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Public law and Regulation

Case reports and guidance on public law and professional regulation issues

31 JAN 2013

R (on the application of Sophie Wilkinson) v HM Coroner for the Greater Manchester South District & Livesley [2012] EWHC 2755 (Admin); (2012) PLLR 134

Coroner - inquest - basis for verdict - unlawful killing - section 2B Road Traffic Act 1988 - Schedule 4 Coroners Rules 1984

A coroner was wrong to leave the offence of causing death by careless driving to a jury as a possible basis for a verdict of unlawful killing. Only offences of murder, manslaughter and infanticide can properly give rise to such a verdict.

11 October 2012

Administrative Court

Foskett J and HHJ Thornton QC

(1)        The claimant (SW) was involved in a car accident resulting in the death of DL. Following a police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service had found that there was no realistic prospect of a conviction for causing death by careless driving. The coroner at the inquest into DL's death nevertheless left it open to the jury to return a verdict of unlawful killing if they felt that the offence of causing death by careless driving was made out.

(2)        SW argued that the coroner had misdirected the jury by so doing, as the offence was not one which could give rise to such a verdict as it was not a manslaughter offence.

(3)        Foskett J and HHJ Thornton QC held:

(i)         (R v South London Coroner, ex p Thomson (1982) 126 SJ 625; R v HM Coroner for North Humberside and Scunthrope, ex p Jamieson [1995] QB 1 and R (on the application of Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] 2 AC 187 applied) that the essential purpose of an inquest was to ascertain the identity of the deceased, when and where he or she died, and to acquire the details necessary to register the death. The purpose was not to apportion blame or determine civil or criminal liability. The main purpose of the inquest was to distinguish between deaths caused by accident, and those caused by something more. Whilst actions leading to the former may amount to criminal conduct, it was not for the inquest to investigate this. Causing death by dangerous driving should not be treated as unlawful killing. Parliament had clearly not intended for the offence to be treated as such: the Notes relating to Inquisition Form 22 as set out in Schedule 4 Coroners Rules 1984 did not take this approach, and had not been amended following the introduction of careless and dangerous driving offences [60] - [64].

(ii)        That the verdict of unlawful killing is restricted to murder, manslaughter (including corporate manslaughter) and infanticide. For bad driving to amount to unlawful killing, it would have to be shown that the driving amounted to gross negligence manslaughter [70].

(iii)       That section 16 of the Coroners Act 1988 which allows for an inquest to be adjourned where criminal proceedings, including driving offences causing death, have been commenced, does not mean that these offences were intended to come within the ambit of unlawful killing [79].

(iv)       That the coroner had been wrong to leave the offences of death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving to the jury as possible bases for a verdict of unlawful killing [82].

Application for judicial review granted. Verdict of unlawful killing quashed and verdict of death by accident substituted, Inquisition amended accordingly.

Key paragraphs

[1] - [4] - Introduction

[5] - [7] - The circumstances of the death in the present case

[8] - [9] - The police investigations

[10] - [19] - The inquest proceedings

[20] - [21] - The competing submissions

[22] - [26] - The essential arguments

[27] - [48] - The history of the verdict of unlawful killing

[49] - [58] - The history of death by driving offences

[59] - [81] - General conclusion and reasons

[82] - [84] - Result in the present case

[85] - [87] - Consequences of conclusions

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