The judgment of Kerala High Court quashing a criminal case registered against a village officer for attempting suicide has brought to the fore again the need for decriminalising the offence under Section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The court while passing the verdict observed that decriminalisation of attempt to suicide is the general view of courts and legal luminaries. “Criminal prosecution followed by conviction and imposing substantive sentences and fine on those convicted of suicidal behaviours are believed to constitute an affront to human dignity.”
Justice K. Haripal (since retired) observed that suicidal behaviour was typically a symptom of psychiatric illness or an act of psychological distress, suggesting that the person requires assistance in his personal and psychological life, not punishment with imprisonment or fine.
The Judge said that medical circles also believed that it was not an offence against the State, but on the contrary, the State itself might be indirectly responsible for the plight of the victim who was left with no other alternative but to end his life. From a societal perspective, "decriminalization is a more sensitive and humane way of dealing with the problem compared to prosecution." What was important was to give sociological and psychological support to the victim rather than trying to punish him/her.
The Law Commission in 1971 and 2008 had recommended scrapping of Section 309. Besides, the Supreme Court in Common Cause v. Union of India and another case in 2018 had recommended Parliament consider decriminalising the offence, saying the provision had become anachronistic. It had made the observation while issuing guidelines with respect to passive euthanasia.
The court noted that Section 115(1) of the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 says that any person who attempts suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the code. The Act regards a person who attempts suicide as a victim of circumstances and not an offender. The Supreme Court has held that Section 115 which creates a presumption of severe stress has an impact on Section 309.
The petitioner said she attempted suicide under severe stress as she was allegedly abused and pressured by the president of Puthur grama panchayat in Thrissur and the president's henchmen to issue income certificates manually to their men against the office procedure of issuing them online.