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Standard of proof in inquests

The Supreme Court decision in R (on the application of Maughan) v Her Majesty's Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire was handed down on 13 November 2020.

James Maughan was found suspended by a ligature in his cell at HMP Bullingdon on 11 July 2016. At the inquest, the coroner directed the jury to return a narrative conclusion of how Mr Maughan came by his death by reference to the civil standard of proof, namely on the balance of probabilities. The jury determined, on the balance of probabilities, that Mr Maughan’s death was a result of suicide. Judicial Review proceedings were commenced (by Mr Maughan’s brother) on the basis that the coroner was incorrect in his direction to the jury and argued that the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, should apply to narrative conclusions of suicide, as it would for a short form conclusion of suicide. The Divisional Court dismissed the application, stating that the civil standard was the correct standard of proof in cases of suicide. This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal who also agreed the non-binding view of the Divisional Court that the civil standard of proof should also apply to cases of unlawful killing within the context of an inquest. These views in relation to unlawful killing however remained obiter (non-binding).

The Supreme Court (13 November 2020) by a 3:2 majority, upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal that the appropriate standard of proof for all short form and narrative conclusions at an inquest is the civil standard. The Supreme Court determined that this includes death not only by suicide, but also to the conclusion of unlawful killing.

Coroners are well versed in the application of the case of Maughan in cases where death has been due to suicide, having been applying this standard since the decision at first instance.

There are significant consequences in the Supreme Court decision relating to conclusions of unlawful killing which until now, and notwithstanding the obiter comments of the Divisional Court and Court of Appeal, had to be proved by reference to the criminal standard of proof, beyond all reasonable doubt. An unlawful killing conclusion in the context of coronial law includes deaths arising from murder, manslaughter (including corporate manslaughter) and infanticide. The ramifications therefore for healthcare providers and other organisations are significant and we will be providing further updates in due course.

Ward Hadaway have an experienced team of health and regulatory lawyers able to provide advice, support and representation to organisations in inquests and parallel statutory investigations, including criminal investigations and proceedings. For further information, please get in touch.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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Nicola Richardson

Partner | Head of Health and Regulatory

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