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Supreme Court Ruling to Impact Inquest Conclusions

The Supreme Court has handed down judgment in the case of R (Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire, the consequences of which will have a big impact on families and practitioners alike.

The tragic facts of this case were that the deceased, a prisoner at HMP Bullingdon, was found hanging in his cell on the 11th July 2016 and pronounced dead shortly after.

At the inquest into his death, the Senior Coroner ruled the short form conclusion of suicide was not open to the jury as there was insufficient evidence for the jury to be sure that the deceased had intended to take his own life. In reaching this ruling, the Senior Coroner applied the criminal standard of proof, as the law required at the time.

However, when inviting the jury to record a narrative conclusion, the Senior Coroner suggested a number of questions to the jury and directed them to apply the civil standard of proof to the question of suicide. The jury returned a narrative conclusion saying that it was more likely than not that the deceased had intended to commit suicide. The family sought to challenge this by way of judicial review, alleging the Senior Coroner erred in instructing the jury on the standard of proof for a conclusion of suicide. They argued that it could only be reached by applying the criminal standard of proof for both a short form or narrative conclusion.

In 2018 the Divisional Court held that the civil standard of proof was applicable for both the short form and narrative conclusions. The decision was appealed with the charity INQUEST intervening to argue that if the standard of proof for suicide was the lower civil standard, then the same should be true for unlawful killing. However, whilst the court upheld the decision for the lower standard to be applied to suicide, it stated a conclusion of unlawful killing still required the criminal standard.

On the 13th November 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower courts with regard to suicide and also accepted the proposition that the civil standard of proof should be applied to unlawful killing. Therefore, having heard the evidence, juries and Coroners will now only have to be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, the death meets the respective definition of suicide or unlawful killing to record that conclusion.

Fosters have extensive experience in inquests, including those involving care homes, mental health and medical negligence generally. We are members of the INQUEST Lawyers Group and have represented families at inquests across East Anglia and further afield. For more information please visit our website, or contact us on 01603 620508.

This article was produced on the 16th November 2020 by our Medical Negligence & Inquests team for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.