The Supreme Court has handed down its long-awaited ruling which impacts upon the standard of proof to be used at inquests.

In 2018 Mr Maughan’s brother brought a judicial review claim, raising the question of whether a coroner or jury may lawfully record a conclusion of suicide reached on the balance of probabilities or whether such a conclusion is only permissible if it has been proved to the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt). Similarly, the same question was put forward for conclusions of unlawful killing which, historically, have only been permitted on the criminal standard.

Following a lengthy legal battle before the Administrative Court and Court of Appeal, and following interventions by the Chief Coroner, the matter came before the Supreme Court in February 2020, with judgment being handed down on 13 November 2020.

By a 3-2 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that in inquests the standard of proof for short-form conclusions of suicide and equivalent findings within narrative conclusions is the civil standard (balance of probabilities). This was largely anticipated within the legal industry, as suicide is no longer regarded as a crime following its’ decriminalisation under The Suicide Act 1961. The Supreme Court confirmed that the use of a criminal standard may lead to suicides being under-recorded and lessons not being learnt; that the civil standard better aligns with the inquisitorial nature and responsibility of an inquest; and other commonwealth countries have applied the civil standard without issue.

However, in a surprising outcome, the Supreme Court also concluded that the civil standard applies to conclusions of unlawful killing (whereas previously conclusions of unlawful killing could only be found to the higher criminal standard). The Court was not persuaded by the argument that public confidence in the legal system would be diminished if a conclusion of unlawful killing is reached at inquest on the civil standard, but resultant criminal prosecution fails, and instead determined that an inquest is not a criminal trial – therefore the criminal standard should not be applied.

In short, all conclusions in inquests will now be reached on the balance of probabilities, which will create uniformity within the coronial system. This will have significant and wide ranging consequences at inquests in which the use of force by the police is potentially in issue, or in cases involving restraint by public bodies (such as in hospital, immigration or mental health settings). No doubt the entities involved will wish to engage lawyers more often to seek to protect their reputations where the risk of an adverse finding being made against them is higher, which will invariably lead calls of worsening inequality of arms as, in the majority of cases, families are not permitted state-funded legal representation at inquest and would therefore have to pay for this themselves.

If you need legal help or advice on this area please contact Adam Hodson a.hodson@sydneymitchell.co.uk 0808 166 8827

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