In a judgment handed down on 13 November 2020 in the case of R (Maughan) v. HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire, the Supreme Court has ruled that the standard of proof for all conclusions at inquest, including unlawful killing and suicide, is the balance of probabilities.
Until now, the standard of proof for unlawful killing has been beyond reasonable doubt, which is the criminal standard. This judgment now means that for all conclusions available at an inquest, the standard is the same – the coroner or jury may record a conclusion if they are satisfied that it is more likely than not that it occurred.
James Maughan died by hanging in his prison cell at HMP Bullingdon on 11 July 2016. The coroner at the inquest into his death directed the jury to reach a narrative conclusion, applying the civil standard of proof (the balance of probabilities). The coroner held that the jury could not leave suicide as a short-form conclusion because the standard of proof was criminal (beyond reasonable doubt) and they could not properly find it was satisfied on the evidence.
Mr Maughan’s brother brought a claim for judicial review to challenge the direction and the jury’s conclusion. He argued that the standard of proof for a suicide conclusion is the criminal standard, whether expressed as a short-form conclusion or narrative.
In July 2018, the Divisional Court decided to lower the standard of proof for suicide, resulting in it being the civil standard.
It has been argued in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court that if the standard of proof for suicide is the lower standard, then the standard for unlawful killing should also be the lower standard.
The Supreme Court has now confirmed the Divisional Court’s conclusion as to the standard for suicide. It also accepted the submission that the standard of proof for unlawful killing is the lower civil standard.
The judgment was a 3 to 2 majority decision; however, some coroners and legal representatives will agree with the dissenting judges. It may now be important for the Chief Coroner to issue guidance to ensure that the law is applied properly following the new standard.
A step forward for state accountability
INQUEST, a charity campaigning for the rights of families concerned with state related deaths, has been a central part of the submissions.
Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, has said: “The new lower standard of proof for unlawful killing is an important and significant change to inquest law and should mark a step forward for state and corporate accountability. More bereaved families can expect the gravity of the conduct of state agents to be recognised as unlawful killings which, when combined with narrative conclusions, will help ensure inquests hold state agents to account and better identify wrongdoing.”
Thomas Maughan, the Appellant and older brother of James, has said on behalf of the family: “we recognise that the decision in James’s case has reduced the standard of proof for unlawful killing, which we hope will benefit many bereaved families who have lost loved ones in state custody in helping them to hold the authorities to account.”
Lady Arden, in dismissing the appeal, said that the civil standard may enhance the recording of suicides and assist research, explaining that: “there is a considerable public interest in accurate suicide statistics as they may reveal a need for social and medical care in areas not previously regarded as significant.”
This is a significant finding and has been described as a contribution to redressing the imbalance of power that is sadly often experienced by families at inquests. Here at Farleys, we have sadly found that on occasions the conduct of state agencies has not been reflected in the inquest conclusions. This imbalance in power experienced by families is further reflected in the difficulties they find themselves in, whether it be in trying to secure public funding for legal representation or simply having to represent themselves because they do not have the financial means to pay for representation. Legal representation for families is incredibly important given that state organisations every year spend millions of pounds for experienced lawyers to represent them at inquests.
INQUEST continue in their fight for the introduction of automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following state related deaths and you can support them in their campaign by signing the petition.
Here at Farleys, our inquest team has extensive experience of representing bereaved families at inquests and securing legal aid funding on their behalf. If you require representation at an inquest, please contact Farleys Solicitors on 0845 287 0939 or send your enquiry by email and a member of the team will contact you.