Civil Standard for Suicides: R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire  EWHC 1955 (Admin) (Leggatt LJ, Nicol J)
Last week the Divisional Court fundamentally revised the standard of proof as applied to certain coronial conclusions.
Previously, it was understood that a conclusion of suicide had to be established to the criminal standard of proof. In the case of Mr Maughan, an inmate at HMP Bullingdon, the coroner agreed that there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could reach this threshold. However, he posed three questions for the jury to answer as part of a narrative conclusion, applying the civil standard of proof, which in essence invited a finding of suicide by the back door. On appeal, the deceased’s brother challenged this.
In rejecting this claim, the court accepted that if suicide could only be reached to the criminal standard, then the coroner could not circumvent this by way of a narrative conclusion which included findings amounting to the same thing. However, of its own motion, the court decided to reconsider the question of applying the criminal standard of proof to certain coronial conclusions. It found no principled basis for doing so.
Prior to the Criminal Law Act 1977 the coroner’s court had played an ancillary role in the criminal justice system. In cases of murder, manslaughter or infanticide the jury had to state the name of the person(s) it considered had committed the offence or had been accessories to it. This verdict then had the effect of committing those persons to trial. Now, however, there is no such connection. The function of the inquest is simply “to seek out and record as many of the facts concerning the death as public interest requires” [Lord Lane, R (Thompson) v South London Coroner  126 SJ 625]. In those circumstances, Lord Leggatt observed:
“where the function of an inquest is to determine the relevant facts concerning the death as accurately and completely as possible without determining even any question of civil liability, we can see no justification in principle for weighting the fact-finding exercise against any particular conclusion and requiring proof to any higher standard than the balance of probabilities. That is so even if the facts found disclose the commission of a criminal offence.”
This argument it considered must apply with greater force to the issue of suicide, which has not been a crime since the Suicide Act 1961. Whilst a conclusion of suicide may cause considerable distress, that cannot alter the question of principle. Civil findings may have very significant consequences but that does not justify departing from the ordinary civil standard. In any event, there are a wide range of attitudes to suicide. In the case of R (Lagos) v HM Coroner for the City of London  EWHC 423 (Admin) the claimant had positively wanted a determination of suicide in order to recognise his wife’s autonomy and dignity as a human being. The court considered, “is it not for the law in this area to adopt one conception of human dignity in preference to another.”