Suicide and Unlawful Killing on the Balance of Probabilities: R. (on the application of Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire.

15 December 2020

The Crucible Regulatory team considers the important recent case of Maughan - R. (on the application of Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46

Case Update

The Supreme Court has ruled (by a majority - the late Lord Kerr and Lord Reed dissenting) that the civil standard of proof, the balance of probabilities, should apply to all narrative and short-form conclusions at inquests. This judgment amounts to a common law development lowering the standard of proof for verdicts of "suicide" and "unlawful killing" from the criminal standard, beyond reasonable doubt, to the civil standard, the balance of probabilities.

Lady Arden helpfully set out her reader-friendly judgment relating to conclusions of "suicide" under four headings:

(1) As a matter of legal principle, the civil standard should apply, and the common law does not demonstrate any cogent reason for not applying that principle

(2) The criminal standard may lead to suicides being under-recorded and to lessons not being learnt

(3) The changing role of inquests and changing societal attitudes towards suicide ...

(4) Leading Commonwealth jurisdictions also apply the single civil standard of proof


Lady Arden concludes that Coronial proceedings are civil in nature, concluding:

"The principle is clear and it is that in civil proceedings the civil standard of proof should apply. There may be cases where it does not so apply, for example, contempt and forfeiture, but they are rare. These particular situations involve risk to liberty and loss of property, both keenly protected by the common law." [69]

Lord Kerr, delivering a dissenting judgment, disagreed that inquests are civil proceedings, stating:

"... inquests are not civil or criminal proceedings. They are sui generis proceedings with rules of procedure of their own." [141]

Considering the conclusion of "unlawful killing", Lady Arden states:

"a common standard applying to both unlawful killing and suicide is more consistent with principle and removes an inherent inconsistency in the determinations made at an inquest. It reflects the general rule for the standard of proof in civil proceedings." [96]

The judgment will have profound implications for all inquests considering the above conclusions, particularly those involving deaths in custody and the use of force and restraint. Families may not welcome the lower standard for inquests considering whether the deceased took their own life, as suicide still carries some stigma in some communities. 

Laura Bayley.
Related specialisms.