Supreme Court ruling on coroner’s verdicts may help in prisoner suicide crisis

9th December 2020

Supreme Court ruling on coroner’s verdicts may help in prisoner suicide crisis

The Supreme Court recently made a landmark decision when they ruled that the standard of proof to be applied for a Coroner’s Court to reach a verdict that a person committed suicide is the civil standard of proof – “on a balance of probabilities”, or more likely than not.

On the face of it, this seems like very niche news which would be of interest only to those who work in the legal sector and, even then, only a select group. However, as outlined at the end of this article, it is an important decision which could have a wider positive impact for society as whole.

The Case

The case of R (Maughan) v Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire made its way up the Supreme Court on appeal by the family of James Maughan, a prisoner who was found hanging in his cell at Bullingdon Prison on 11 July 2016.

At the inquest into Mr Maughan’s death, the Coroner had accepted that there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could be sure beyond reasonable doubt (to the criminal standard of proof) that the deceased intended to kill himself. But, at his invitation, the jury returned a verdict (now technically called a conclusion) that it was more likely than not that Mr Maughan had ended his own life.

The family of the deceased challenged the verdict, but the application was dismissed by the Divisional Court and that decision to dismiss the application was upheld on appeal to the Court of Appeal and now by the Supreme Court.

A Coroner’s Inquest is a fact-finding inquiry and it does not establish guilt. The purpose of the inquest is to decide how, when and where a person died and it is the civil standard of proof (on a balance of probabilities) which is applied by the coroner, or a jury if there is one, when reaching most verdicts in inquests.

However, until now, under common law, to return a verdict of suicide or unlawful killing, a coroner’s court had to be sure “beyond reasonable doubt” that the deceased had committed suicide.
There are many previous cases in which the Divisional Court or the Court of Appeal has held that the required standard of proof for a suicide verdict is the criminal standard – beyond all reasonable doubt – and some of the reasons which judges have given for those decisions are reasonably contemporary.

For instance, in R (Evandro Lagos) v HM Coroner for the City of London (2013) Mr Justice Lang summarised this approach to suicide verdicts as reflecting “(a) the fact that a finding of suicide is a serious matter which can cause serious distress and stigma, and other adverse consequences; and (b) the complexities of human psychology which can cause people to harm themselves seriously or to put themselves in very dangerous positions without the clear intention to end their lives”

In R v West London Coroner, Ex p Gray [1988], when maintaining that the criminal standard of proof needed to be applied when an inquest is considering a conclusion of suicide, Lord Justice Watkins held:

“It is unthinkable, in my estimation, that anything less will do.”

However, as demonstrated by the decision of the Supreme Court in Mr Maughan’s case, Lord Justice Watkin’s estimation has not remained the overriding view. In her judgement in Mr Maughan’s case, Lady Arden states “It is as if the common law had accepted that the criminal standard applied because of the links between coronial proceedings and criminal proceedings, the serious consequences of suicide … and the then generally prevailing societal norms attaching stigma to suicide.”

The effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is to establish that the standard of proof for all verdicts (or conclusions) at an inquest, including suicide (and unlawful killing), is on a balance of probabilities.

This is an important decision not only because it reflects changing societal attitudes and expectations, but, because application of the criminal standard of proof may have been leading to suicides being under-recorded and, in turn, to lessons not being learned.

Suicide was decriminalised in England in 1961 and societies attitude has changed drastically on the subject since that time. In a 1990 case concerning whether damages could be awarded, Lord Justice Lloyd said, referring to the change in public attitude towards suicide generally:

“It is no longer regarded with the same abhorrence as it once was. It is, of course, impossible for us to say how far the change in the public attitude has gone. But that there has been a change is beyond doubt.”

The stigma that at one time applied to cases of suicide has, to a large extent, disappeared and now the law has caught up with that fact, bringing the UK into line with many other commonwealth jurisdictions.

Even more importantly, applying the civil standard may reduce the risk of suicides being under reported. Although the verdict of suicide will always be upsetting for the family of the deceased, if this clarification on the standard of proof results in more accurate suicide statistics then it could assist in informing where social and medical care is directed in order to effectively address suicide risks in the future.

In a disturbing report released in 2019, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman found that self-inflicted deaths in prisons had risen by 23% over the previous year. This was followed with the news earlier this year that five suicides were recorded in prisons in England and Wales over just six days, during the drastically reduced regimes and quarantine imposed due to Covid-19.

It is clear from the statistics that there is a serious problem when it comes to the risk of suicide in our prisons. If this decision of the Supreme Court results in more accurate statistics from which we can learn in order to prevent future deaths, then it is likely to be welcome news to campaigners concerned with the self-harm and suicide crisis within our prisons.

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