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R (on the application of Thomas Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire

02 August 2018
The recent decision of R (on the application of Thomas Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire changes the standard of proof in Coronial proceedings in determining whether a person committed suicide.

Background

In the early hours of 11 July 2016, the Claimant's brother, James Maughan, was found hanging in his prison cell at HMP Bullingdon. An Inquest into his death was held over four days in October 2017. After hearing the evidence, the Coroner accepted that there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could rely on to determine that the deceased intended to kill himself. As such, he did not permit the jury to consider a 'short-form' conclusion of suicide. He did, however, invite the jury to record a narrative conclusion based on the balance of probabilities.

The Claim

In a claim for judicial review, the Claimant contended that the jury's conclusion amounted to a 'verdict' of suicide based on the balance of probabilities and was therefore unlawful. It is suggested that the Coroner misled the Jury in inviting them to apply the civil standard of proof (balance of probabilities) when the Coronial guidelines state that a conclusion of suicide, whether given in short form or as part of a narrative statement must only be returned on the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt).

The Decision

The reasoning for a higher standard of proof in criminal proceedings is thought to be a result of the severe potential consequences of conviction compared with civil proceedings. However, the Court in dealing with this matter sought to identify civil matters in which the consequences could be said to be just as severe as criminal prosecution and determine whether the simple test of probabilities was still sufficient. Referencing Re H [1996] AC 563 and Re B [2008] UKHL 35; [2009] 1 AC 11, they found that it was.

The Court also found that in civil matters in which it was determined a person had committed suicide the test remained on the balance of probabilities.

The Court, in analysing the position at common law, reiterated the point that suicide is not to be presumed. It stated that mistaken findings of suicide were not overturned because they had not met the criminal standard of proof but because sufficient evidence to justify such a conclusion was not present.

In summary, the Court was satisfied that "the standard of proof required for a conclusion of suicide, whether recorded in short-form or as a narrative statement, is the balance of probabilities" but only when "there is sufficient evidence to justify it".

Read the full judgment here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2018/1955.html

Further Reading