The standard of proof at suicide inquests
On 10 May 2019 the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in the case of R (on the application of Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire. The appeal considered the earlier judgment of the High Court which had concluded that the applicable standard of proof for a coroner or inquest jury to reach a conclusion of suicide is the civil standard (i.e. more likely than not).
In dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal endorsed the High Court’s earlier departure from 35 years of established practice which had been that the criminal standard of proof (i.e. beyond reasonable doubt) was required to reach a conclusion of suicide. However, the court considered the illogicality of a system that allowed a civil standard in respect of a narrative conclusion and a criminal standard in respect of a short-form verdict of suicide, where the two represent the same essential finding.
In the leading judgment, Lord Justice Davis set out the judicial reasoning for the decision, which can be broadly summarised as follows.
- The essence of an inquest is primarily investigative. It does not make findings of guilt or liability. Therefore the there is no obvious need to have a criminal standard of proof in inquest proceedings, given their inquisitorial nature.
- Since 1961 suicide has not been a crime. Although very upsetting to families, carrying stigma or resulting in other adverse social or financial consequences, it is not a crime.
- The civil courts generally apply the civil standard in civil proceedings even where the proposed subject of proof may constitute a crime or suicide. There is no sliding scale or heightened standard. There is therefore no discernible reason why a different approach should apply in coroner’s proceedings in relation to suicide.
- The importance in Article 2 cases of a proper investigation into the circumstances of death strongly supports the application of the (lower) civil standard. The lower standard of proof is inclined towards an expansive, rather than restrictive approach and will enhance the prospects of lessons being learned for the future.
- The application of the civil standard to a conclusion of suicide expressed in the narrative conclusion aligns with the standard which is applicable to other potential aspects of the narrative conclusion (for example, whether reasonable preventative measures should or could have been taken and so on).
In ‘obiter’ remarks the court considered the standard of proof in cases of unlawful killing, expressing the view that the criminal standard of proof remains appropriate.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal means that the revised standard of proof is here to stay. The practical consequence requires no detailed analysis to understand. However, its significance for some families at inquests who, for legitimate reasons wish to avoid a verdict of suicide, is likely to be enormous.