While in most countries suicide is no longer a crime, it is also acknowledged that the state has an interest in the preservation of human life, prevention of suicide, and protection of vulnerable persons from harming themselves. In a civil, secular and democratic society, however, the public law principle of state protective powers has to be balanced against the private law principle of personal autonomy (personal self-determination). Under the doctrine of autonomy, competent adults of sound mind can make legally binding voluntary choices, including the so-called ‘death-choice’ (refusal of life-sustaining or life-prolonging treatment as well as suicide). To add to the complexity, whereas the powers of the state in relation to suicide and its prevention have been codified, the concepts of personal autonomy and personal liberty are grounded in common law. Stuart v Kirkland–Veenstra  VSCA 32, which is at present being considered by the High Court of Australia, exemplifies tensions that arise in the suicide-prevention area of jurisprudence. This article explores powers and duties of police officers in relation to suicide prevention and the notion of mental illness by reference to the Kirkland–Veenstra case, the relevant statutory framework and the common law.
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