Articles Professional Discipline 24th Nov 2020

R (on the application of Maughan) v. Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46

In the landmark ruling of R (on the application of Maughan) v. Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46, the Supreme Court has held that the standard of proof that applies in Coroners’ Inquests is the balance of probabilities, regardless of the particular conclusion, or what form it takes.

The landmark ruling, which marks a fundamental shift in the way Coroners and juries will deal with cases involving potential unlawful killing or suicide, marks the end of what has already been an important and formative case. That case arose out of the tragic death of James Maughan, who was found hanging in his cell at HMP Bullingdon on 11 July 2016, with a ligature tied around his neck. At the inquest before the Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire, the Coroner ruled that the short-form verdict of suicide should not be left open to the jury, as that conclusion could not be proven to the criminal standard. The jury reached a narrative conclusion, finding that the deceased had intended to hang himself.

The challenge to that finding had already seen the High Court and Court of Appeal rule that the standard of proof required to reach a conclusion of suicide was the balance of probabilities. At the invitation of an intervening party, the Supreme Court has gone further still, and has conclusively held that the civil standard of proof applies to all short-form and narrative conclusions, including unlawful killing.

The decision is noteworthy not only because it marks a departure from the previously held position, that unlawful killing needed to be proved to the criminal standard, but also because it represents a bold exercise in statutory interpretation. Whilst the law on the standard of proof is to be found in note (iii) of Form 2, in the Schedule to the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, the Court was clear in its ruling that that provision was nevertheless to be “interpreted as any other enactment”. The crucial question was whether the 2013 Rules, and their treatment of the standard of proof, were merely an expression of what the common law was at that time, or had instead codified the common law into statute, thereby putting that rule beyond the reach of the courts if they sought to change it. By a process of reasoning too complex to repeat here, the Court concluded that the former was the case.

With that road block removed, the Court went on to consider whether the common law ought to maintain that one standard of proof was required for a short-form conclusion of suicide (the criminal standard) whilst another standard proof applied in relation to reaching a narrative conclusion that contained all the elements of a suicide (the civil standard). Lady Arden concluded her views on this point by finding that:

“[…] if the appellant is right and the criminal standard is applied to the findings which pertain to the elements of suicide, then some conclusions will be reached on one basis and some on another within a single inquest. A system of fact-finding on this basis is internally inconsistent and unprincipled and does not meet the standards of a modern, principled legal system.”

Similar concerns as to logical inconsistencies that would be produced were a different standard of proof to apply to short-form conclusions of unlawful killing, led the Court to conclude that the civil standard must, as a matter of legal principle, apply to such conclusions also:

“[to hold otherwise would] contrast with the standard applying to narrative statements and different standards of proof may therefore confusingly apply to different conclusions within the same inquest.”


Paul Renteurs


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