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The standard of proof in inquest conclusions

30 May 2019
In R (Maughan) v HMC Oxfordshire, the Court of Appeal ('CoA') upheld the High Court decision on the standard of proof in suicides to a civil standard in both short-form and narrative conclusions at inquests. Interestingly, the Court veered away from current guidance, case law and legislation on this issue in making their decision.

The CoA addressed the following questions:

  1. Is the criminal standard or the civil standard of proof to be applied in deciding whether the deceased deliberately took his own life intending to kill himself?
  2. Does the answer to (1) depend on whether the determination is expressed by way of short-form conclusion or by way of narrative conclusion?

The CoA also considered the standard of proof in relation to the conclusion of unlawful killing.

Key findings of the Court of Appeal

  • The appeal was rejected. Thus, in relation to the first question, the CoA found that in suicide cases, the civil standard of proof is to be applied (being on the balance of probabilities).
  • Regarding the second question, the CoA held that it did not matter whether the determination was expressed by way of short-form or narrative conclusion, the standard of proof is as the civil standard.
  • The Court recommended that the current Guidance, Coroners' Bench Book and notes to Form 2 currently appended to the Coroners Rules be reconsidered.
  • As obiter dicta, Lord Justice Davis submitted that the criminal standard of proof should apply in unlawful killing cases. Davis LJ advanced that, "whilst inquests are not criminal proceedings, unlawful killing… connotes a crime. Thus unlawful killing can properly be considered to have its own special status… as a conclusion at an inquest". He further put forward that, "a conclusion of unlawful killing has a strong “head line” connotation; and quite often… the identity of the particular alleged perpetrator(s) will in reality have become manifest from the hearing itself. It could be thought fairer to such person(s) that the criminal standard applies." Both Davis LJ and Underhill LJ called for this position to be authoritatively stated in the Coroners' Rules.

Impact of the CoA decision

The default position at inquests is for coroners/juries to conclude with a short-form conclusion, rather than a narrative conclusion. Whilst it is permissible to combine both types of conclusion, it will typically be unnecessary to conclude with a narrative conclusion when a short-form conclusion is made.

The judgment provides clarity and will make it easier for juries/coroners to conclude suicide when there is evidence of an intention to die. For families, the judgment may be unwelcome taking into account the stigma that suicide carries in some community groups and the effects that such a conclusion may have on the ability to claim life insurance following a death.

The obiter comments on unlawful killing also assist in clarifying the position. Unlawful killing conclusions at inquests are rare in practice. It will be no less difficult to come to an unlawful killing conclusion at an inquest as a result of this decision, which requires unlawful killing to be proven beyond reasonable doubt – i.e. to the more stringent criminal standard of proof.

Given that the High Court and CoA decisions in this case deviate from a plethora of legal and practical authority, a further appeal to the Supreme Court is not beyond the realms of possibility. It is therefore worth keeping an eye on any further developments in this area and we will keep our clients updated. 

Further Reading