In R (Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire the minority were correct, here is why

Updated: May 20, 2021

[Question] In R (Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire argue that the minority of 2 were correct.

Innocent until probably guilty. This is the name that should be given to the decision made by the majority. This essay will disassemble the argument put forward by the majority (Lady Arden, Lord Wilson and Lord Carnwath) through firstly highlighting the significant differences between unlawful killing and suicide, in terms of what must be proven accompanied with the criminality associated with the conclusion, and secondly, by looking at the shortcomings of the ruling from a practical ‘real world’ perspective.

Firstly, there is a fundamental difference between the conclusion of suicide, which is no longer a crime and so faces no criminality, and the conclusion of unlawful killing, which required proof of either murder, manslaughter or infanticide, all three of which can be considered the most major criminal offences, and consequently, carry major criminal implications.

Inquests (inquires to find out the cause for someone’s death) specifically relating to investigating the death of prisoners by either unlawful killing or suicide must be determined by a jury, given that it was caused by a “notifiable accident, poisoning or disease” according to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Although many coroners have been able to avoid the detailed examination by juries under this act, that may hold them guilty of crimes relating to gross negligence manslaughter or corporate manslaughter, if on their analysis, no reasonable jury, properly directed as to the law for such offences, could reach any other conclusion. However, this decision by the coroner to remove the power of the jury, would be one that must require the coroner to anticipate that the jury would be ‘satisfied so they are sure’ that all components involved do not make up the offence of unlawful killing and instead suicide. This seems wrong. Why is a coroner, who may have vested interests in protecting the council that they represent, being given so much power, to act as investigator, jury and prosecutor? This is a valid suggestion, but can be undermined by stating that they must hold themselves to the very high criminal standard of proof, having to be sure that in all circumstances the jury is ‘satisfied so they are sure’.

Yet, if the test changes, as it has been by Lady Arden’s ruling, as to merely whether such matters have “probably” been established, Coroners are likely to be more confident in taking away that decision from the jury and deciding it for themselves in such a case. This now nullifies the counterargument mentioned above. Where this happens, in which the coroner only has to believe such matters have ‘probably’ been established, the coroner’s inquest, or investigation, now resembles a mini-trial of the criminal offence of manslaughter. A mini-trial in which they would be held accountable for manslaughter, yet one that they also control!

Not only can the fundamental difference in the criminality of the rule of suicide and unlawful killing be inferred, to in a sense prescribe more power to the ‘judge’ that is also the coroner is hugely misguided. This major difference has been wrongly overlooked by the majority, in favour of consistency, and directly contradicts the reason for Lady Arden’s ruling of Acting in a matter of natural legal principle.

Secondly, the same ‘misguided reasoning’ can be inferred by observing the ruling and the implications associated with it from a practical perspective.

Before I continue arguing that the minority is correct, I must briefly establish why the majority is incorrect. Lady Arden justifies her ruling in the spirit of ‘preserving accurate statistics of suicides in public institutions’. This is hugely flawed. An increase in the number of unlawful killing conclusions instead of suicides isn’t in itself a bad thing – it most probably would place pressure on the agencies involved to change their practices and ensure that fewer lives are lost, and so, this would insight a shift in the use of force in public institutions. I ask in what circumstances would it be better to have skewed statistics that bring about no change, than accurate precise ones that insight it? And further, does this not fit closer in line with the principles of reacting to social change that Lady Arden argued for?

Moreover, it seems as if the practical matters suggested by the minority, arising from proceedings being an inquest rather than civil and criminal proceedings, were not given proper consideration. What was not considered by Lady Arden, and those arguing her position, was that usual rules of evidence required in civil and criminal proceedings do not apply in an inquest. Not only do those who face potential implication by an unlawful killing verdict have no control over the evidence that is put before the jury, if it ever reaches that stage, but the evidence that would not be evidence in criminal law, such as hearsay, is given a founded standing. I make this point not only as a student who has read the case notes, but instead drawing from what the majority and minority in the Supreme Court quoted from a ruling in 1982, that said:

“… it should not be forgotten than an inquest is a fact-finding exercise and not a method of apportioning guilt. The procedure and rules of evidence which are suitable for one are unsuitable for the other. In an inquest it should never be forgotten that there are no parties, there is no indictment, there is no trial, simply an attempt to establish facts. It is a questioning process, a process of investigation quite unlike a criminal trial where the prosecutor accuses and the accused defends, the judge holding the balance or the ring, whichever metaphor one chooses to use.”

This quotation could not be more suitable to explain whether it should be open for a coroner, or for a jury, to find that a criminal offence has been committed that caused the death of the deceased, on a standard lower than the very high criminal standard.

To conclude, I strongly believe that the minority were correct. From the points listed, it can certainly be inferred that the majority of the Supreme Court that strove to achieve consistency between conclusions, standard of proof and proceedings, failed. This failure can plainly be seen through an inability to take into account the issues and differences in relation to unlawful killing, alongside, the unjustness of lowering a standard of proof for what is a finding of such a serious offence of homicide in circumstances in which those who are likely to be truly implicated by it have no opportunity even to address the jury on the evidence they have heard and the facts. It could not be clearer that a standard, that practically and symbolically, irons all these creases out, in the form of the criminal standard, suggested by the minority, should be completely applied.

Thank you for reading my post! Please do comment below, I am more than happy to be challenged.

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