Nick Graham

Though suicide was decriminalised greater than 60 years in the past, it was nonetheless at all times vital to satisfy the felony normal of proof when reaching a discovering that somebody had taken their very own life. However this month, in a departure from this widespread understanding, the Supreme Court docket in R (Maughan) v HM Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46 discovered that the ‘diploma of conclusivity’ required was, in actual fact, the civil normal – the steadiness of chances.

The legislation and its relationship to suicide has an sad historical past. In his 18th century Commentaries on the Legal guidelines of England, Sir William Blackstone thought of the taking of 1’s personal life as one thing that ‘ranked among the many highest crimes’. This most severe of misdemeanours was a ‘double offence’: firstly, towards the Almighty by ‘speeding into his speedy presence uncalled for’ and secondly, towards the King ‘who has curiosity within the preservation of all his topics’.

And what becoming punishment can ‘human legal guidelines inflict on one who had withdrawn himself from their attain’? Seemingly very grisly ones: an ignominious burial ‘with a stake pushed by means of his physique’ and ‘forfeiture of all his items and chattels’ as a deterrent ‘from so determined and depraved an act’.

By the 20th century, attitudes had modified and whereas suicide nonetheless attracted stigma and ethical objection, a much less extreme jurisprudence was mirrored in The Suicide Act 1961, which made the deliberate act of killing oneself now not against the law.

At present, the general public debate regarding suicide is framed as a public well being concern, and its prevention is a query of public coverage and intervention by psychological well being professionals. As regards the legislation, consideration of suicide has moved away from public disapprobation within the felony sphere and is now very firmly underneath the impartial, fact-finding jurisdiction of the coroner.

Coroners’ (now) statutory obligation is to research these deaths that they’ve purpose to suspect are violent, unnatural or of unknown trigger, or the place the demise occurred in state detention or custody. Until that investigation reveals that the reason for demise was pure, it’s going to usually end in an inquest – a public, fact-finding listening to to determine who the deceased was, along with the place, when and the way they got here to die. These findings are recorded on a ‘document of inquest’ kind, which incorporates the medical explanation for demise and a conclusion (previously referred to as a verdict).

The usual of proof required for coronial conclusions is ordinarily the steadiness of chances. Nevertheless, suicide conclusions are an exception – for a suicide conclusion, the coroner should set up that the deceased dedicated an act that resulted of their demise and, importantly, that they supposed that act to end result of their demise. Suicide was by no means to be presumed and at all times needed to be established past cheap doubt – that’s, to the felony normal of proof.

There are a lot of instances which have come earlier than the coronial courts the place the deaths – on the face of it – seem like they happened on account of suicide. The deceased might have had histories of self-harm or earlier suicide makes an attempt; there might have been power psychological sickness and easily no proof of any third-party involvement. To the uninformed observer, it could nicely seem like the deceased took their very own lives.

There are generally two points that go towards that intuitive strategy. The primary is that suicide must not ever be presumed and should at all times be proved by the information. If somebody’s demise is merely suggestive of suicide, that isn’t sufficient.

‘If an individual dies a violent demise, the potential for suicide could also be there for all to see, nevertheless it should not be presumed merely as a result of it appears on the face of it to be a probable rationalization. Suicide have to be confirmed by proof [failing which] it’s the obligation of the coroner to search out an open verdict’ (R v London Coroner Ex p Barber [1975] 1 WLR 1310).

The overall precept adopted by the courts is that absent demonstrable proof, there stays the likelihood that some unexplained accident is the causative issue and such a risk negates a proper discovering of suicide.

The second concern is expounded. To find out a suicide conclusion, there are two elements – the act taken by the deceased and their intention. As Lang J put it succinctly, ‘in an effort to return a verdict of suicide, the coroner or jury have to be positive (i) that the deceased supposed his personal demise; and (ii) that he did an act with that intention which prompted his demise’ (R (Lagos) v Her Majesty’s Coroner for the Metropolis of London [2013] EWHJC 423).

The usual of proof to use when assessing these two points was at all times regarded as the felony normal of proof. That view was mirrored in eight Divisional Court docket instances that make reference to this normal.

It’s maybe most clearly put by Lloyd LJ: ’Though suicide ceased to be against the law by advantage of the Suicide Act 1961, it’s clearly established by the instances that the usual of proof stays the identical as in a felony prosecution. In different phrases, the jury needed to be happy in order to ensure that the deceased supposed to kill himself’ (R v HM Coroner for Solihull Ex p Nutt [1993] COD 449).

The one Court docket of Enchantment authority on the purpose (on a case regarding illegal killing – which, together with suicide, was the one different conclusion that could possibly be based on the felony normal) was the place Woolf LJ acknowledged that ‘simply as it will be important {that a} jury shouldn’t usher in a verdict of suicide until they’re positive, likewise they need to not usher in a verdict of illegal killing until they’re positive’ (R v Wolverhampton Coroner Ex p McCurbin [1990] 1 WLR 719).

