HC Deb 20 March 1838 vol 41 cc1073-9
Mr. Pakington

, in rising to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice, on the subject of county coroners, entreated the indulgence of the House, of which he stood in great need. He was about to propose very considerable alterations in one of the most ancient and important of their institutions; and he felt diffidence in approaching the subject when he considered that one of the oldest and most experienced Members of that House, his hon. Friend, the Member for Cirencester, had been baffled in his many endeavours to bring about that alteration. He regretted that the subject had not been brought forward by her Majesty's Government, as it was one well worthy of their consideration. The object of this Bill was principally to put an end to the vexatious and harassing contested elections by which many counties in the kingdom have been at various times disturbed. He wished to see men capable of filling the situation obtain it without the ruinous expense it had hitherto entailed upon them, and he wished to increase the compensation which had hitherto been awarded to these functionaries. It was not necessary to detain the House by pointing out the anomalies and inconveniences of the present system. Three modes had suggested themselves which have all been made the subjects of enactments submitted to that House. One was, to restrict the franchise by disfranchising all below the value of forty shillings, and confining it to those who had a right to vote for Members of Parliament for counties. Another mode that had been thought of, was to disfranchise the freeholders altogether, and give the power to the Crown. The third mode was to disfranchise the freeholders, and transfer the choice to the magistrates at quarter sessions. With regard to the first he thought there was a great and insuperable objection, for although the franchise would be restricted, the great evil which had hitherto existed would not be removed. The contests in these elections were almost exclusively of a political character, and were trials of party strength. If the franchise was restricted to the voters for counties he thought the same evils would go on, and the expense attending elections would be but very little lessened. With respect to the second mode, he did not think it would be productive of good; and as to the third, the transfer to the magistrates at quarter sessions, there were certainly objections, but of the three modes it was decidedly the best. One objection which might be made to the Bill was, that it would introduce party spirit on the bench, and disturb the unanimity amongst the magistracy. He could not subscribe to that opinion. He believed, that the magistrates generally—he knew that the county which he had the honour to belong to—in the discharge of their public duties were as free from party bias as it was possible for human nature to be. He might be told also, that by his Bill he was taking away a right which had been exercised by the freeholders from time immemorial. He could, however, cite instances where tile Houses of Parliament had for the public benefit taken away individual rights. He would instance the case of the forty-shilling freeholders in Ireland, whose rights were abolished for what was considered a great public benefit. He would also instance the case of the Municipal Reform Act, which in many instances had a disfranchising power. He would instance under that Bill the case of Macclesfield, which, previously to the passing of that Act, possessed a coroner for the town separate from the county, and he was elected by the freemen of the town. By the Municipal Reform Act that office was abolished, and the rights of the freemen were taken away. The present mode of electing the coroner by the freeholders at large was an antiquated custom, and not in accordance with the present distribution of property. He thought it was right, that some mode of selecting the person who was to discharge the judicial duties of coroner should be adopted, by which the public would be assured, that the fittest person would be appointed to that office. He thought it would be also right, that parties who might have the honourable ambition of wishing to fill the office of county coroner should not be exposed to the ruinous expense that was at present entailed on them. He was desirous of assimilating, so far as he could, the election of county coroner to the mode in which the coroners for cities were chosen under the Municipal Reform Act. The Municipal Corporation Act gave the appointment of the city and borough coroners to the town councils; and although he did not think they offered the best precedent, because they were elective bodies, yet there was some analogy between them and those bodies to which his Bill proposed to give the appointment, namely, the magistrates in quarter sessions. Another provision of his Bill was, to divide counties into coroner's districts—another to give coroners the power of resigning their office, which, at present, they had not, without incurring much expense and trouble, by application to the Lord Chancellor. Another provision was, to attach to the jurisdiction of the nearest district coroner detached portions of counties, which in some cases were at considerable distances from the counties to which they belonged. He also proposed to increase the fees and allowances to coroners. He believed he was right in stating, that Parliament had, in all cases where it was shown that the remuneration of these officers was inadequate as compared with the duties which they had to perform, readily assented to every proposition that had been made to increase it. Where there was a number of candidates for the office, and they did not object to the amount of the remuneration, it was thought by some, that that was sufficient evidence that it was equal to the nature of the duties to be performed by them. He did not think this, however, a fair way of looking at the question. He thought they ought to look more to the respectability of the office and to the importance of the duties appertaining to it; and if they did so they would find, that the present rate of remuneration was anything but adequate to them. He would not detain the House by going into calculations with respect to the changes which he proposed in the amount of fees. He would just state generally, that he would limit himself to the same additions that had been made by the Bill brought in by his hon. Friend near him (Mr. Cripps)last year, viz., that to the increase of 1l. 6s. 8d. given by that Bill, there be a further increase to 30s.; and that, instead of receiving 9d. on the way, they should receive 9d. each way, and be compensated for all travelling expenses. There was another point to which he would beg to call the attention of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (her Majesty's Attorney-General); but at the same time he begged to state, that he intended it rather as a suggestion than as a point material to the objects of this Bill. By the Bill which had been brought in on a former occasion by the hon. and learned Gentleman directions had been given to the Courts of Quarter Sessions to prepare a scale of fees, the consequence of which was, that in no two counties were the fees equal. Now he would wish to know whether in proceeding with a Bill of this kind it would not be desirable to take the opportunity of equalising the fees all over the country? There only remained one other subject to which he requested the attention of the House, and on which he begged to address himself to the hon. Member for Bridport, who had for many years originated a motion on the subject he was about to mention—he meant the important question whether or not, in a Bill of this kind, it was necessary that a declaratory or enacting clause should be introduced that the courts of coroners are of necessity open. An attempt to introduce such a clause into the present Bill would have the effect of preventing its passing in another place. After what had passed last year he thought it would be better to bring in a special Bill for this purpose than to endanger the present by taking such a step. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to alter and amend the laws relating to the office of county coroner.

