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Penal Code review committee pushing for the repeal of legislation on attempted suicide, recommends treatment in place of criminalisation

The decriminalisation of attempted suicide has become one of the highest priorities of the Penal Code Review Committee (PCRC), as it has found that the criminal justice system is not well-equipped in dealing with individuals experiencing suicide ideation.

The PCRC, which was convened by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Ministry of Law (MLaw) in July 2016, proposed the repeal of section 309 of the Penal Code on the following grounds in a report that was released on Sunday (9 Sep):

The criminal justice system is not ideal for managing cases of attempted suicide, as those who attempt suicide are typically distressed individuals who require medical help and may not be deterred by punishment. There is also global shift towards the decriminalisation of suicide.

Citing the legislative approaches to attempted suicide in the United Kingdom and India, the PCRC highlighted that s.136 Mental Health Act 1983 in England and Wales "provides for the detention and medical assessment of a person found in a public place who appears to be mentally disordered and to be in immediate need of care or control," while s.115 Mental Healthcare Act 2017 in India "effectively decriminalised attempted suicide – under section 115, any person who attempts suicide will be presumed to be suffering from mental illness, and will not be punished under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code".

The PCRC elaborated on the steps taken by the authorities in India in handling cases of attempted suicide:

Instead, “the Government will have a duty to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to a person, having severe stress and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of attempt to commit suicide.”

In addition, under Section 100 of the 2017 Act, the Police have a duty to take under protection any person suspected of having a mental disorder, and to refer the person to the nearest public health establishment within 24 hours for assessment of the person’s healthcare needs.

The public health establishment will then be responsible for assessing the person’s needs, and arranging for treatment as provided for in the other sections of the 2017 Act.

Thus, the amendment of s.7 Mental Health (Care and Treatment Act) 2008 (MHCTA 2008) was proposed by the PCRC "to empower the Police to apprehend and take persons who are reasonably suspected to have attempted suicide, and who are believed to be dangerous to himself or other persons, to a medical practitioner for assessment".

The proposed amendment will also grant "medical practitioners and the courts the authority to order detention at a psychiatric institution for the purpose of treatment, if it is assessed to be necessary in the interests of the subject’s health or safety or for the protection of others".

Other recommendations made by the PCRC regarding attempted suicide include the following proposals:

  • Amend the Police Force Act 2004 (PFA 2004) to empower the Police to intervene immediately to prevent harm and loss of lives from suicide attempts;
  • Amend the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to allow the Police to seize evidence in cases of attempted suicide;
  • Amend ss. 305 and 306 of the Penal Code to criminalise the abetment of attempted suicide, update archaic language, and to include an additional mens rea [intention or knowledge that underlies the offence, as opposed to the action that brought about the offence] requirement.

The Penal Code Amendment Bill is said to be tabled in Parliament in November this year.

The PCRC, which is co-chaired by Minister at the Prime Minister's Office Ms Indranee Rajah and Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of Health Mr Amrin Amin, "comprises leading practitioners and thought leaders from the private sector, academia and the public sector, including the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Judiciary," according to MHA's press release on Sunday (9 Sep).

Attempted suicide was decriminalised in England and Wales with the introduction of the Suicide Act in 1961, although other persons who are found guilty of abetting suicide or suicide attempts may still be prosecuted under the Act.

In contrast, attempted suicide remains a criminal offence in Singapore and Malaysia, and may bring about imprisonment up to a year or a fine, or even both, under s.309 of the Penal Code in both countries.

Much like s.377A, the current legislation governing attempted suicide in Singapore and Malaysia is a relic from the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted during the era of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent, and yet many decades post-independence, the governments of both nations have yet to repeal, or at least amend, the relevant provisions in favour of the decriminalisation of attempted suicide.

However, prosecutions under s.309 are rare in Singapore. In 2015, out of the 1,096 reported cases of attempted suicide, 837 people were arrested, and only an average of 0.6 per cent of the reported cases between 2013 and 2015 were brought to trial.

Prosecution is still being resorted to in handling cases of suicide attempts, particularly for individuals who have committed repeated attempts, as only the courts are able to compel people to seek treatment through a mandatory treatment order.