Papyrus, the prevention of young suicide charity, has launched a campaign to change the high standard of proof coroners’ courts must use when reaching a conclusion of suicide. The charity warns that the law is hiding a growing national crisis and perpetuates the stigma around suicide.
Despite decriminalisation in 1961, coroners still use the criminal standard of proof, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, to determine a death as suicide. This must prove it was committed by the victim and was intentional, rather than the standard used for civil cases, which are determined ‘on the balance of probabilities’.
Recent figures show there were 6,188 deaths recorded as suicides in the UK in 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is up from 6,122 the previous year, continuing a pattern of increasing incidents since 2007. But it could be much higher.
Analysis by Professor Colin Pritchard at Bournemouth University suggested that if coroners used the civil standard of proof, recorded suicides could increase by as much as 30 – 50 per cent.
Founder of Papyrus, Stephen Habgood, is focusing the campaign on pressuring legislators and accuses the government of inaction, ‘Even with the support of its own Chief Coroner, the Government has continued to accept the use of the criminal standard of proof in reaching suicide conclusions,’ he said. ‘In fact, the Ministry of Justice has steadfastly refused to change the way coroners reach a suicide conclusion.
‘This leads those of us campaigning on the issue to conclude that they want to deliberately suppress the figures around the number of people who take their own life each year.’
The House of Commons Health Committee published a report this March recommending a change in the law. It said: ‘The current standard of proof causes misclassification of deaths by suicide, leading to an underestimation of the numbers of individuals who have taken their lives by suicide.’
Professor Louis Appleby told the committee ‘Its equivalence with criminal proof reflects the history of suicide.
‘There is a principle here, which is that the standard of proof is a reflection of a system that is full of prejudice and stigma, which we ought to dismantle.’
Words: Sid Hayns-Worthington