HC Deb 18 February 1841 vol 56 cc722-6
Mr. Pakington

said, that in asking leave to move for a Bill to alter the mode of electing County Coroners, he hoped he should not be considered guilty of any impropriety if he expressed his regret, that her Majesty's Government had not themselves taken up the question, and introduced a bill respecting it. Three years ago, he proposed a motion upon the subject, though on a different principle; but the noble Lord, now the Secretary for the Colonies, and then Secretary for the Home Department, acknowledged, that the state of the law relating to coroners required alteration, and that it was only on account of want of lime, that the Government had not' taken it up themselves. He believed there was no party, or member of a party, who disputed the benefits the country had derived from the mode of election adopted under the Reform Act; and it was that mode he wished to substitute by his bill for the present, in the elections of county coroners. This subject had occupied the attention of Parliament of late years; and therefore, he did not think it was necessary to dwell on the great inconvenience, the frauds, and the unnecessary expenditure of the existing system. He would now state to the House the nature of the measure which he intended to propose. In the first place, the bill would provide, that the county be divided into a number of districts—that the election should be held only in the districts for which a coroner was to be elected, and that the election should terminate in one day, instead of being continued for a period of several days as at present. These were the alterations he intended to propose with regard to the mode of election; but there was another important alteration which he should mention to the House. It did appear to him very desirable, that some amendment should take place in the constituency by which coroners were now elected. The laws with regard to the election of coroners were very ancient; it had never been defined by law what the constituency was, and he believed, it was rather by custom than by statute that an election was now made by freeholders, whatever might be the extent of their property. At the same time, it should be observed, that the election was now confined to freeholders, and that leaseholders and others who had the franchise in the choice of representatives for the county, had not the right of voting in the election of coroners. Very great abuses and frauds obtained under the existing law. One instance in illustration: in the county of Shropshire, a few years ago, there was a contested election for the office of coroner, at which from 30,000 to 40,000 persons voted; and he believed he should be borne out in saying, that there was not that number of voters in the county. He hoped the House would adopt the principle he proposed, that the constituency should be so narrowed as to be the same as the county constituency in the elections for Members of Parliament, and that the register of county electors for Members of Parliament, should be the register of the electors for county coroners. There were some other points also in the present law, which he wished to have corrected. One of these was the inconvenience which arose from the inability of a county coroner to hold inquests in districts of other counties, which were nearer to him than to the coroners of those districts. In consequence of this, great expense had been incurred; and in one county, within a certain period, there was a considerable number of deaths, in not one of which was an inquest, on account of the enormous expense of bringing the coroner; therefore, he proposed, that county coroners should hold inquests in those detached parts of adjoining counties. His bill would also contain a clause for a different rate of allowance, that which was now adopted being highly objectionable. These were the principal alterations which the bill would go to effect; and he hoped, that the House would see the anomalous nature of the existing law, and adopt the measure he proposed.

Mr. Hume

would not oppose the introduction of the bill of the hon. Gentleman; but he begged the hon. Gentleman to understand, that he did not concur in the opinion he had expressed with regard to narrowing the right of voting, and placing that right solely on the elective franchise of the Reform Bill, which meant, that no freeholder should be allowed to vote for a coroner unless his freehold was of the value of 40s. a-year. He did not think it would be fair to permit any such limitation of the franchise; for, in his opinion, by the ancient law of the land, every freeholder, whatever the amount of the value of his freehold might be, had a right to vote for coroner, on the principle, that the life of the poorest man was of as much importance as that of the richest. He could not, therefore, see the least reason for limiting the franchise. The bill of the hon. Gentleman might contain some good and proper regulations; but upon the grounds he had referred to, he must say, that he should give his opposition in every stage to everything that would have the effect of narrowing the franchise.

Mr. Sergeant Jackson

had seconded the motion of his hon. Friend because he thought the law affecting coroners required to be altered; and he trusted his hon. Friend would extend his bill to Ireland, for the common law of the land upon this subject was the same in both countries. All the freeholders of the county were entitled, whatever the amount of their property might be, to vote in the election of coroner, and as the law now stood, an election was productive of an enormous expense to those who were candidates for the office. The entire freeholders of the county had to be brought up to the poll, there was no register in existence—there was no check—and, in consequence, the parties, who were candidates, might practise the grossest frauds, for the purpose of putting their opponents to expense. The immense number of electors, and the other circumstances he had mentioned, occasioned a considerable expenditure, and opened a wide door to the practice of fraud. With regard to the narrowing of the number of the constituency, he must say, that they could not have a lower qualification than a 40s. freeholder; and he thought that, by giving the right of voting to the leaseholders and occupiers, who possessed the suffrage under the Reform Act, they would be rather increasing than diminishing the number in some counties. They would, by this means, take off the small freeholders, and put on the leaseholders, and 50l. occupiers; and for a check they would have the register of Parliamentary electors. They would then know who came to the poll, whereas, at present, it was not known who voted. Under these circumstances, he felt that the country was indebted to his hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the subject, and he hoped the bill would be passed into a law.

Mr. Warburton

would not offer any opposition to bringing in the bill. So far as it went in giving greater facilities for holding the polls—for instance, instead of one polling place, giving several districts, in each of which there should be a poll— he should not object to it; but when the hon. Member spoke of narrowing the franchise, and cutting down the freeholders, who were the old constituents for counties—when he spoke of cutting down that constituency to the standard of the Reform Act, and introducing the system of registration, with all its vexations—he did hope, when the bill came to the second reading, it would meet with the most dogged resistance from the House. In looking at the business which came before the coroner, it would at once be seen how desirable it was that the franchise should be of the widest possible nature. It ap- peared to him that a popularly — very popularly elected officer should be the officer to investigate such questions as might come under the cognizance of coroners. For these reasons, the House must closely scrutinise the proposition of the hon. Member, when it came before them.

Mr. Gally Knight

thanked his hon. Friend for his proposed bill. He thought that at present a coroner was an officer of a most anomalous character, and that, therefore, an alteration should be made in the law. It was exceedingly desirable that there should be a legislative enactment, defining the duties of the coroner, more than they were at present; and he considered that the alteration in the mode of taking the elections, as contemplated by the proposed bill, would be a great improvement. There was one suggestion, however, which he wished to make, and it was, that, in case of illness, or of great emergency, the coroner for a county should be allowed to exercise his office by deputy. He also thought that some alteration in the mode of summoning juries should be adopted.

Colonel Sibthorp

should be glad to see an alteration in the existing law, and was of opinion, that a clause might with advantage be introduced, providing that notes should be taken of all cases, particularly those of great importance, which he hoped to allude to on a future occasion. He believed, from the information conveyed through the public press —and he had read it with great care, and believed it to be correct—that it was desirable the public should be made acquainted with the transactions which took place before the coroner by some authentic record for that purpose.

Mr. Pakington

remarked, that his principal object in introducing this bill was in the first place, to prevent fraud, and in the next place, to reduce the expenditure.

Leave given.