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OPINION: Coroners are too quick to shy away from saying a death was a suicide - it is time for a change

Eastgate House, Thorpe Road, where the Coroner's Court is situated in the ground floor. Picture: Denise Bradley

Eastgate House, Thorpe Road, where the Coroner's Court is situated in the ground floor. Picture: Denise Bradley

Archant 2012

An inquest is a difficult process for any family, but health correspondent Geraldine Scott says it is important for coroners to be prepared to give suicide conclusions, or help for others won’t be available.

Across Europe, one person takes their own life every two hours.

And in Norfolk we have significantly higher rates of suicide than other parts of the UK.

Yet, there is reason to believe the true number is not recorded, as coroners are reluctant to give a conclusion of suicide.

Through this job, I spent a good chunk of my time at inquests, listening to the circumstances surrounding people’s deaths. Many have taken their own lives. Despite this it’s very rare a death is recorded as suicide - although often it is heavily implied.

Some groups such as Papyrus suggest this is an attempt by the government to deliberately suppress the figures.

I sympathise with coroners. Families who have lost loved ones sometimes cannot accept suicide.

And coroners are bound by the rules - they must satisfy high levels of proof, the criminal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. That means they not only have to be sure the person did take their own life, but that they intended for their life to end.

This results in cases like the tragic death of 20-year-old student Katrina Rolph. Katrina, from Norwich, was found hanged in woodland in Hempstead on October 2, 2016.

Area coroner Yvonne Blake ruled out suicide, saying: “Katrina took her own life while the balance of her mind was disturbed and therefore her intent was unclear.”

Does this then mean anyone with a mental illness cannot have taken their own life, because they may not have been in their right mind? There is an argument that is the nature of the beast. For some, there is an injustice in a death not being recorded accurately.

But this also causes problems for data. When coroners give more narrative conclusions - where they sum up a death in a couple of sentences instead of a defined conclusion - it means the Office for National Statistics struggles in terms of suicide rates.

Nationally, the number of narrative conclusions rose from just 111 in 2001 to 3,012 – more than one in 10 inquests – in 2009.

Professor Colin Pritchard at Bournemouth University suggests if coroners used the civil standard of proof we would see a 30-50pc increase in recorded suicides.

And other academics said the reluctance to give a suicide conclusion could result in “incorrect rate estimates, misleading evaluations of national and local prevention activity, and masking of the effects of the current economic crisis on suicide.

“Furthermore, because coroners vary greatly in their use of narrative conclusions, suicide rates may (falsely) seem to decline in areas served by coroners who make most use of such conclusions.”

Chief coroner Peter Thornton QC even told the Ministry of Justice he would support a change.

And in July the House of Commons health committee recommended the standard of proof for conclusions of death by suicide should be changed to the balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt.

We have rightly stopped using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ to describe when someone takes their own life, as it is reminiscent of a criminal offence.

So why, when ruling whether someone ended their life, do we still apply the criminal standard of proof?

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