Maughan, R (On the Application Of) v Her Majesty's Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire  EWCA Civ 809
The Court of Appeal has, this morning, promulgated its much anticipated judgment in the Maughan case in which the Divisional Court upturned decades of “accepted” practice that the applicable standard of proof in cases of suicide was the criminal standard. Whilst agreeing with the Divisional Court with regards to the civil standard of proof applying in suicide cases, the court considered itself constrained by precedent from deciding that the civil standard should be applied to all possible conclusions available to a coroner (including unlawful killing) and a jury despite identifying this as preferential. The court took the opportunity to advocate for legislative reconsideration of the general issue in the form of explicitly amended rules and subsequent guidance.
Mr Maughan was discovered suspended by a ligature in his cell at HMP Bullingdon in July 2016 in circumstances which were suggestive of him having taken his own life. Inquest proceedings exploring the circumstances of his death and investigating the involvement of the State in those circumstances took place in October 2017. At the conclusion of the evidence the coroner withdrew the short-form conclusion of suicide from the jury, on Galbraith Plus grounds and in view of the application of the criminal standard of proof. The coroner determined to leave a series of questions to the jury by which to elicit their conclusion in the form of a questionnaire-type narrative. In so doing, the coroner directed the jury that the applicable standard of proof was the civil standard of proof. The jury concluded that Mr Maughan did and intended to take his own life by reference to the lower standard.
Their Lordships’ judgment
In its exploration of the legislative and jurisprudential context and history to the issue, the Court of Appeal acknowledged the unique status of inquest proceedings viz civil and criminal proceedings and also their important public function in ensuring that necessary lessons are necessarily learned. In acknowledging that suicide ceased to constitute a criminal offence in the 1960s, the court further acknowledged the application of the civil standard in civil proceedings in which the matter in issue could equally constitute a criminal offence. The court also identified the logical preference for a single standard of proof to apply to the issue of suicide howsoever that is to be elicited from a jury.
By its judgment the Court of Appeal distinguished the issue in the present case (the standard of proof in a case of suicide) from that engaged in most of the relevant case law to which it was referred and additionally a case which did not feature in argument in the Divisional Court – namely, the applicable standard of proof in a case of unlawful killing. Constrained by precedent as regards the unlawful killing issue and despite stating its preference for a single standard to apply to all coronial cases, the Court of Appeal was unable to so rule. Regardless, the court called for the position to be authoritatively settled by explicit amendment of the Coroner’s Rules.
Those engaged in inquest proceedings in which suicide is in issue will welcome the settling of the law and the ending of the hybrid position whereby some coroners have left suicide to be determined to the criminal standard to the jury (in an appropriate case) pending the resolution of the Maughan proceedings. Those engaged in unlawful killing related proceedings may considers themselves fortunate that a conclusion with such potentially profound criminal, regulatory or disciplinary consequences remains to be determined to the higher standard. For now.
Authored by Simon Connolly, Associate, BLM