In a roller-coaster judgment the High Court has revolutionised the approach to the conclusion of suicide in the coroner’s courts and has determined that whether the deceased died as a result of suicide is to be determined on the civil standard of proof – on the balance of probabilities.
Judgments such as this are an extremely important reminder to all lawyers of the dangers of making the assumption “it must be right because that’s how it has always been”. Applying the doctrine of stare decisis means the Court would doubtless now say to us all that “whatever you have all been assuming was always the case, you were actually always wrong”.
The Claimant submitted that decades (if not centuries) of case law had established that a verdict of suicide at an inquest could only be returned on the criminal standard of proof; Leggatt LJ and Nicol J, however, found that the authorities simply did not bear this out.
Mr Maughan was found hanging in his prison cell. At his inquest the jury recorded a narrative conclusion that
“We believe James deliberately tied a ligature made of sheets around his neck and suspended himself from the bedframe.
James Maughan had a history of mental health challenges and on the night of 10 July 2016, James was visibly agitated. We find that on the balance of probabilities, it is more likely than not that James intended to fatally hang himself that night.”
Mr Maughan’s brother was dissatisfied with that finding. He argued that the jury’s conclusion was unlawful, as it amounted to a conclusion of suicide reached on the balance of probabilities. He said the coroner was wrong to direct the jury in a way that allowed them to apply the civil standard of proof to the question of whether the deceased intended to kill himself.
It was argued that the jury’s finding amounted to a finding of suicide on the civil standard, and that the law only allowed a conclusion of suicide, whether recorded in short form or as part of a narrative statement, to be returned on the criminal standard of proof.
The Court agreed with the first part of the Claimant’s argument, saying that:
“A narrative conclusion to the effect that on the balance of probabilities the deceased did a deliberate act which caused his own death intending the outcome to be fatal clearly amounts to a conclusion that the deceased committed suicide whether or not the word “suicide” is used…” 
“..It is sophistry to say that such a conclusion is not one of suicide because the required standard of proof has not been met”
Referring to the civil standard of proof on the record of inquest, as the jury did, made no difference. That was not itself part of the substantive conclusion, it was simply a statement of the evidential test they had applied.
But, as the Court went on to say, one of the first lessons in logic, is that accepting the validity of an argument always leaves open two possibilities: one is to accept the conclusion of the argument; but the other is to reject the premise.
A lesson in logic
After going on to examine the coronial law of suicide the Court soundly rejected the Claimant’s premise that a conclusion of suicide might only be returned if the criminal standard of proof was met.
The underlying reason why a particularly high standard of proof is required in criminal proceedings is that a criminal conviction has serious consequences for the accused, which may include loss of liberty. In civil proceedings, which are generally concerned with determining the rights of parties as between each other, there is no equivalent policy reason for weighting the fact-finding exercise in favour of or against one or other party.
The judges pointed out that the common law has rejected an approach of applying a variable standard of proof. Instead, in the interests of simplicity, consistency and uniformity, a single standard of proof is applied in all civil cases, just as a single (though higher) standard of proof is applied in all criminal cases.
The Court went on to analyse the previous authorities and found that none actually supported the Claimant’s contention that a criminal standard of proof was required for a conclusion of suicide in the inquisitorial jurisdiction.
Given the nature and function of a modern inquest, the Court’s view was that there was today no relationship or analogy between coroner’s proceedings and criminal proceedings which could in principle justify applying in coroner’s proceedings the criminal standard of proof.
Suicide after all has not been a crime for over 50 years. That the conclusion of suicide still carried stigma, and in some faith groups was still considered a sin, did not alter the principles of law that the Court must apply.
The position is that the standard of proof required for a conclusion of suicide, whether recorded in short-form or as a narrative statement, is the balance of probabilities, bearing in mind that such a conclusion should only be reached if there is sufficient evidence to justify it.
It followed that there was nothing wrong with the coroner’s directions to the jury in this case and that the jury’s conclusion was lawful.
Probably unlawful killing?
The obiter statements make further interesting reading, as the judges also considered that the same logic should apply to conclusions such as unlawful killing:
“In circumstances 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.”
Although permission to appeal the judgment in Maughan has already been given, it remains to be seen whether these obiter comments will be dealt with in that appeal – which is now scheduled to be heard on 9 April 2019.
In the meantime, the next Coroner who is asked to return, or leave to the jury, a conclusion of unlawful killing may as well steel themselves now for a Judicial Review claim to land on their desk whatever they decide to do.
 with thanks to Jude Bunting, counsel in the case, for this information and the notification of the judgment