Inquests: a new standard of proof for suicides

A court has determined that the standard of proof for reaching a suicide conclusion in inquest is on the balance of probabilities and not the criminal standard.

06 August 2018

Decision

The recent judgment in R (on the application of Thomas Maughan) v Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2018] EWHC 1955 (Admin) held that suicide in inquests need only be proved to the civil standard of the balance of probabilities and not, as previously thought, to the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.

The inquest

The inquest was held following a death in prison custody. The jury was directed to record a narrative conclusion, as there was insufficient evidence to consider a short form conclusion of suicide. In producing its narrative, the jury were to consider whether it was more likely than not that the deceased intended to fatally hang himself. HM Senior Coroner further instructed the jury that the standard of proof to be applied in answering this question was the balance of probabilities. The jury found that the deceased intended his actions to be fatal.

The challenge

The inquest conclusion was challenged by the claimant (brother of the deceased) on the basis that a narrative verdict should be decided on the criminal standard of proof. The claimant relied in particular on the notes to the ‘Form 2’ contained in the schedule to the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, which states that the standard of proof in a short form conclusion of suicide is the criminal standard (the only other short form conclusion to which this applies is unlawful killing).

Analysis and consequences of the decision

The judge considered that if this distinction for suicide conclusions had been intended to be binding it would have been in the actual rules. This however, was simply a statement of the position as it was understood (a position which in his view was wrong). Prior case law should be read only as reaffirming the principle that suicide should not be presumed but be justified by the evidence (rather than determining a criminal standard of proof); a conclusion of suicide is not reached by simply excluding all other explanations as improbable.

The decision is very significant and as such it may progress to the Court of Appeal. However, as it now stands the decision is likely to impact inquest proceedings. This will be not just in terms of suicide (future and previously decided) conclusions, but the standard of proof in unlawful killing conclusions could be challenged and specifically, it raises questions as to whether the existing 'Form 2' guidance incorrectly states the standard of proof for suicide.

The Chief Coroner’s guidance maintains that coroners should not shy away from directing a conclusion on suicide simply out of sympathy for family relatives or for any other reason. This decision makes the evidential hurdle for a jury to reach a narrative that describes a suicide much lower and therefore potentially a more frequent outcome.

How can Burges Salmon help?

For more information on this case or similar matters please contact Ann Metherall.

Key contact

Ann Metherall

Ann Metherall Partner

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