUS challenged the Catholic church’s view that suicide was a sin, which also contributed to the stigma around suicide and the view that the suicidal person had ‘committed’ a sin. We were sent a very clear message that the Catholic church did not hold the view that a person had ‘committed a sin’ if they were clearly unwell at the time. We did the same with other faiths and received the same kind of response.
It is becoming clearer that the term ‘committed suicide’ is no longer appropriate.
I often expressed the view that the published ‘suicide statistics’ were not worth the paper they were written on, because they were a combination of verdicts for both suicide and open verdicts. I felt that the use of the very high criminal standard of proof gave a false statistic which was much lower than the actual number.
Coroners were not accepting of a text message or even a statement that the person intended to kill themselves. They wanted a signed written letter, in an age when people no longer wrote and signed letters.
Many people told me that coroners, to support the distressed family, would ask if they might prefer an open verdict rather than a verdict of suicide. I also heard numerous accounts where a person had clearly ‘contributed to their own death’, and the verdict was something other than suicide.
The legal position was confusing. Suicide was decriminalised by the Suicide Act of 1961, probably one the shortest Acts of Parliament. It made it no longer a criminal act to take or attempt to take your own life but made it illegal to assist someone else in doing so.
The reason why we continued to use the criminal standard of proof, of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, is interesting. In the 1970s, there were a number of challenges to suicide verdicts, and the judge ruled that ‘the highest standard of proof should be used in reaching a suicide verdict’. For this reason, the criminal standard of proof was ‘reintroduced’. Interestingly, when I considered the circumstances of the deaths in each case in these legal challenges, the deaths were undoubtedly suicides.
The PAPYRUS CEO and I met with Judge Peter Thornton, responsible for Coroners Courts, back in 2013, soon after his appointment, and we explained that we felt the coroner’s reluctance to return a suicide verdict was reinforcing the stigma around suicide. We also felt the use of the criminal standard of proof was no longer appropriate.
Judge Thornton even suggested we used an alternate word to suicide, an idea we rejected. We wanted coroners to use the civil standard of proof of “on the balance of probabilities”.
I wrote to every Prime Minister and Minister of Justice to press for a change to the way suicide was decided. I met with Simon Hughes when he was appointed a Secretary of State within the Ministry of Justice, expecting some support, seeing how he was a Trustee for PAPYRUS. He was not supportive of the change, given the view his mother (who was once a Samaritan) held that a suicide verdict should be reluctantly given.
We continued to take forward our campaign and eventually met Dr Philip Lee MP when he replaced Simon Hughes as Secretary of State. He was very supportive of our campaign (although his officials clearly were not!). Unfortunately, he resigned over his opposition to Brexit in 2018. Norman Lamb MP was very supportive of our campaign, having lost his sister to suicide, noting that the coroner asked him if he would prefer an open verdict when her death was clearly suicide.
Over time we gained support for our campaign from other suicide prevention charities, including the Samaritans, the Manchester University National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health, and The National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group.
The change to the law came about when a family challenged a suicide verdict, arguing that it was not proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. In November 2020, the Supreme Court delivered a judgment on the case of R (on the application of Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire. By a majority, it has confirmed that the standard of proof required for a conclusion of suicide is the civil standard “on the balance of probabilities”.
Whilst I am very proud of leading this campaign, it was the Supreme Court that brought about a timely change in the law.
The lockdown during Covid has confused matters further because during these periods, we saw a welcome reduction in suicide numbers, when we clearly expected the change in way verdicts were decided, to see the statistics deliver a more realistic number as suicides were more accurately recorded. This leaves us with a new understanding that suicides should be decided ‘on the balance of probabilities’, that is, is it more likely the person contributed to their own death.
Suicide is no longer unlawful, and the church and other faith groups no longer consider a person to have committed a sin. The use of the term ‘committed suicide’ is therefore no longer an appropriate or an acceptable term to use. However, this is not just a debate about terminology, it is about reducing the stigma around suicide so those who are struggling can seek support.
Suicide is everyone’s business, and we can all play a part in supporting those who are anxious or distressed and reducing this terrible and unnecessary waste of life.
About the Author
Stephen Habgood is a director of Making Families Count. For 9 years, Stephen was Chairman of PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide following the death by suicide of his only child Christopher in 2009. Stephen is one of the speakers for the Making Families Count webinar “Working with Families after Suicide” .