By Marie-Therese Groarke
In the past few years the malevolent underbelly of the internet has grown in the form of websites that encourage suicide. These sites have been implicated in the deaths a number of vulnerable teenagers. More recently the media has been discussing the deaths of Joanne Lee, 34, and Steve Lumb, 35. They met each other at an internet forum for people who want to kill themselves, then made a suicide pact and gassed themselves in a car. As the publicity and knowledge of these sites increased it became clear that the law needed to be modernised to deal with a 21st Century problem.
The position on assisted suicide used to be governed by the Suicide Act 1961. Under that Act it was an offence to promote suicide, but no website operator was prosecuted under the Act. This may have been due to the uncertainty as to whether the Act applied to an online scenario as well as a face-to-face meeting. In February 2010 s 59 Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into force making substantial changes to the law on assisting or encourage suicide.
The position now is that a person commits an offence if he or she does an act which is capable of encouraging or assisting another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide, and if he or she intends the act to encourage or assist another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide. The person committing the offence need not know, or even be able to identify, the other person. So, for example, the author of a website promoting suicide who intends that one or more of his or her readers will commit or attempt to commit suicide is guilty of an offence, even though he or she may never know the identity of those who access the website. Moreover, the offence applies whether or not a person actually commits or attempts to commit suicide.
One problem that the law might have to grapple with is clarifying precisely when an act constitutes ‘encouraging’. Some of the websites are said to operate in a secretive way and pass themselves off as ‘support’ sites offering a forum where people can share their problems with one another. When does support and sharing become encouragement? The law may also struggle with how to address the difficulty of websites located in different jurisdictions.