What is the Legal Defence of Suicide Pact?
In Victoria, suicide pact is a partial defence to murder. It is governed by section 6B of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic).
Section 6B stipulates that a person is to be convicted of manslaughter (and not murder) if they survived a suicide pact but killed the deceased party. If a person is found guilty of manslaughter by suicide pact, the defendant is liable to a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. This penalty is significantly more lenient than other manslaughter charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment (s5).
A suicide pact is considered to be an agreement between two or more persons (s6B(4)). The object of the agreement must be the death of all parties involved. It is irrelevant whether each party agrees to take their own life or the life of another party.
If the person entering the agreement does not have a ‘settled intention of dying in pursuance of the pact’, they will not be considered to have entered a suicide pact and cannot rely on this defence (s6B(4)).
Further, if a person is a party to the homicide but not a party to the suicide pact, this does not negate criminal liability (s6B(3)).
Proving a Suicide Pact in Court
The defence bears the onus of establishing that the accused killed the deceased pursuant to a suicide pact. Three elements must be proven on the balance of probabilities to establish the defence of suicide pact:
- There was an agreement between the accused and the deceased to seek the death of all parties to the agreement (i.e. a ‘suicide pact’ existed);
- The accused’s act that resulted in the death of the deceased was committed in pursuance of the suicide pact; and
- At the time that the accused caused the death, they had the settled intention of dying pursuant to the agreement.
The accused must prove the existence of an actual suicide pact. If the accused only holds an honest and reasonable belief in the existence of a suicide pact, this is not sufficient to satisfy the first element (R v Iannazzone ). Further, if the accused passively allowed the deceased party to commit suicide, this does not satisfy the definition of a ‘suicide pact’ (H Ltd v J (2010).
Section 6B(1) states that, in relation to a charge of murder, the jury may only return a verdict of manslaughter by suicide pact if they are satisfied that:
- The prosecution has proven all the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt; and
- The defence has proven, on the balance of probabilities, that the accused caused the death pursuant to a suicide pact.
If the defendant fails to establish the defence of suicide pact, then they are liable to be found guilty of murder (s6B(1)).
Should it be found that the accused’s actions do not amount to murder because they did not directly cause the death of the deceased, the accused may be liable for other suicide-related offences including:
- Inciting another person to commit suicide; and
- Aiding and abetting another person to commit suicide; or
- Committing either of the above offences pursuant to a suicide pact (s6B(2)).