UK Government to clarify the law on suicide websites

03 December 2008

Russell Williamson

The UK has announced plans to simplify the language of the Suicide Act, so that it is easier for individuals and ISPs to know when the Act applies. The changes are designed to reassure the public that the Suicide Act applies as much to online activities as to other activities.

The UK Government announced in September 2008 that it intends to update the Suicide Act 1961 to make clearer how the law on aiding suicide applies to online activities. This followed increasing public debate about the activities of suicide websites.  After conducting a review of the Act, the UK Government has decided to modernise the statutory language so that it is easier for ISPs and users to understand.

Although suicide itself ceased to be an offence in 1961, under UK legislation two offences can still be committed in relation to suicide. Section 2 of the Suicide Act currently states that it is an offence to “aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide”. Under Section 1 (1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 it is also an offence to attempt to commit an offence under the Suicide Act. The UK Government recognises that this legislation is complex, in particular in relation to what amounts to an attempt to commit an offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act. Therefore in light of the difficulty of the legislation the UK Government wishes to simplify the language. The aim is to make it easier for online businesses, ISPs and online users to understand the relevant law. The actual scope of the Suicide Act will remain unchanged.

The government observes that UK ISPs already remove illegal material when notified. However, the government hopes that the simplified wording of the Suicide Act will make it easier for them to remove offending sites. Another aim of the change is to provide reassurance that the law is capable of reflecting new ways of communicating and accessing information.

The UK Government’s review is part of a wider effort to confront the issues surrounding suicide and the Internet. It follows the Law Commission’s proposal in July 2006 for the Suicide Act to be updated and the publication of Dr Tanya Byron’s report on “Safer Children in a Digital World” in March 2008. The Byron report recognised that confusion exists over the application of the law to such suicide-promoting websites.

The Ministerial Statement notes that the updated legislation will comply, as does the existing law, with the requirements of the E-commerce Regulations 2002. This will mean that ISPs and other online intermediaries will still have the benefit of the hosting, caching or mere conduit defences provided for in the Electronic Commerce Directive.

The precise proposals as to how the wording will be updated will be published as soon as Parliamentary time allows.