The Supreme Court has today lowered the standard of proof for all conclusions in inquest proceedings, including unlawful killing and suicide, in a decision that could have wide-reaching implications for the recording of deaths in England and Wales.
By a 3-2 majority, the UK’s highest court dismissed an appeal brought by the brother of James Maughan, who died at HMP Bullingdon in 2016. Maughan’s brother argued that the senior coroner was wrong to instruct the jury to apply the civil standard of proof (balance of probabilities) when considering whether James Maughan had killed himself.
Dismissing the appeal, Lady Arden, with whom Lord Wilson agreed, said short-form conclusions based on the civil standard may enhance the recording of suicides and assist research. The civil standard still safeguards the interests of those adversely affected by the conclusion.
She added that a criminal burden of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) may result in suicides being under-reported.
‘There is a considerable public interest in accurate suicide statistics as they may reveal a need for social and medical care in areas not previously regarded as significant. Each suicide determination can help others by revealing how suicide risks may be managed in future,’ she said.
Lord Carnwath agreed with Lady Arden and gave a concurring judgment.
Lord Kerr, with whom Lord Reed agreed, dissented.
Lord Kerr said the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 ‘unquestionably’ established a statutory basis for the criminal standard of proof to be applied for verdicts in cases of suicide and unlawful killing.
He thought it unwise to categorise inquests as civil proceedings ‘simply because they do not fit the criminal model’.
Solicitor Najma Rasul, of Matthew Gold & Co, represented the Maughan family. She said the case had finally clarified the law on findings of suicide and unlawful killing - two of the most contentious conclusions that can be reached at the end of an inquest.
She said: ‘Although the ruling may cause shockwaves, it is important to remember that a coroner or jury still need to be satisfied there is enough evidence which a jury can on the balance of probabilities reach a conclusion of suicide or unlawful killing.’