Alison Hewitt acts for the Senior Coroner in a landmark Court of Appeal ruling on the standard of proof for suicide conclusions at inquests.

13 May 2019

The decision of the Court of Appeal was handed down on 10 May in Maughan V Senior Coroner for Oxford [2019] EWCA 809.

For some years it has been accepted that the standard of proof for a finding and conclusion of suicide at an inquest is the criminal standard of proof of beyond reasonable doubt. The law on this point has now been questioned and clarified.

James Maughan died at HMP Bullingdon in 2016. He was found dead in his cell having apparently taken his own life. At his inquest, the Senior Coroner accepted that there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could be sure that he intended to kill himself and so he ruled that the jury could not consider a short-form conclusion of suicide.  However, in order to satisfy the procedural requirements of Article 2 ECHR, the Coroner decided instead to elicit a Narrative Conclusion describing whether Mr Maughan had probably intended to end his life and whether any failings by the prison had contributed to the death. His directions to the jury were entirely in accordance with the guidance given in the Coroners’ Bench Book and, he considered, the Chief Coroner’s Guidance No.17. The jury concluded that it was more likely than not that the Deceased had intended the outcome to be fatal.

The brother of Mr Maughan challenged the conclusion arguing that the Senior Coroner had been wrong in law to elicit from the jury a finding that was tantamount to a suicide conclusion on the civil standard of proof.  His claim was heard by the Divisional Court which held that the standard of proof to be applied to all cases of death resulting from self-harm, both for the short-form Suicide conclusion and for Narrative Conclusions, was the civil standard.  

That decision was appealed by the Deceased’s brother. The Court of Appeal heard submissions on behalf of both parties, the Chief Coroner (who had successfully applied to intervene on the appeal) and the charity Inquest. The Court dismissed the appeal, ruling that the civil standard of proof is to be applied to factual findings and conclusions in inquests generally, including to findings of suicide, whether expressed in short-form or narrative conclusions.

The judgment of the Divisional Court had also placed a question mark over the standard of proof to be applied to the Unlawful Killing conclusion at inquests. The Court of Appeal recognised the argument for a universal standard of proof but confirmed that it is the criminal standard of proof which must be used, exceptionally, for this conclusion because of the earlier decision of the court in R v Wolverhampton Coroner, ex parte McCurbin [1990] 1 WLR 719 and because there are strong arguments of principle in its favour.

The Court urged Government consideration of the issues raised and invited the Chief Coroner to revise Guidance No. 17 (on Short Form and Narrative Conclusions) and the Bench Book to reflect its decisions. The full judgement can be found here 

Alison Hewitt acted for the Senior Coroner for Oxford.

Georgina Wolfe comments in the Guardian on this landmark case. Read here


Alison Hewitt

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