Standard of Proof

Written by Adam Furze, law student and SOS Ambassador

Adam Furze Discusses the recent Supreme Court Judgement in the case of R (on the application of Maughan) (Appellant) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire (Respondent) [2020] UKSC 46 and explains what it means for the investigation of death by suicide.

This case is an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from the Court of Appeal concerning the standard of proof in inquest proceedings in suicide cases.

Firstly, some jargon busting:

Standard of proof: The extent to which a party must prove their case in order to succeed.

Criminal Standard of Proof: The criminal standard of proof is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Civil Standard of Proof: The civil standard of proof is “on the balance of probabilities.”

Short Form Conclusion: The result of an inquest can be given by simply stating ‘suicide’.

Narrative Conclusion: If the result of the inquest cannot be given in short form it can be given in the form of a short narrative. The jury will be given several questions by the Coroner which they have to answer to reach their conclusion.

The Appellant was Thomas Maughan, the brother of the late James Maughan. The respondent was Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire. The Chief Coroner of England and Wales and the charity, Inquest, were granted permission to intervene by the Supreme Court.

James Maughan was found dead in his cell at HMP Bullingdon on the 11th of July 2016. The previous day he threatened to self-harm. The Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire stated that a short form conclusion was not suitable. Therefore, the jury was instructed to give a narrative summary using the civil standard of proof. The jury held that on the balance of probabilities, considering his previous mental health, he intended to fatally hang himself and no increase in vigilance would have prevented his death. His intention to fatally hang himself runs contrary to the Christian faith where it is believed that committing suicide is a sin. James Maughan and his family were devout Catholics; thus, this conclusion was incomprehensible for the deceased’s family. Thomas Maughan appealed the decision for the civil standard of proof being applied in the Administrative Court in the form of Judicial Review. The application was not allowed. Thomas Maughan therefore applied for the matter to be heard in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the Administrative Court.

The issues that the Supreme Court had to decide was whether:

  1. The applicable standard of proof in inquest proceedings in the case of suicide is on the balance of probabilities (the civil standard) or beyond reasonable doubt (the criminal standard).

And…

  1. If the answer depends on whether the determination is expressed as a short-form conclusion or a narrative conclusion. 

By a majority, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and held that the civil standard applies to all short form conclusions. Lady Arden explained that neither the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or the European Convention of Human Rights stipulate a standard of proof for inquests. Previous case law has indicated that conclusions of suicide and unlawful killing should apply the criminal standard of proof. However, a Coroner’s inquest is not a criminal proceeding. The form which the Coroners record the result on has a note which explains that the standard of proof for short form conclusions of suicide and unlawful killings is the criminal standard.

After scrupulous interpretation of the rules, case law and consultation with the Ministry of Justice it was concluded that the civil standard of proof applies to short form conclusions of suicide. Previous case law indicating a criminal standard of proof is not binding on the Supreme Court and is thus immaterial and does not identify a suitable reason why the Civil Standard should not be applied. It was held that applying separate standard of proof for short form and narrative conclusions results in inaccurate fact finding. Other Commonwealth jurisdictions including Canada, New Zealand and Australia have aligned the standard of proof in inquest proceedings with the standard of proof in civil litigation.

It was noted that if a criminal standard of proof is required, suicide is likely to be under-recorded. The Court acknowledged that societal attitudes to death by suicide has changed and the role of inquests has developed significantly since the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 2 of the ECHR protects a right to life and the effect of this means that there must be an investigation into the death of persons in the custody of the state. The Court held that the civil standard of proof also applies to determinations of unlawful killing.

Lord Kerr dissented and he held that there is nothing untoward about putting unlawful killing and suicide in a special category that requires the criminal standard of proof. Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court, agreed.

Suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961. Prior to 1961 suicide was unlawful, people could not be buried on hallowed land or own property. Furthermore, James Maughan and his family were Catholics and death by suicide is viewed as a sin. Any finding of suicide will run contrary to their faith and for that matter many other faiths and cultures. However, one must emphasise that no one is on trial at a coroner’s inquest least of all the deceased. Also, the court is not ecclesiastical nor a court of morals and does not address the issue of whether a sin has been committed.

The judgement handed down and the majority view is positive as it encourages the investigation of death by suicide and removes any criminal attachment. This judgment with other reforms (which will not be listed in this article) will assist in the removal of the stigma, shame and silence created by suicide.