If any cheap doubt about the usual of proof remained, the modernisation of the coroner’s function in inquests by means of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 made evident the statutory assist for the applying of the upper normal. The act enabled the making of the Coroners (Inquests) Guidelines 2013 the place the schedule offers steerage for the completion of the document of inquest kind and states: ‘The usual of proof required for the brief kind conclusion of “illegal killing” and “suicide” is the felony normal of proof. For all different short-form conclusions and a story assertion, the usual of proof is the civil normal of proof.’

So, when a coroner (or jury) is contemplating whether or not the deceased dedicated suicide, they have to by no means presume that is the case and should solely attain this conclusion after assessing the proof to the best normal of proof.

Nevertheless, on 12 November 2020, the Supreme Court docket reversed this strategy in R (Maughan) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire.

The information of the case are – as at all times – tragic, however sadly not unusual. Mr Maughan had been remanded at HM Jail Bullingdon in Oxfordshire. When jail workers entered his cell on the morning of 11 July 2016, they discovered his physique in a seated place on the finish of his mattress; he appeared to have tied a ligature round his neck and suspended himself from the bedframe.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman undertook an investigation. It criticised the jail for failing to behave on the evident threat that Mr Maughan offered, as he had a historical past of earlier suicide makes an attempt, psychological well being points and substance misuse; it additionally famous the jail had failed to make use of its inner suicide prevention procedures.

The case come earlier than the senior coroner in October 2017. Along with contemplating whether or not there have been failings on the a part of HM Jail Service, the apparent query for the jury to find out was whether or not Mr Maughan took his personal life.

After a prolonged inquest, the coroner concluded that the demise resulted from an act of self-harm – that’s, there was inadequate proof to indicate that Mr Maughan wished to take his personal life by tying a ligature round his neck. He directed that the jury had inadequate proof to succeed in a conclusion of suicide.

What different conclusions are open to a coroner in these circumstances? The Coroner Bench E book suggests an open conclusion may be acceptable the place suicide can’t be ascertained, a story conclusion if ‘you can’t resolve [the deceased’s] frame of mind or… the place, on steadiness, you discover he supposed to take his personal life however you can’t be positive about it’.

The household of Mr Maughan argued that the issue with that strategy was that such a discovering was primarily a suicide conclusion however on the decrease normal of proof.

As indicated within the steerage on kind two within the inquest rules, a conclusion will be in a brief kind and – save for suicide and illegal killing – will be to the civil normal. It may also be by the use of a story assertion – a impartial and factual account of the circumstances giving rise to the demise of the deceased. The footnote to the inquest rules (supported by the chief coroner’s steerage) says the burden of proof for narrative statements is at all times to the civil normal.

The jury’s discovering was that on the steadiness of chances, it’s extra possible than not that Mr Maughan supposed to fatally grasp himself that night time.

The issue that the appellate courts needed to take care of was whether or not a story conclusion could make findings that fall in need of the felony normal when involved with the intention of the deceased when their actions proved deadly.

The departure from the felony normal began with the Divisional Court docket. In addition to distinguishing the sooner case legislation, one among its important considerations was that making use of inconsistent requirements of proof to short-form and narrative conclusions made for inconsistent selections. The Court docket of Enchantment agreed, overruling earlier selections that prompt in any other case.

The bulk resolution of the Supreme Court docket supported the Divisional Court docket and Court docket of Enchantment’s analyses of the sooner case legislation. Inquests had been performed underneath the civil jurisdiction and there was nothing within the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or the rules that required the next ‘diploma of conclusivity’.

The court docket spent a while within the judgment analysing the be aware to the document of inquest kind (kind two) and whether or not the wording had the impact of incorporating the felony normal. The bulk was of the view that it merely mirrored the widespread understanding of the case legislation on the time the rules had been drafted, as did the chief coroner’s steerage.

Of be aware additionally in Girl Arden’s opinion was the assertion that fashionable attitudes to suicide have modified and that inquests will not be involved with felony justice and have a distinct function. Moreover, society ‘wants to know the causes and stop suicides occurring’ and a felony normal might result in under-recording. If an open conclusion was reached as a result of the felony normal required for a suicide conclusion couldn’t be met, this may skew the statistical proof – a selected concern for many who died in custody.

In addition to taking a distinct view of the widespread legislation place and a distinct interpretation of the impact of the be aware to kind two, the minority view maintained {that a} larger normal of proof was warranted. Suicide continues to be a discovering that has ‘severe authorized and social penalties’ and the felony normal displays the ‘potential complexity’ of suicide instances and the requirement on the coroner to come back to that discovering with the ‘utmost seriousness’.

After the Divisional Court docket resolution, the Workplace for Nationwide Statistics acknowledged that Maughan would have an effect on the recorded figures for suicides. The newest figures (2018) recorded 6,507 suicides within the UK for that yr; official figures for 2019 are awaited.

Because the Supreme Court docket famous, society’s perspective to suicide might nicely have modified however given the incalculable private price to the households and associates of the deceased it’s hoped that alongside this alteration will likely be a greater understanding of suicide prevention.


Nick Graham is director of authorized and democratic companies at Buckinghamshire Council and an assistant coroner within the Thames Valley space