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Changes to the burden of proof for unlawful killing in inquests

The Supreme Court has handed down a highly significant decision which reduced the standard of proof in an inquest for a coroner or jury to reach a conclusion of unlawful killing.

The majority 3:2 decision, made on 13 November, sees the burden of proof for unlawful killing lowered to the civil standard, in line with the burden of proof for suicide. Whereas the previous burden of proof for unlawful killing had been “beyond reasonable doubt” it is now the significantly lower hurdle of “on the balance of probabilities”.

The case, R (on the application of Maughan) (Appellant) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire (Respondent) [2020] UKSC 46 concerned the standard of proof used at inquests when reaching a conclusion of suicide. The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court by the brother of James Maughan who died at HMP Bullingdon in 2016. Maughan’s brother argued that the senior coroner was wrong to instruct the jury to apply the civil standard of proof when considering whether James Maughan had killed himself. The appeal was dismissed but the majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the civil standard of proof should be applied to all short form conclusions, including unlawful killing.

Why is the decision significant?

The decision has important implications for those representing families and properly interested persons at inquests following workplace fatalities for the following reasons:

As the standard of proof for unlawful killing has been lowered, coroners may now decide to leave unlawful killing open as a question for consideration whether for themselves or juries.

Detailed discussions between the parties involved in the inquest will need to take place to establish whether unlawful killing is a conclusion to be considered by the coroner or jury and the evidence which will be heard.

If a coroner or jury reaches an unlawful killing verdict this may act as a trigger for prosecutors to review cases post-inquest to determine if charges of gross negligence manslaughter or corporate manslaughter should be considered.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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