Coroners Inquests, and the standard of proof for suicides and unlawful killings

R (on the application of Maughan) (Appellant) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire (Respondent) [2020] UKSC 46

On the 13thNovember 2020, we saw the Supreme Court hand down a judgement that in both short form and narrative conclusions at Coroner’s Inquests for suicide and unlawful killings, the standard of proof is the civil standard on balance of probabilities. When contrasting this to the previous law where the burden of proof was the criminal standard (beyond all reasonable doubt) it can be seen to be a significant development in the law as it has drastically lowered the standard needed. 

This judgement stemmed from the case of James Maughan, who was found hanging in his prison cell at HMP Bullingdon in July 2016. The 2016 inquest saw the coroner advise the jury that they could not safely reach a short form conclusion using the criminal standard of proof (beyond all reasonable doubt), to decide whether he had intended to fatally hang himself. Instead, they were directed to write a narrative conclusion, which uses the lower civil standard of proof on balance of probabilities. However, Maughan’s brother believed the coroner’s advice to the jury was wrong and that the civil standard of proof could not be applied, and so started the appeal process for judicial review. 

The resulting conclusion saw the Divisional Court find that the standard of proof for both short form and narrative conclusions was the civil standard of proof, which was also corroborated by the Court of Appeal in regards to suicide.  There were further considerations as to the correct standard for unlawful killing, for which it was decided it should be the criminal standard. As a result, the Supreme Court had to give a judgement on both suicide and unlawful killing, and whether it should be the civil or criminal standard for short form and narrative conclusions. 

The appeal was dismissed on the 13thNovember 2020 by Supreme Court Justice Lady Arden, as the ‘standard of proof was lowered for all conclusions at inquest proceedings’. The majority judgement was that for both short form and narrative conclusions for suicide and unlawful killings, the standard of proof was the civil standard. 

Lady Arden focused on the following two aspects. One- there is no rule in primary legislation for what standard was to be used. And secondly, the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, note (iii) precisely states that the standard of proof for both is the criminal standard. However, Lady Arden used a statement from the Ministry of Justice, that showed the current standard of proof is established under case law. Therefore, the decision made established that the 2013 Rules could not enforce a change to the law, as it was only secondary legislation and Parliament had not intended to use it to change or codify the law. Lady Arden made it clear that note (iii) was a matter of principle, and it did not take away the powers of the court to develop the law. 

Lady Arden decision stemmed from the perception that different standards of proof in each conclusion would lead to an internally inconsistent system of fact finding when considering the circumstances of deaths. If applied, the criminal standard of proof in suicide cases could lead to fewer conclusions of suicide and a lower rate of recording, an unwelcome result when it is necessary to understand the causes of suicide for prevention, in addition to the public interest in accurate suicide statistics. 

Whilst the civil standard for short form conclusions have been applied to suicide short form  conclusions since 2018, the inclusion in cases of unlawful killings is a major development in the law. It will be interesting to see the impact this has upon future inquests leading to criminal trials. It must also be considered whether it will lead to a fall in public confidence, especially if cases that go to a criminal trial fail with insufficient evidence for conviction beyond all reasonable doubt. Is Lady Arden correct in believing that the public understand the difference between a finding at an inquest and one at a criminal trial, where the accused has their right to participate in the process? I believe that we must wait for future inquests resulting a criminal trial to see the true impact this development has had.  

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