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Lower standard of proof for unlawful killing confirmed in Supreme Court judgment

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The Supreme Court has decided in R (Maughan) v. HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46 that the standard of proof for conclusions of both unlawful killing and suicide at an inquest is the civil standard – the “balance of probabilities.”  Previously, the standard of proof for these conclusions was considered to be the criminal standard, i.e. “beyond reasonable doubt.” A Coroner or a jury can now record a conclusion of suicide or unlawful killing if they are satisfied that it is more likely than not that it occurred.

This case followed the inquest into the death of James Maughan. James was sadly found hanging in his prison cell on 11 July 2016. He suffered from considerable mental health difficulties. The inquest took place in October 2017. At the end of that inquest, the Coroner decided that the jury could not record what is known as a ‘short form’ conclusion of suicide, as the evidence was not sufficient to show this beyond reasonable doubt. However, the Coroner asked the jury to reach a narrative verdict by responding to a number of questions, applying the test of the balance of probabilities. In their conclusion, and in direct response to those questions, the jury concluded that James had deliberately taken certain steps with the intention of ending his life. Although the jury didn’t formally record a conclusion of ‘suicide,’ or use this word, the concern was that their description amounted to the same thing, but applying a lower evidential test. The conclusion was therefore challenged by Judicial Review on the basis that the Coroner had misdirected the jury.

The Divisional Court decided that the standard of proof for suicide should be lowered to the civil standard. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal, and subsequently to the Supreme Court. The charity INQUEST intervened at the appeal stage, and asked that the Court consider whether, if the lower test for suicide was to be applied, the same test should be applied to the conclusion of unlawful killing. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided by a 3 – 2 majority that the civil standard of proof – on the balance of probabilities – should apply to both conclusions.

This judgment represents a significant change in inquest law, which will have a huge impact for bereaved families in inquests and particularly whose where loved ones have died in state detention. The lower standard of proof for unlawful killing is a welcome development in the law. We hope that bereaved families will now have a greater chance of having the seriousness of the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths recognised in inquest proceedings, and that state agents will be more readily held to account. It is vital that inquest proceedings identify wrongdoing and dangerous practice, particularly where deaths occur at the hands of the state and in state detention, and this development in the law should lead to a step forward in this regard.

The full judgment is available here.

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