Inquest standard of proof changed

The Supreme Court has given an important judgement relating to the standard of proof for inquests. This may seem like a point of narrow interest, but it is, in fact, in the general public interest to have an effective inquest system which is in place to find out how someone may have died if the circumstances of death are unexplained.

An inquest is a public judicial enquiry to find the answers to a limited, but important, series of questions:

  • who was the deceased
  • when and where they died
  • the medical cause of the death
  • how they died

An inquest is presided over by a coroner who conducts a fact-finding process. The main focus of an inquest is often in relation to how a person has died. The coroner is not allowed to deal with any other matters and in particular does not deal with blame or responsibility for the death or with issues of criminal or civil liability – these will be dealt with by the courts if required.

The majority of deaths are not reported to a coroner and in most cases the deceased's doctor issues a medical certificate containing the cause of death without reference to a coroner, particularly if they have been treated for an illness which caused the death. However, those deaths which are considered by the coroner are public hearings which can be held with or without a jury. There are two standards of proof. First is the criminal standard of proof which is that the matter must be proved 'beyond reasonable doubt'. It is this standard of proof which has applied to inquests until the recent case. The second is the civil standard of proof which is the 'balance of probabilities'; this is a lower standard of proof than that applied in the criminal arena.

In a case involving the tragic matter of a man who died by hanging in his prison cell, the Supreme Court decided that the standard of proof for all conclusions at an inquest, including unlawful killing and suicide, is the 'balance of probabilities'. Broadly this means that the coroner or jury may record a conclusion if they are satisfied that it is more likely than not that it occurred.

The judges held that applying the civil standard may enhance the recording of suicides and assist research. The court thought that the criminal burden of proof may result in underreporting of suicides. The court said:

'There is a considerable public interest in accurate suicide statistics as they may reveal a need for social and medical care in areas not previously regarded as significant. Each suicide determination can help others by revealing how suicide risks may be managed in future.' 

To discuss this or any other aspect of an unexpected or unexplained death, contact us.