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November 16, 2020

STOP PRESS – Inquests and the Standard of Proof – Finally Resolved – IMMEDIATE EFFECT

Case Citation(s)
Maughan v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46,
on appeal from [2019] EWCA Civ 809

Judgment Date
Friday, 13 November 2020

Primary Cases Cited

  • R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] UKHL 10
  • Scholes v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2006] EWCA Civ 1343
  • McKerr v Armagh Coroner [1990] 1 WLR 649
  • R (LG) v Independent Appeal Panel for Tom Hood School [2010] EWCA Civ 142; [2010] PTSR 1462
  • R v HM Coroner for North Humberside and Scunthorpe, Ex p Jamieson [1995] QB 1
  • Attorney General v Lamplugh (1878) 3 Ex D 214

The Issue
On Friday, 13 November 2020 the Supreme Court handed down its opinion, finally resolving the tension within coronial law regarding the differing standards of proof relating to different conclusions, whether those be from the prescribed list or, indeed, a narrative version.

The Court, pithily, summed up the tension giving the following overview:

It may happen in one and the same inquest that the narrative conclusions find facts which in law mean that the deceased committed suicide and yet that conclusion cannot be recorded as a short form conclusion.

The Court asked and answered the following question: is there any justification for there to be a discrepancy between the civil standard as applied to most conclusions in the coronial setting, versus the criminal standard for suicide or unlawful killing?

This Supreme Court judgment applies equally to unlawful killing inquests (see para 84 onwards for the competing arguments and para 93 for the Court’s conclusion), not just those concerning suicide.

The deceased in this case was found hanging from a ligature attached to his bed frame. He had a history of mental illness and self-harm.

His death was subject to a jury inquest. Applying the Chief Coroner’s Guidance No. 17, the Coroner decided not to leave a suicide conclusion to the jury, as in his view it was unsafe to do so when applying the criminal standard, on the evidence heard and read. However, the Coroner did leave the option of a narrative conclusion, on the civil standard. The jury returned a narrative conclusion which, in effect, described suicide, but to the civil standard.

This obvious tension was the subject of appeal.

The Court, after reviewing a large body of inconsistent authority, in addition to reviewing the law regarding the rules of construction, held (by majority of 3:2) at para 68:

I fully accept that it may be an anxious cause of concern to the family of the deceased if the evidential standard for the short form conclusion of suicide is not the criminal standard but the lower civil standard. However, the issue of the correct standard of proof for a short form conclusion of suicide has to be decided on the basis of legal principle. The position is that to hold that a criminal standard applies is out of line not only with narrative conclusions but also with the principle(*) applying to civil proceedings generally. I see no reason why the normal legal principles should not apply. [emphasis added].

The Supreme Court (well, the majority of it) has spoken.

(*) The ‘principle’ to which the court was referring, is the principle that where matters concerning a criminal act being decided in the civil courts, the standard of proof is the civil standard.

Richard Shepherd