In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has determined that all forms of conclusion in the coroner’s court – narrative or short form – are to be assessed on the civil standard – that is on the balance of probabilities. Expanding the previous Court of Appeal decision regarding conclusions of suicide – unlawful killing can now be recorded where all of the elements of the offences of murder, manslaughter or infanticide are ‘probably’ made out when previously the court had to be ‘sure’.
This decision may come as a surprise to many readers as it did to us – see our earlier blog here where we had our money on the Supreme Court agreeing with the Court of Appeal with the possibility of it giving further clarity of the standard of proof to applied in unlawful killing.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Maughan v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire now resolves any ambiguity regarding the differing standards of proof relating to different inquest conclusions. In the leading judgment Lady Arden decided that:
- there was no cogent reason for not applying the principle that in ‘civil proceedings’ the civil standard should apply;
- applying the criminal standard may lead to suicides being under-recorded and lessons not being learnt;
- a revised standard of proof is more in-keeping with changing societal expectations and the changing role of inquests; and
- the change brings us into line with other commonwealth jurisdictions.
So just in the same way that the new drama mini-series, Queen’s Gambit has captivated audiences so too has the decision in Maughan. But for very different reasons: this wholesale change in the law will have a significant impact on inquests in the health and social care sector – an area where, often because of the vulnerability of those being cared for, acts or omissions will often be a contributory factor in the death. Where advocates for the family would often argue that the particular elements of a rider of ‘neglect’ were made out on the facts – they will now be inviting the coroner or jury to evaluate the scale of any failings against the criminal tests.
Applying the civil standard rather than the criminal standard in this way will elevate the stakes at many of these inquests.
Clearly there are a number of ramifications and implications to explore for inquest stakeholders which we plan to do in a forthcoming webinar – click here to express your interest in attending our webinar.
Do get in touch with me or our wider inquest team if you would like to discuss any of the issues raised here or would like support on an inquest.