Liability for Suicide

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 18th October 2006.

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Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green 12:33 pm, 18th October 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about liability for suicide;
and for connected purposes.

May I say how pleased I am to see that the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, is in his place to listen to my argument? I know how strongly he feels about this subject.

I wonder how many Members realise the extent of domestic abuse in this country. Let me give some figures. One in four women in Britain are abused in some form or another. More particularly, one in nine suffer physical abuse on a regular basis, and, worse, every week two women are killed as a result of such abuse.

When I first discovered those figures, I was absolutely horrified. That happened as a result of my involvement with the Centre for Social Justice. I had discussions with Sandra Horley of Refuge, who explained the full extent of such abuse to me. I pay tribute to Refuge for the remarkable work that it does in helping those who have been, or are being, abused, and in particular to Sandra Horley, the chief executive, whose energy and commitment is phenomenal.

I urge the Government to think positively about including an offence of liability for suicide in any new legislation, and also carefully to consider expanding the definition of diminished responsibility so that it includes a proper recognition of psychological injury. That would allow the courts properly to take account of a broader range of psychological impacts on victims of abuse.

Research undertaken in the UK and abroad demonstrates that there is a causal link between attempted or completed suicide and concurrent experience of domestic violence. In 2000, UK statistics showed that between 30 and 40 per cent. of female suicides were committed by those who had been subjected to domestic violence. In the United States, research has shown that there is a temporal connection between suicide attempts and hospital treatment for injuries resulting from domestic violence. Importantly, this research went on to show that, of the victims of domestic violence who had attempted suicide, nearly 70 per cent. had done so within six months of hospital treatment, and, staggeringly, that nearly 40 per cent. had done so on the same day, after discharge.

Let me illustrate all this by outlining the recent case of Mrs. Gurjit Dhaliwal, who hanged herself at the family home in Southall, west London, on 22 February 2005. Mrs. Dhaliwal's brother, Nav Jagpal—I understand that he is here today—said that he and his family had watched helplessly while his sister had suffered abuse over a sustained period, going back to 1979. Mrs. Dhaliwal had temporarily left her husband on a number of occasions because of the abuse; however, each time she returned. When the police found her after the suicide, they noticed that she had fresh cuts to her forehead, and they also discovered on searching the house a journal that she had kept over the last five months of her life, in which she harrowingly alleged physical and emotional abuse by her husband. In fact, Mr. Dhaliwal even admitted on questioning that he had hit her on the evening that she died. Because of that admission, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to proceed against Mr. Dhaliwal on a charge of manslaughter, on the basis that this behaviour caused his wife to kill herself.

It might assist the House if I try to explain some of the incredible twists and turns necessary under existing English law in trying to prosecute this case. There are various routes to achieving a verdict of manslaughter. In this case, the CPS tried to prove that the defendant had done something "unlawful" and "dangerous" that had caused Mrs Dhaliwal's death. However, as a foundation for such a charge of an unlawful act in English law, a prosecution has ultimately to prove that the act or those acts caused, or contributed significantly to causing, the death of the deceased.

To do that, the prosecution had to use a definition established in an Act of Parliament passed in 1861, together with more recent case law equating "psychiatric injury" with bodily harm, the proposition being that Mrs. Dhaliwal had suffered psychiatric injury as a result of this pattern of domestic violence, and that that amounted to bodily harm in the meaning of the legislation—a complicated scenario. Interestingly, on the evidence of a number of experts, who disagreed throughout the case, the court had to rule that Mrs. Dhaliwal had suffered psychological injury, but because that fell short of "psychiatric injury", it did not amount to the bodily harm definition necessary according to the law.

Let me quote what the Court of Appeal judge, Judge Roberts QC, said in summing up:

"It is very hard not to see some connection between the incident of violence which appears to have taken place shortly before and her death."

However, it was ruled that under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, it was not possible to stretch the definition of psychological injury so that it could count as bodily harm. Recognising the problem, the Court of Appeal said that it would be more satisfactory if the law provided a less convoluted route in a manslaughter conviction in cases of this kind. The following is the most apposite quote from the judge:

"I would have thought there was some force in the argument that the 'last straw' played a significant part in causing her death".

I would add that in fact, that is common sense. Surely there is hardly anybody in this Chamber or among the general public who has not long believed that there are often connections between suicide and things that have gone on before.

Refuge's recent experience of supporting Mr. Nav Jagpal in the case of his sister, Mrs. Dhaliwal, and of other cases, has led it to believe that the law as it stands offers little or no justice to such women, or to the families whom they leave behind.

I know what the House will say. Many will say that hard cases make bad laws, but I am not trying to persuade the House or the Government to change the law simply because of one case. It is not an isolated case. I offer up this case because it is such a high-profile example of what Refuge and many other campaigners believe is a failure of natural justice. It is absurd to have to rely on an Act that was passed in 1861, before psychiatry was even born and before the link between physical and mental trauma was fully appreciated. That position is supported by a number of national newspapers, including The Sun and The Times, which featured articles on this matter.

Surely the law should recognise that there are some assaults that, taken in isolation, may not appear to be life threatening, but which, when combined with a pattern of behaviour over a period of time, could result directly in the victim taking their own life. Abuse is not just about the physical effect. Someone who is regularly attacked suffers psychological problems, and that psychological damage can ultimately be more harmful than the individual and often isolated instances of physical abuse.

I know that it is tempting for someone listening to this speech to say that they do not understand what the problem is, and that someone being abused should just leave. I suppose that in a simplistic and perfect world that would be the case every time, but I am afraid that the world is not that simple, and the situation is much more complex than that. Far too many victims of abuse make qualified decisions to stay with their abuser because they cannot leave. Perhaps the fear of leaving their children behind is part of that, or the fear of having no one to turn to and no place to go, or the absence of any money. Perhaps most of all, there is the fear that should they fail to get away cleanly, the abuse that they will suffer on their return will be much greater.

Domestic violence is a major problem—in some cases, possibly because of changes to the way in which people live today, with more single women bringing up children on their own. However, domestic abuse is also found in what appear to be some of the most stable households. The key point that we should all admit and accept is that we must never make any excuse for the abuser. Abusers have no excuse. Their abuse is their responsibility, and they should face the consequences of that abuse. That is why I ask the Government to help us and the House genuinely to consider this motion for a new law of liability for suicide. We should not have to watch as any further cases collapse because the abuser's victim is dead and thus unable to testify. After all, even in financial terms, domestic violence is estimated to cost the country at least £23 billion a year.

I will leave the House not with my words, but with those of Mrs. Dhaliwal's brother, Nav Jagpal, who has campaigned strongly on this matter. After the failed attempt to prosecute, he said:

"it is unbelievable that we are allowing this kind of thing to happen all over the country."

He concluded, movingly:

"I could not save Gurjit but I will not let her death be in vain."

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, Dr. Liam Fox, Mrs. Louise Ellman, Lembit Öpik, Justine Greening, Mr. Edward Vaizey and Jim Dobbin.