R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46

In civil law, the standard of proof is on the balance of probabilities. In criminal law, it is beyond reasonable doubt.   

The Supreme Court (UKSC) in London recently considered the appropriate standard to be applied by coroners in determining cases of suicide or unlawful killing.

Background

The Appellant’s brother died at HMP Bullingdon in 2016. 

Inquests are, by their nature, civil proceedings and can reach either short-form or more narrative conclusions. A short-form conclusion might be recorded with simply the word ‘suicide’, whereas longer, more narrative, conclusions might be adopted in line with ECHR jurisprudence to reflect an investigation into what actually happened and what lessons might be learned.   

The domestic legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are both silent as to the standard of proof for such findings. Short-form conclusions have, however, come to be reached to the criminal standard of proof. Meanwhile, narrative conclusions have come to be reached to the civil standard.  

At the inquest, the Coroner (Respondent) decided that the jury could not safely reach a short-form conclusion of suicide. Such a verdict would require it to be established beyond reasonable doubt that the deceased (a) took his own life and (b) intended to do so. He directed the jury that, where they could not reach a short-form conclusion to the criminal standard, they could provide a narrative conclusion to the civil standard, which they did.

An application for judicial review was dismissed by the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal.  

Judgment

The UKSC, by a 3:2 majority, dismissed the appeal. 

In what was to be one of his last speeches, the late Lord Kerr dissented. Lord Reed agreed with his analysis that the criminal standard was appropriate. 

The majority judgment, given by Lady Arden, observed that case law does not bind the UKSC and, in any event, did not identify a good reason against applying the civil standard. Commonwealth jurisdictions had typically adopted the balance of probabilities as the standard in inquests.

A coroner’s inquest is not “a criminal proceeding” and to apply different standards to short-form or narrative conclusions would lead to “…an internally inconsistent system of fact-finding.”  

Comment

Societal attitudes to suicide have changed, as has the legal framework.   From a public policy perspective, the UKSC noted the criminal standard may result in under-reporting.   

What was once, bizarrely, a criminal offence is now subject to the civil fact-finding mission of inquests. Similar reasoning was extended to short-form conclusions of unlawful killing.  

It occurs that this may have significant implications for legacy issues in Northern Ireland. 

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By Paul Sullivan FRSA

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