Suicide and the law
In British tradition the main social forces against suicide were legal and religious sanctions. Christianity saw suicide as a sin, and there were restrictions on the burial of a person who had died by suicide. Suicide was a crime in England from the 13th century. At that time the lands and goods of people who had died by suicide were forfeited and the body was buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart.
Forfeiture remained in the law in the 19th century, although it only applied to felo de se – deliberate acts – and not to those who had a mental disturbance (designated as non compos mentis). In 1846 the power to determine such verdicts in New Zealand was granted to coroners with a 12-man jury. The jury was reduced to six in 1885, became optional in 1908, and was abolished in 1951. Coroners continued to deliberate in the cities, but in rural areas inquests were often conducted before magistrates. Felo de se verdicts were rare – two out of 60 suicides in 1883. There were only isolated examples of religious exclusion from normal burial practice, and no record of property forfeiture. Felo de se verdicts were feared by relatives due to the shame and social ostracism which might follow.
From 1893 suicide was not a crime, but attempted suicide remained a crime until 1961. However, after 1900 it was not regarded as a serious crime – about 50 people a year were brought before the magistrate’s court charged with attempted suicide, but most were either discharged or convicted with sureties for good behaviour.
Act of the devil
Some of the language in 19th-century suicide verdicts was fierce. In 1859 a coroner decided that James Stagg, ‘Not having the fear of God before his eyes, but moved by the instigation of the devil’ slew himself ‘feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought.’1
Although attempted suicide and suicide itself were no longer crimes after 1961, euthanasia and assisted suicide remained serious crimes. This became a fraught area in relation to people suffering from painful or terminal illnesses. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society pushed for legislative change but two private member's bills failed in Parliament. In 2008 the society claimed that 71% of New Zealanders supported medically assisted dying for people with an incurable illness. The issue was highlighted in 2004 when former nurse Lesley Martin was convicted and imprisoned for the attempted murder of her dying mother.
In 2011 Sean Davison was charged with attempted murder for assisting the death of his mother. He later pleaded guilty to inciting and procuring suicide and was sentenced to home detention.
In 2015 Lecretia Seales, a terminally ill Wellington lawyer, brought a case to the High Court in 2015 arguing for her right to assisted death under the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Seales died naturally on the same day the High Court released its judgement refusing to issue the declarations she sought.
An End of Life Choice Bill introduced as a private member's bill by ACT MP David Seymour was drawn from the ballot and passed its first reading in December 2017. If this bill became law, New Zealanders aged 18 and over suffering from a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition would have the option of requesting assisted dying. Despite a record number of submissions – 35,000 – a select committee made no recommendations for change when it reported back to Parliament in April 2019. In mid-June 2019 the bill's fate remained uncertain.
In the 19th century there was extensive and highly dramatic coverage of suicides. Wellington’s Evening Post had no less than 8,601 stories on suicide between 1865 and 1915 – an average of more than one story every two days. The headlines for these stories – such as ‘A sensational suicide’ or ‘Melancholy suicide’ – demanded attention, and full details of the circumstances were reported.
Social networking and suicide
In 2009 two Victoria University researchers were scanning social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace to identify key words that might indicate a risk of self harm. Their technology picked up phrases such as ‘depressed’ or ‘I don’t want to live any more’. The people deemed at risk were then sent a gentle message and given links to helpful information.
Such coverage was questioned as the incidence of suicide shifted from older to younger people. International research strongly suggested that media coverage of suicides could contribute to subsequent suicides. People pointed to clusters of suicides and copy-cat behaviour, especially among the young. Media guidelines for the safer portrayal of suicide deaths are now available in many countries, including New Zealand.
The Coroners Act 1988, which stated that where a death was believed to be self-inflicted and an inquest was not completed, no one could make public any details of the manner of death. Following a determination that the death was self-inflicted, only the name, address and occupation of the dead person could be published unless the coroner authorised further publication – a rare occurrence.
Following Law Commission recommendations in 2014 the Coroners Amendment Act 2016 was passed. This allowed the news media (including social media) to report a death as 'suspected suicide' before a coroner's inquiry if the facts supported such a description. The chief coroner was able to allow the reporting of a suicide if the risk of copycat behaviour was small and outweighed by public interest. Restrictions on reporting the details of methods of suicide used by individuals remained.
From the early 1990s concern about rising levels of youth suicide in New Zealand stimulated concerted research and action. In 1998 the Ministry of Health, with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development) issued a youth-suicide prevention strategy. The initiatives that followed, included SPIN, a suicide-prevention comic book for young people by cartoonist Dylan Horrocks; and SPINZ (Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand), which aimed to disseminate high-quality information in an accessible form. Symposia and seminars on suicide were also held.
In 2004 the government’s youth strategy was extended to include action against suicide by New Zealanders of all ages. The New Zealand suicide prevention strategy 2006–2016 aimed to:
- promote mental health and wellbeing, and prevent mental health problems
- improve the care of people who are experiencing mental disorders associated with suicidal behaviours
- improve the care of people who make non-fatal suicide attempts
- reduce access to the means of suicide
- promote the safe reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour by the media
- support families, friends and others affected by a suicide or suicide attempt
- expand the evidence about rates, causes and effective interventions.
A new national suicide prevention strategy is currently being developed. It will by informed by He Ara Oranga – the November 2018 report of a government inquiry into mental health and addiction. Most of the recommendations of this report have been accepted by the government, including those relating to the prevention of suicide and support for people left bereaved by suicide.