The highest court in England and Wales has lowered the standard of proof for unlawful killing and suicide inquest conclusions allowing the coroner or jury to make their conclusion if they are satisfied that it is more likely than not that it occurred.
The test to be used in all instances will be the civil test of ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than the previously utilised stricter criminal test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ following the ruling by the Supreme Court last week in R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire.
James Maughan died on July, 11 2016 by hanging whilst detained at HMP Bullingdon. At the inquest, the Senior Coroner held that the jury could not safely reach a conclusion of suicide as the jury could not be sure ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the appellant intended to kill himself. The jury answered the questions put to them by saying that the appellant had a history of mental health issues and that, on a balance of probabilities, he intended to hang himself. However, the jury could not make such a finding because the standard of proof was the criminal test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
The deceased’s brother brought a claim for judicial review to establish that the jury’s conclusion was unlawful. The Divisional Court ruled in July 2018 to lower the standard of proof for suicide to the civil standard.
INQUEST intervened in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and argued that, if the standard of proof for suicide is the lower standard of the civil test, then the standard for unlawful killing should also be the lower standard. The Supreme Court confirmed the Divisional Court’s conclusion in July 2018 regarding the standard of proof for suicide and accepted INQUEST’s submission that the standard of proof for unlawful killing should also be the lower civil standard.
The group’s director Deborah Coles stated that ‘the new lower standard of proof for unlawful killing is an important and significant change to inquest law and should mark a step forward for state and corporate accountability’. ‘The judgment recognises the importance of narrative findings at inquests, and that they have led to systemic learning and prevention, which is of vital importance to bereaved families,’ Coles said
The deceased’s brother, Thomas Maughan and the appellant in this case, said ‘James’ death helped to change the law, which we hope for the better’.