The standard of proof in inquest cases concerning acts of suicide – an update

Sun, 29 Jul 2018

The Divisional Court has delivered an important judgment concerning the appropriate standard of proof for coroners and juries considering cases of suicide. It is a must read for all inquest practitioners.

In R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire and Ors [2018] EWHC 1955 (Admin), Leggatt LJ and Nicol J outlined that the standard of proof for the conclusion of suicide, whether in short or narrative form, should be the civil standard (i.e. on the balance of probabilities) rather than the criminal standard (i.e. that the coroner or jury is ‘sure’) that the deceased did an act which was intended to and did cause his or her own death. This marks a shift away from the previously understood position.

The Divisional Court outlined why this approach was no longer warranted, particularly given the shift away from the inquest process being a trigger for future criminal proceedings but also the situation, such as in the Maughan case itself, where a jury could consider failings and potential causation from such failings, requiring a finding that the deceased had ended their own life and had intended to do so, on the balance of probabilities but could not conclude ‘suicide’ as the elements of the same had not been established to the criminal standard of proof. As Leggatt LJ put it (at para 25):

A narrative conclusion to the effect that on the balance of probabilities the deceased did a deliberate act which caused his own death intending the outcome to be fatal clearly amounts to a conclusion that the deceased committed suicide whether or not the word “suicide” is used. It is sophistry to say that such a conclusion is not one of suicide because the required standard of proof has not been met.

The conclusion of the Court was as follows (see para 75):

In summary, we are unable to accept the claimant’s contention that a conclusion of suicide at an inquest requires proof to the criminal standard. We are satisfied that the authorities relied on to support that contention either on analysis do not support it or do not correctly state the law. We consider the true position to be 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, bearing in mind that such a conclusion should only be reached if there is sufficient evidence to justify it.

It is understood that permission to appeal this judgment has been given, so watch this space for further updates!

Richard Grimshaw undertakes a broad spectrum of clinical negligence and inquest work acting on behalf of both claimants and defendants. Richard has experience of trials (both on his own and as junior counsel), interlocutory and approval hearings in clinical negligence matters, as well as inquests (including Article 2 inquests and inquests held with a jury). He is ranked by Chambers UK Bar 2017 and 2018 for his clinical negligence work.

This article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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