Many things have changed since the days when inquests where held in the basements of pubs with the body of the deceased laid out for examination by the all-male jury. Happily, women are now permitted to sit on juries, the deceased is usually safely in the ground long before the inquest starts and, perhaps less happily, inquests take place in courtrooms rather than local watering holes.
It was only relatively recently that the question of standards of proof at inquests was addressed. When it was, it was widely understood that the standard of proof for a suicide or unlawful killing conclusions was the criminal standard (so that you are sure). For all other short-form and narrative conclusions, the standard was the civil standard (the balance of probabilities). The Coroner Bench Book said as much. The notes to the Record of Inquest, a form prescribed by the Schedule to the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 stated, “The standard of proof required for the short-form conclusions of ‘unlawful killing’ and ‘suicide’ is the criminal standard of proof.” The Chief Coroner’s Guidance (No. 17) quoted the notes.
All of that changed with the death of James Maughan. Mr Maughan died at HMP Bullingdon in 2016. He was found deceased in his cell, having apparently taken his own life. At his inquest, the coroner accepted that there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could be sure that he intended to kill himself. In order to satisfy the procedural requirements of Article 2 (the right to life which requires an investigation into a death in certain circumstances), the coroner decided instead that they could write a narrative conclusion, effectively describing whether Mr Maughan had killed himself but using the civil standard of proof. The jury concluded that it was more likely than not that Mr Maughan had intended the outcome to be fatal.
Mr Maughan’s brother challenged the conclusion arguing that the coroner had been wrong to advise the jury to apply the civil standard of proof while making a finding that was tantamount to a suicide conclusion. He contended that the conclusion was unlawful as it should have applied the criminal standard of proof.
When the parties in R (Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire walked into the Divisional Court, the question of which standard of proof applied to suicide was not in dispute. Neither side was running the argument that it should be the civil standard. The (neutral) coroner suggested that it may be necessary and lawful to make findings of facts concerning the elements of suicide on the balance of probabilities, in order to enable the procedural requirements of Article 2 to be satisfied. The Court, however, had other ideas. It unexpectedly decided that the standard of proof for suicide should not be the criminal standard, but was instead the civil standard.
The decision sent shock waves through coroner’s courts throughout England and Wales. The Divisional Court itself granted permission to appeal and none other than the Chief Coroner intervened. Coroners started asking juries to decide inquests applying both standards (or did the same themselves when sitting without a jury), just in case.
Today, the Court of Appeal has laid the matter to rest (unless and until the matter goes to the Supreme Court) upholding the Divisional Court’s judgment. The outcome means that in future it will be easier, and thus more common, for coroners and juries to reach suicide conclusions. Many families who have lost loved ones will not welcome this development. As the courts have noted, suicide still carries a stigma within some religions. For those working in mental health, the judgment may be welcomed. An increase in the numbers of suicides being recorded could persuade the government to dedicate more funding to this important work.
Georgina Wolfe is a barrister at 5 Essex Court.