Supreme Court holds that balance of probabilities is standard of proof for suicide inquest proceedings


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

James Maughan, the appellant’s brother, was a prisoner held in HMP Bullingdon. In July 2016, James Maughan was found hanging in his cell. He was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. At the subsequent inquest into his death, the respondent invited the jury to consider a narrative verdict to the effect that James Maughan committed suicide on the balance of probabilities. The jury returned a narrative conclusion finding that it was more likely than not that James Maughan had committed suicide.

The appellant began judicial review proceedings challenging the jury’s determination and arguing that the respondent erred in law in instructing the jury to apply the civil standard of proof when considering whether the deceased had killed himself. The Divisional Court dismissed the application for judicial review, concluding that the standard of proof in all suicide conclusions is the civil standard. The appellant appealed that decision to the Court of Appeal, which upheld the Divisional Court’s judgment. The appellant appealed to the Supreme Court.

HELD: A majority of the Supreme Court held that the civil balance of probabilities is the correct standard of proof, or degree of conclusivity, required for the determination of the result of an inquest into a death where the question is whether the deceased committed suicide. Neither the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 nor the European Convention on Human Rights requires any particular standard of proof for conclusions at an inquest. However, the common law provides that the civil standard of proof applies to short form conclusions of suicide. To apply different standards of proof for short form and narrative conclusions leads to an internally inconsistent system of fact-finding. If a criminal standard of proof is required, suicide is likely to be under-recorded. Societal attitudes to suicide have changed and the role of inquests has developed to be concerned with the investigation of deaths, not criminal justice.

Karon Monaghan QC was involved in this case.