Humberside Police say they are disappointed by a jury’s finding of unlawful killing in the death of a man shot by officers in 2016, saying a recent law change has made it easier for such verdicts to be reached.
Lewis Skelton, 31, died in November 2016 when shot twice in the back by an officer in Hull city centre after Tasers had no effect, an inquest jury heard.
Hull Coroner’s Court was told Mr Skelton was carrying an axe and had failed to respond to officers’ instructions to stop before he died five years ago.
There were emotional scenes in court on Friday after the jury returned its unanimous conclusion following eight hours of deliberation.
Humberside Police responded by saying such findings were no longer drawn under “more exacting standards” that were in effect before a recent law change following a Supreme Court judgment a year ago.
The judgment ruled a coroner or inquest jury should reach an unlawful killing conclusion using the civil standard of proof – “on the balance of probabilities” – meaning something was more likely than not to have happened.
Until this ruling, juries and coroners had to use the criminal standard, so they had to be “sure” before they could conclude it was unlawful killing, often referred to as being “beyond reasonable doubt”.
On Friday, Humberside Assistant Chief Constable Chris Noble expressed the force’s disappointment, and said the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) had come to “very different” conclusions to the jury about the officers’ conduct in the incident.
“We are disappointed with this conclusion and are concerned that it does not undermine the confidence of officers to act decisively when making split-second decisions to protect the public,” Mr Noble said in a statement.
“Prior to this verdict, the IOPC in their independent investigation found that the actions taken by our officers on that day, in what was a complex and challenging situation requiring fast-time decision making, were proportionate to the risk that was identified to members of the public.
“Following a change in the law last year, such conclusions are no longer assessed in the coroner’s courts by the more exacting standards that they used to be. Additionally, the jury had to make its decision in very different circumstances to those that confronted the officers on the day.
“Our officers responded to four 999 calls to a man armed with, and waving, an unsheathed axe marching towards the city centre who did not stop despite four attempts to taser him.
“In light of the IOPC’s full and independent investigation, which came to very different conclusions to those of the jury, in that, they found that no police officers had either committed a criminal offence or behaved in a manner which would justify disciplinary proceedings, we now await further directions from the IOPC. We respect the decision made by the jury today.”
The law changed in November 2020 with a Supreme Court judgment in the “Maughan case” which actually focused on the standard of proof needed to return or record a conclusion of suicide.
In confirming the standard for suicide should be “on the balance of probabilities”, the court went on to extend this to unlawful killing, deciding the standard of proof should be the same for all short-form inquest conclusions.
These were majority decisions on the Supreme Court, with some justices disagreeing.
Lawyers commenting after the judgment predicted the decision could cause problems not only for police forces, following deaths involving officers, but also for NHS organisations.
Coroners make it very clear to jurors that inquest conclusions do not relate to criminal or civil proceedings.
But unlawful killing conclusions can lead to prosecuting authorities reconsidering decisions not to charge people or organisations with homicide offences.
Mr Skelton’s family, meanwhile, welcomed the finding.
In a statement read outside court by his sister, Tia, Mr Skelton’s family said: “The jury has confirmed what we all knew, the killing of Lewis was wrong and it was unlawful and he should still be with us today.
“There was nothing to suggest Lewis was aggressive or a danger to anyone on that day.
“He was confused and frightened. His final moments being must have been ones of terror and fear, and that is so hard for us as a family to know.”