The Interface of the Civil and Criminal Law of Suicide at Common Law (1194-1845)
International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 36 (2013) 343-349
7 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2014
Date Written: October 14, 2014
Nowadays, suicide is considered essentially a private act, although what constitutes suicide for epidemiological and even clinical purposes in not wholly resolved. Historically, however, at common law, the act of self-killing was a felony with significant religious and legal consequences that impacted upon the deceased person as well as upon his or her whole family. This article identifies the influence of Christian theology, legal theory, and social and medical developments upon attitudes to the felony of self-murder and its definition. It focuses upon what it identifies as the start of a liberalisation in more psychologically informed attitudes manifested in landmark court judgments involving exclusion clauses in insurance contracts in mid-nineteenth century England. The article illustrates that the law in respect of socially controversial matters neither necessarily develops in a linear progression, nor accurately reflects public sentiments. More specifically, it describes an ongoing definitional conundrum with suicide – whether it should be designated as committed by persons of significantly impaired mental state. It observes that in spite of reform to the criminal law of suicide, the civil law relating to suicide has continued to be characterized by ambivalence, ambiguity and significant vestiges of counter-therapeutic moralizing.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation