In the recent judgment of R (on the application of Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire UKSC 46, the Supreme Court clarified that the standard of proof for all conclusions at an inquest – including unlawful killing and suicide – is the balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal standard of proof.
In this case, a prisoner, James Maughan, died by hanging in his prison cell. Two elements must be established before suicide can be found: it must be shown that the deceased took his own life and that he intended to kill himself (or another).
At his inquest, the Coroner directed that the jury could not reach a short-form conclusion of suicide because the evidence was insufficient to establish suicide to the criminal standard. Instead, the Coroner invited a narrative conclusion, in which the jury concluded that on the balance of probabilities that Mr Maughan had intended to hang himself. His family brought the claim which resulted in this appeal on the basis that that conclusion was not open to the jury because the criminal standard of proof should have been applied to narrative, as well as short-form, conclusions of suicide.
By a 3-2 majority (with Lady Arden giving the leading judgment), the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, holding that the applicable standard of proof is the civil standard. Lord Kerr and Lord Reed gave dissenting judgment: they would both have allowed the appeal and held that there would be nothing untoward in applying a higher standard of proof to determinations of suicide and unlawful killing; this would not create inconsistency.
Lady Arden gave four particular factors which led her to dismiss the appeal:
- The common law does not demonstrate any cogent reason for not applying the civil standard;
- The criminal standard may lead to suicides being under-recorded and to lessons not being learnt;
- The changing role of inquests and changing societal attitudes to suicide tend in favour of reviewing the standard of proof – inquests are now concerned with the investigation of deaths, and not with criminal justice; and suicide is no longer a crime;
- Other commonwealth jurisdictions apply the civil standard to suicide verdicts.
There is now a clear approach to be taken across all inquests, whether in short form or narrative: the standard of proof is the balance of probabilities.
An effect of this lower standard of proof is likely to be a rise in unlawful killing inclusions. It is also likely to be easier for coroners to conclude that someone has committed suicide than it was before Maughan because they no longer have to be ‘sure’ about the deceased’s intentions.