Is it suicide? Court of Appeal provide welcome clarity

Recent decision provides clarity on the civil standard of proof for suicide conclusions, whether in short or narrative form.

On 26 July last year in the case of R (on the application of Thomas Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire & others the High Court determined that the civil standard of proof applied to a finding of suicide in the coroner’s court. 

Before that decision the test that had always been applied was the criminal standard of proof. 

The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal and, dismissing the appeal, the CoA have now concluded that:

  • the civil standard of proof is to be applied to factual findings and conclusions in inquests generally, including suicide whether expressed in short-form or in a narrative;
  • exceptionally the criminal standard of proof continues to apply to a conclusion and finding of unlawful killing.

Background to the appeal of the High Court’s decision

On 11 July 2016 James Maughan was found hanging in his prison cell at HMP Bullingdon.  Mr Maughan was found with a ligature attached to his neck tied to a bedframe.  He was pronounced dead shortly after he was discovered.  He had a history of mental health problems and he had made previous attempts at suicide and self-harm.

An inquest was held before the Senior Coroner of Oxfordshire and a jury in October 2017.  The principal issues were:

  • whether Mr Mauhgan’s hanging was self- inflicted and deliberate and, if it was,
  • did Mr Maughan intend to kill himself and
  • whether his death was caused or contributed to by a failure to protect his life on the part of the prison authorities.

At this stage, it is important to mention that the Maughan family held strong Catholic beliefs and believed that the teaching of the Catholic Church is that suicide is contrary to love for the living God so is considered a grave sin.

The coroner at the inquest decided that the short-form conclusion of suicide should not be left to the jury, as there was insufficient evidence upon which they could conclude to the criminal standard of proof that Mr Maughan had intended to take his own life. 

However, having so ruled, the coroner determined that it would not be appropriate to simply elicit from the jury an “open” conclusion and that the jury should be given the option of returning a narrative which addressed the jury’s findings on the circumstances in which Mr Maughan had died.  In order to do that the coroner, after discussions with the lawyers for the interested persons involved in the case, provided the jury with a list of questions to answer by applying the civil standard of proof “on a balance of probabilities”. 

Those questions included the following:

  • Did James Maughan deliberately place a ligature around his neck and suspend himself from the bedframe?”
  • Are you able to determine if it is more likely than not that he intended the outcome to be fatal, or, for example if it is likely that he intended to be found and rescued?  If you are unable to determine his intention, please say so.

On that basis, the jury found that Mr Maughan had deliberately tied the ligature, suspended himself and intended to fatally hang himself that night which, in essence, meant that he had committed suicide.

Mr Maughan’s brother started judicial review proceedings complaining that the jury were incorrectly instructed by the coroner and that they should only have been permitted to reach their conclusion by applying the criminal standard of proof.

The matter came before the Divisional Court which determined that the correct standard of proof to be applied in the coroner’s court to suicide was the civil standard.

The Court of Appeal decision

The CoA were of the clear view, in agreement with the Divisional Court, that the appropriate standard of proof to be applied throughout in cases of suicide should be the civil standard.  It gave five reasons why the civil standard of proof should be applied in cases of suicide, in particular that since 1961 suicide had ceased to be a crime and that existing legal authority did not compel a different result.

In so far as the CoA’s comment that the criminal standard of proof should continue to be applied to a conclusion and finding of unlawful killing, their main contention was that unlawful killing connotes a crime and a finding at inquest will ordinarily cause a reconsideration by the CPS of whether criminal charges should be brought against any perpetrator who might be able to be identified.  As such, Lord Justice Davis stated (at paragraph 95 of the judgment) that, in his opinion, coroners should continue to instruct juries in that regard by reference to the criminal standard of proof in the way that they currently do.

Where next?

It is expected that the case will now proceed to the Supreme Court and all money is on that court agreeing with the Court of Appeal with the possibility of it giving further clarity of the standard of proof to be applied in unlawful killing.  That said, the CoA has invited government now to “explicitly” articulate the position within the Coroners’ Rules.

We will report again when the outcome of the appeal to the Supreme Court is known.

Kevin Duce, Principal Associate 

Stuart Knowles, Consultant

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