In the case of Maughan (2018), the Divisional Court determined that the criminal standard of proof (‘beyond reasonable doubt’) is no longer required for a Coroner to return a conclusion of death resulting from suicide.  The applicant appealed, but in R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire and others [2019] EWCA Civ 809, the court’s decision has been upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The inquest

Tragically, Mr Maughan hanged himself in his prison cell.  The central issues addressed at his inquest were:

  • whether he intended to kill himself; and
  • whether his death was caused or contributed to by the prison authorities.

The Coroner concluded that there was insufficient evidence to enable a jury to conclude that Mr Maughan intended to take his own life ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. He ruled that a ‘short-form’ conclusion of suicide was not open to the jury.  However, applying Schedule 1 of The Coroners’ Inquest Rules 2013 and associated guidance, he invited them to return a narrative conclusion applying the (civil) standard of whether Mr Maughan intended to take his own life ‘on balance of probabilities’

The jury concluded that on balance of probabilities Mr Maughan had intended to fatally hang himself and that increased vigilance by the prison authorities would not have prevented his death.

The Court of Appeal decision

Whether the conclusion was short form or narrative, the standard of proof when the issue of suicide arose at an inquest was ‘on balance of probabilities’. The following factors were central to the decision:

  • At an inquest the rationale for applying the criminal standard was absent; suicide was not a crime and the inquest process was inquisitorial rather than adversarial.
  • The application of the civil standard to the suicide conclusion was in line with the standard applicable to other potential aspects of a narrative conclusion - for example, whether reasonable preventative measures should have been taken.
  • The civil standard of proof was applied in other civil proceedings even when the subject matter might constitute a crime or suicide.  There is no reason why a different approach should apply to Coroners’ proceedings in relation to suicide.

Unlawful killing

Although obiter to the decision, the Court of Appeal considered that Coroners should continue to instruct juries by reference to the criminal standard of proof when considering a conclusion of unlawful killing.

What to take away

The decision changes the legal position significantly.  It seems likely that there will be an increase in the number of deaths by suicide being recorded at inquest. The Court of Appeal recommended that the standards of proof for suicide and unlawful killing conclusions are set out in the Coroners’ Rules and that current guidance is reviewed.

 The decision could also lead to more accurate recording of official suicide statistics. This resonates with government and voluntary sectors initiatives to highlight and de-stigmatise mental health issues and reverse recent increases in suicide rates, particularly amongst prisoners and young people. However, the full impact remains to be seen as we understand that the family have been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

How Capsticks can help

Capsticks is a market leader in the healthcare and inquest field and is ranked in the top tier for inquests and clinical negligence work by the Chambers Guide to the legal profession and the Legal 500. If you require inquest representation or would like to discuss any inquest related issues please contact: Philip Hatherall, Tracey Lucas or Ian Cooper.