In June 2017, a 17-year-old Massachusetts girl named Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after repeatedly urging her boyfriend to commit suicide via text message. It was a landmark case in the US, with prosecutors successfully arguing that words alone can be the deciding factor in a homicide case.
But how does the law work in Australia when it comes to encouraging another person to take their own life? Let’s find out.
First, we should point out that this article does not relate to assisted suicide or euthanasia, which is something else entirely. Instead, we’re focusing on the “reckless and wanton” encouragement of another’s suicide (to use a phrase from the Carter case) with wilful disregard for their probable consequence.
There are no laws in Massachusetts specifically relating to one person encouraging another to commit suicide. However, in Australia, it is indeed a crime to incite another person to take their own life.
As outlined in the Australian Capital Territory Crimes Act 1900 (which is echoed by other state and territory crime acts):
(1) A person who aids or abets the suicide or attempted suicide of
another person is guilty of an offence punishable, on conviction, by
imprisonment for 10 years.
(a) a person incites or counsels another person to commit suicide;
(b) the other person commits, or attempts to commit, suicide as a
consequence of that incitement or counselling;
the first mentioned person is guilty of an offence punishable, on
conviction, by imprisonment for 10 years.
This includes so-called “suicide pacts”, where two or more parties agree to end their lives but one survives for whatever reason. It also includes the malicious urging to take one’s own life if the accused intended the recipient(s) to act on their suggestion.
Some states go further, with specific laws prohibiting the sending of emails or text messages that incite the recipient to inflict self-harm. In South Australia, criminal liability in relation to suicide even extends to murder.
The Carter case would therefore have been somewhat less contentious in Australia, at least from a legal viewpoint.
With that said, the prosecution would still need to establish causation. For a successful conviction, the form of encouragement used by the accused must have substantially contributed to a suicide that was reasonably foreseeable. In other words, context plays a huge part.
Repeatedly urging your mentally unstable boyfriend to kill himself could end in a conviction of up to ten years in prison. Yelling “kill yourself!” to a tail-gating motorist probably isn’t a crime – even if they oblige you and drive straight off a cliff.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support or someone to talk to, contact the Lifeline Australia hotline at 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service at 1300 65 94 67 or the Kids Helpline (for ages 5-25) at 1800 55 1800.