Until now, in order for a coroner or a jury to return a conclusion of suicide, they had to be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt, that the deceased took his or her own life, and that they intended to do so. Following the High Court’s decision in, R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire and others  EWHC 1955 (Admin), 26 July 2018, that is no longer the position. See the full judgment here.
Mr James Maughan was found hanging in his prison cell at HMP Bullingdon, on 11 July 2016. The jury, following an inquest into Mr Maughan’s death included the following in their narrative conclusion:
We believe James deliberately tied a ligature made of sheets around his neck and suspended himself from the bedframe ....We find that on the balance of probabilities it is more likely than not that James intended to fatally hang himself that night.
Mr Maughan’s brother challenged the conclusion of the jury, by way of judicial review, on the basis that they appeared to have found the death was as a result of suicide, but on the balance of probabilities, rather than the required higher criminal standard of proof. He argued the required standard had not been met, and so the jury’s conclusion was unlawful.
The High Court’s Decision
The court found that the narrative of the jury clearly amounted to a conclusion of suicide; despite the fact the word “suicide” had not been used. They made this finding on balance of probabilities. The court rejected Mr Maughan’s argument that a conclusion of suicide could only be returned if the higher criminal standard of proof was met.
“…It is sophistry to say that such a conclusion is not one of suicide because the required standard of proof has not been met.”
The judgment outlines that a higher standard of proof is understandably required for criminal matters, where the consequences can have potentially very serious ramifications for parties, including a loss of liberty. A coroner’s inquest once played a significant role in the criminal justice system and suicide was a criminal offence until the year 1961, which is why the criminal standard of proof was required. Given that suicide has been decriminalised for some time and the inquest process no longer forms part of the criminal justice system, it is surprising that a review of the standard of proof has not taken place until now. That said, perhaps the stigma often associated with suicide, played a role in this.
What to take away
This decision significantly changes the legal position and its impact remains to be seen, particularly given that permission to appeal has been granted. It seems likely however that there will be an increase in the number of deaths by suicide being recorded, as part of the inquest process. The relative rarity of a conclusion of suicide, (as a result of the higher standard of proof required), following an inquest will likely change. This may lead to more accurate recording of official suicide statistics, which may in turn have an impact on the governmental and societal focus placed on the issue.
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