Mr. Cripps

seconded the motion for leave to bring in the Bill. The subject was one that he had brought forward three different times most thanklessly for the last two years; but he trusted the difficulties he had met with would not beset the hon. Member who now brought it forward. He objected to giving the whole of the power of appointing coroners to the magistrates at quarter sessions, but still he agreed with his hon. Friend that some change was absolutely necessary. He was in favour of giving to the country constituency in this respect all the advantages which they could derive from their franchise under the Reform Act. He wished the hon. Member success with his Bill, and he hoped that his own objections would be removed.

Mr. Warburton

, although he would not then absolutely object to the bringing in of the Bill, would, when in Committee, give to some of its clauses his most decided opposition. The hon. Member for Droitwich professed to base his Bill upon the Municipal Reform Act, which gave the appointment of coroner to the town councils; but there was no analogy between the town councils and the magistrates in quarter sessions. The town councils were elective bodies; and, although the election was not quite popular, yet it was nearly so, whereas the magistrates in quarter sessions were not at all elective. It would be subversive altogether of the objects of the institution of coroner to give the appointment to the magistrates, whose conduct it would be the duty of the coroners to investigate. For instance, in a case where lives had been lost in a riot the question for the coroner might be whether there had been sufficient cause to justify the magistrates in ordering the Riot Act to be read. It was important that the judicial officer who had that inquiry to conduct should be properly chosen, and not appointed by the magistrates. The office was one which, above all others, ought to be held by popular election; but he had no objection to a better regulation as to the mode of election. Unless it was declared that coroners' courts were to be open he thought that in the instances where the conduct of the Government or the magistrates was to be investigated the public would be excluded. Such being his opinion, he should, in Committee, move the insertion of a clause that the courts of all coroners should be open.

Mr. Wakley

hoped the House would not sanction the introduction of this Bill, which he considered in many points much more objectionable than that which had been introduced so often, and at last abandoned, by the hon. Member for Cirencester. One of the objects of the proposed Bill was greatly to increase the pay of county coroners, and double the mileage they received under the Act of last Session. In the next place, it proposed to disfranchise nearly a million of votes, without imputing to them any corruption or misconduct, and transfer the election of an officer who was peculiarly their judge, appointed to protect their privileges and watch over their interests, to the almost irresponsible power of the magistrates at quarter sessions. He thought that a most objectionable proposition, and one which he hoped would never be sanctioned. The office of coroner was one in which the people took the deepest interest, being one of the few which had not been interfered with by any of the modern innovations called improvements. It seemed to be the determination of the House to maintain the Poor-law Amendment Act; if, then, any alteration were to be made in the mode of electing coroners, he thought the most desirable class of persons to be fixed on for appointing those officers would be the boards of guardians in the unions. At all events, he hoped the House would at once, without ceremony, reject this Bill, and urge the executive Government to take so important a matter into their own hands.

Sir G. Strickland

was most anxious to concur in any measure which would have the effect of increasing the respectability and efficiency of the office of county coroner; but anything that seemed good in this measure was much more than counterbalanced by its objectionable features. He altogether repudiated the principle of depriving the freeholders of the right of electing the coroner, and giving it to the magistrates; nor could he regard the proposition of the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) as in the slightest degree less objectionable.

Sir E. Knatchbull

had great respect for the office and functions of county coroners; at the same time he thought it would be much better, if, instead of there being only three or four persons who could exercise those functions within large counties, every considerable town had an officer of its own. He could not give his consent to the introduction of this Bill, because, in the first place, it would take from the freeholders the right they now possessed of electing and appointing coroners—a right which he never would invade, while, at the same time, it would impose a very heavy additional expense on the counties.

Lord J. Russell

considered the main principle of the bill to be to transfer the appointment of coroners from the free- holders of counties to the magistrates at quarter sessions, an innovation which he thought it would not be at all advisable to introduce. He should have had no objection to a bill being brought in to regulate many details connected with the office of coroner, which certainly were not on a very satisfactory footing. But for the amount of important business already before the House, it would have been fit that some bill on this subject should have been introduced by a Member of the Government, and seriously considered by the House; but at present the only question being whether leave should be given to the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Pakington) to introduce a bill which contained that novel principle, acting on the conviction that no amendment could be proposed in detail that should induce the House to agree to so great an alteration in principle, he should give his negative to the motion.

Motion withdrawn.

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