Posted by Ali Cloak, Senior Associate
Recent inquest appeal lowers threshold for establishing that someone has committed suicide
In a judgment published on 26 July 2018, the High Court has changed the legal test to be applied in inquests when determining whether or not a person committed suicide.
The High Court has stated that the standard of proof for concluding someone has committed suicide should be the civil standard of proof – the ‘balance of probabilities’ – rather than the higher, criminal standard of proof – ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
This would represent a huge change in the law, and could have wide-ranging effects. The parties in the case were given permission to appeal the decision to the higher courts and so the decision will be reviewed.
What does this change mean?
An inquest will decide the factual reason as to how someone came to their death. When concluding that someone committed suicide, it has to be established that the person had taken actions to kill themselves and that there was an intention for this to be the outcome. This is opposed to, for example, the person having intended to be rescued having a lack of understanding that their actions would lead to their death.
Following the High Court’s decision the position would be, as mentioned, that suicide only needs to be proved on the balance of probabilities. In other words: it was more likely than not that a person took their life and had the intention of doing so. This is a lower threshold than before and means that a conclusion of suicide could be much more easily reached.
For the vast majority of conclusions (previously known as ‘verdicts’) in an inquest – for example, when concluding that someone died naturally, or by homicide, or by accident – it has only ever needed to be proved on the balance of probabilities. Therefore, the High Court seemingly has just brought the standard of proof for suicide in line with these.
Why was the standard of proof for a suicide conclusion ever different?
Suicide was (and still is) considered a sensitive topic with stigma amongst certain communities, and can carry serious social consequences. It is regarded in some religious teachings as a sin.
However, the High Court in this judgment ruled that while this may be the case and it may be that oftentimes the deceased’s family wish to avoid a conclusion of suicide by the coroner, the consequences of such a conclusion are not a consideration which the law must take into account when establishing the pure facts of what happened.
The court found that it is the coroner’s judicial duty to establish how the death occurred; the fact that a family may be distressed by a conclusion should not mean that the coroner has to meet a higher standard of proof in order to reach that conclusion.
The High Court accepted that there are varying views on suicide, however, quoting a case where the husband of the deceased wanted the coroner to find a conclusion of suicide. The husband wanted the conclusion to recognise his wife’s autonomy and dignity as a human being in choosing to end her life in that way.
Ultimately, the High Court stated that:
“although we recognise that a finding of suicide is a serious matter which can cause serious consequences, this is not a consideration which can in principle or consistently with the approach of the law in civil proceedings affect the legal standard of proof.”
Why could the coroner change the approach?
The rules governing a coroner’s work are outlined in the coroners and Justice Act 2009 and the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013. However, neither of these expressly state that a coroner must apply a higher standard of proof before finding a conclusion of suicide.
The previous approach, with the higher threshold for suicide, is the approach outlined in the notes to the Record of Inquest (the formal form which the coroner has to use to record the conclusion) and in the Guidance from the Chief Coroner. However, neither of these have the force of legislation. Therefore, the High Court was able to re-interpret the legislation and confirm that it was right for the coroner to make a finding of suicide ‘on the balance of probabilities’ rather than ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.
I will be eagerly awaiting the appeal case to see how this is decided. If the appeal confirms the High Court decision then it is likely we will be seeing many more conclusions of suicide in inquests which would previously have failed to meet the requisite threshold.
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