The burden of proof for unlawful killing and suicide lowered by Supreme Court

by Yusuf Odabashy

In what is being seen as a significant decision, the Supreme Court recently lowered the standard of proof for findings of suicide and unlawful killing in death inquests, from beyond a reasonable doubt (criminal standard) to balance of probabilities (civil standard).

Whilst it is not commonplace for a jury to be needed in inquests, they are mandatory in certain circumstances, such as, if the death occurred in custody due to an unnatural cause or for work-related deaths. Once after hearing the facts, the jury is given a choice of possible conclusions to decide from. Being decided on civil standard means that the jurors will only need to be satisfied on a balance of probabilities as to the cause of death (i.e. more likely than not), as opposed to the criminal standard, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Short-form conclusions are usually a one-word phrase used as the verdict of a coroner’s inquest into the cause of death. Such examples include but are not limited to, suicide, accident, industrial disease or misadventures (death caused whilst performing a legal act without any negligence or intent of harm). Previously, the only short-form conclusions determined through the criminal standard of proof were suicide and unlawful killing, the rest being judged to the civil standard of proof.

The case of R (on the application of Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire considered the approach taken by coroners regarding inquests into suicide, however, in its decision, the Supreme Court stated that the approach should be the same for all short-form conclusions, which happens to include unlawful killing.

The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court by the brother of a prisoner, Mr James Maughan, who was found dead in his cell hanging by a ligature from his bedframe. The court heard that Mr Maughan suffered from mental health conditions and had threatened to inflict self-harm the night before. The appellant argued that it was wrong for the coroner investigating the death to ask the jury to apply the civil standard of proof. The coroner decided because the jury could not reach a short form conclusion of suicide through the application of the criminal standard of proof, that the standard is lowered to the civil standard. In other words, it was not possible to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the deceased had intended to kill himself.

In its reasoning, the court cited both the Coroners and Justice Act 2013 and the European Convention of Human Rights, stating that neither requires any standard of proof to be applied for an inquest verdict. However, the Coroner’s Rules 2013, Note (iii), provide that when concluding short-form verdicts, specifically for suicide and unlawful killing, the criminal standard be used. Despite this, it did not stop the Supreme Court from concluding that Note (iii) was a statement of the common law and therefore could be further developed.

They further reasoned that because there was no greater risk of prosecution for someone implicated in an unlawful killing, regardless of the standard of proof used, the civil standard should be applied in this case too, to ensure consistency between the verdicts. The lowering of the standard of proof for unlawful killing does not mean that criminal proceedings will follow, as the CPS will still need to be satisfied that there is a realistic prospect of conviction in each case, beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the prosecution is in the public interest.

It has been pointed out by law firms rradar (based in Leeds) and Pinsent Masons (based in London) that the verdict reflects a wider awareness of mental health and an effort in reducing the stigma that was in the past attached to suicide. One of the major implications of this ruling they believe is that it could prevent underreporting of suicide-related deaths. 

This article is intended for guidance only and must not be relied upon for specific advice.

Case citation: R (on the application of Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46

 


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