What is the law on suicide in Australia?

by Sydney Criminal Lawyers

Society and the law now recognise the tragic and complex factors that may surround a person’s decision to take their own life.

While it is not encouraged, there is a growing recognition that people who are suicidal are in need of help and support, not criminal charges.

But it was not always this way.

In the past, suicide was actually considered a crime, and even a kind of murder. 

As this is certainly not the case today, it may seem hard to imagine a time when it was regarded as one of the most serious offences.

In the middle ages, it could result in a person being excommunicated from the Church, no Christian burial and the confiscation of all property belonging to the person who had killed themselves.

While these penalties were largely eroded over 100 years ago, the stigma surrounding suicide and its legal classification stayed around much longer.

While suicide itself is now decriminalised, helping someone else to commit suicide is still treated very seriously by the law and is still punishable by lengthy imprisonment of up to ten years.

Anyone who incites or even counsels another to commit suicide is liable for five years in prison if the other person commits or attempts to commit suicide.

But contrary to previous law, any participants who survive a suicide pact are not guilty of murder or manslaughter but they may be vulnerable to being charged with serious offences, such as aiding or abetting someone to commit suicide. 

It will be up to the participant to prove that there was such a pact, and not some more sinister motive at play.

At common law, before the introduction of legislation to the contrary, a survivor would be deemed guilty of murder.

The law as it currently stands in NSW means that euthanasia is illegal, as it is in all states, although it was legal in the Northern Territory for a short time in the late 1990s.

However, instead of killing yourself being considered a grave crime, there are many now who see deciding their own time of death as a right - particularly when chronic health conditions are present.

And while some have the most compassionate of motives for helping another to end their life, their actions are still illegal.

One such instance of this is the death of Mr Wylie.

Mr Wylie was an old man, who, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease on frequent occasions had expressed a wish to die. He had attempted suicide on a few occasions.

His de facto partner and a long-time friend knew of his desire to end his life and so decided to place the means to do so within his control.

Caren Jennings, his long-time friend, purchased a fatal drug from Mexico and brought it back to Australia, where the it is illegal.

His de facto partner, Shirley Justins, placed some of the drug, Nembutal, next to a glass within the reach of her partner.

He then poured the drug into his glass and drank it, knowing that it would kill him.

Both women later faced serious charges and Jennings killed herself following the trial.

His de facto partner, Justins, faced the charge of murder.

She had no prior criminal history but the case centred around the state of Mr Wylie’s mental capacity at the time he took the drug.

There was considerable concern over the likelihood that Wylie was no longer mentally capable as a consequence of his increasingly debilitating Alzheimer’s.

Justins ended up with 22 months of weekend detention.

While many activist groups clamour for change, it does not look like the government will be alter the law any time soon.

In 2005, the Federal Government introduced new offences to the Commonwealth Criminal Code relating to suicide. It is now an offence to use any carriage service to access, send or publish material that counsels or incites someone into committing suicide.

The penalty for this offence does not have jail time attached, but can be punished with a maximum fine of $110,000.

Should you or a family member or friend be considering suicide, there are a number of organisations out there, including Lifeline, that can talk you through the issues that you are going through and hopefully help you see ways through such a dark time.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers is a highly experienced law firm who have a proven track record of achieving great results for clients. Visit our website to find out more.


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