HC Deb 18 July 1860 vol 159 cc2110-7

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he rose to move the second reading of this Bill. He had hoped that the right lion. Gentleman (Sir George Lewis) would have given some explanation of what he intended to do with his Bill, or that he would have withdrawn it altogether. [Sir GEORGE LEWIS: It is postponed.] He would ask the House to read his Bill a second time, and go into Committee pro formâ, in order to enable him to introduce Amendments. He had on a former occasion stated his reasons for bringing in the Bill. Its principle had been recognized by the Commission of 1849. That Commission recommended that an Act should be passed to provide that coroners should be paid by salary instead of by fee, and the reason given by them was the same which guided the Committee which sat during the present Session—namely, that in several counties of England conflicts had arisen between the magistrates and coroners, which was, to say the least of it, very unseemly, and might lead to still more serious consequences. The former disallowed many of the fees which the latter were entitled to charge, and thus practically diminished, to a considerable extent, the number of inquisitions. Now, that was a state of things which ought to be put an end to in some way or another. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had a Bill before the House, giving to coroners, who had their fees disallowed by magistrates, an opportunity of seeking their remedy by a case to be submitted to the justices of the Court of Queen's Bench; but all lawyers were of opinion that that Bill would not answer the purpose for which it was intended. The Bill which he (Mr. Cobbett) had introduced early in the year was framed in conformity with the recommendations of the Committee which sat this Session, and if the House now allowed the Bill to be read a second time, they might go into Committee pro formâ, which would advance it a stage, and would also enable him to bring it up on some future and early day in a more perfect shape. His own Bill had been introduced early in the Session, and a Committee, moved for by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Marylebone (Mr. Edwin James) had sat to inquire into the facts of the case. The Committee took evidence, and received ample proof that there should be such a Bill as had been recommended by the Commission; and the present measure carried out as strictly as possible the recommendations of both. Some of these recommendations, however, were of a minor character; it was doubtful whether they were altogether practicable, and he thought it advisable, after a good deal of correspondence and inquiry, to expunge such clauses from the Bill. There were fifteen counties in which fees which the coroners thought themselves entitled to charge were disallowed; the greater number being in Durham, Hants, and Stafford. In Hants, according to the statement of Mr. Todd, of Winchester, the inquisitions held by him had been reduced from one hundred and sixty to about thirty-two; and the localities where the case of sudden or suspicious death occurred in which no inquest had taken place were much dissatisfied. The magistrates, having practically control of the police, had instructed them to furnish him with information in so few cases that he had no doubt deaths took place in a suspicious manner where he was not called upon at all to act. The Committee had similar evidence from other quarters. In Middlesex there was a strong belief on the part of the coroner that one particular species of crime—child murder—was greatly on the increase. Several other witnesses who came before the Committee gave similar testimony, and this it was which had prompted him from the first to take the part he had done on this question. He had seen a great deal in the course of his own practice, which had convinced him of the great usefulness of the coroner's court in checking crime. Those who might feel themselves safe in committing crimes, if there were no such thing as a coroner's court and jury, were in constant dread of that institution. Among the other modes in which the crime of murder was committed was one which was obviously increasing—namely, by secret poisoning. One could scarcely take up a newspaper without seeing a case of suspected or proved murder by poisoning. He could not help thinking that the magistrates throughout the country had been scared without cause by finding that the cost of inquests had been greatly increased of late years, which they attributed erroneously to the misconduct of the coroners. Successive Acts of the Legislature had rendered it inevitable that the cost should increase. In 1836 an Act was passed giving power to the coroners to have post-mortem examinations made—a most useful Act, which had been the means of bringing to light some of the foulest murders ever committed, but imposing on the coroner the necessity of paying two guineas to a surgeon for making each post-mortem examination, and one guinea to any surgeon called as a witness. In 1836 or 1837 the Registration Act greatly increased the number of inquests. Those two Acts taken together had increased the expenses by about one-half. In 1837 an Act was procured by the Poor Law Commissioners forbidding the expenses of the coroners to be taken, as they had previously been, out of the poor's rate, and making it imperative that the justices should pay them out of the county rate. The magistrates in several places had begun to refuse to pay the coroners' expenses in various cases, which course had led to disputes between the justices and the coroners, and in some places to an almost total discontinuance of the practice of holding inquests, except in some very strong cases of suspicion. He did not mean to cast any reflection upon the magistrates, who were no doubt anxious to do their duty in saving the county rates. But if that were done in an indiscreet manner, it might end in increasing the rates, by leading to expensive prosecutions, as well as by leading to the encouragement of crime. But in the counties in which magistrates interfered coroners were almost abandoning their offices. Mr. Hills, one of the coroners for Kent, told him the other day that, though he was informed that upon two consecutive days two children had been smothered in the same house, he held no inquest. The coroner might have acted wrongly in that instance, but the magistrates were to blame for not requiring inquests to be held in such cases. To prevent such collisions and difficulties for the future, he moved that the Bill be read a second time.


said, he wished to second the Motion, because he was desirous that all the disputes between coroners and magistrates should be brought to a conclusion. He was sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman had referred to cases which had occurred in Kent. He had never shrunk from the investigation of those cases. No directions had been given to the coroner which, properly considered, could interfere with the discharge of his duties; and he had no hesitation in saying that in the instances mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman inquests ought to have been held, and that the expense of holding them would have been allowed by the magistrates.


said, it seemed to be generally admitted that the present state of things with regard to the office of coroner demanded remedy. Questions had arisen in various counties between coroners and magistrates for which at present there seemed no satisfactory mode of solution. The Bill which he had introduced, and which had been postponed, had for its object, while maintaining the mode of payment by fees, to provide for the decision of disputes between magistrates and coroners, by an application to the Queen's Bench. The question was investigated by a Select Committee this Session, whose opinion was that it was not desirable to attempt to amend the present system, but entirely to alter it, and to remunerate the coroner by salary. He had considerable doubts at first as to the expediency of that change, but if it were the general wish of the House that the experiment should be tried he was willing to acquiesce in the adoption of that course, provided that the rest of the institution should be made to harmonize with that mode of payment. At present the coroner was elected by the freeholders. The tenure of the office was freehold, and he could only be removed by a judicial proceeding before the Lord Chancellor. In point of fact he was irremovable, and the only security for his proper discharge of his duties was his being paid by fees. If that security were, by the substitution of a salary, withdrawn, it would be desirable to give to the Crown some power of removing from his office a coroner who was unfit for, or negligent in, the discharge of his duties. It was also a matter well deserving of consideration whether the office—which, though frequently called a judicial one, partook more of the nature of one of police—should continue to be an elective one. These elections often led to contests which partook of a political character, involved great expense, and caused the successful candidate to enter upon his office burdened with debt—a most unfavourable position for any one who had judicial duties to perform. He would suggest that it might be desirable to confide the appointment of coroners to the Lords-Lieutenant of counties, who were persons of consideration and of interest in the counties, and included within their ranks men of all political opinions. He doubted the expediency of limiting the selection of coroners' juries to the list of county jurors, and thought that it might perhaps be expedient to diminish the number of jurors. There was not, that he was aware, any magic in the number twelve, and he believed that a smaller number would be sufficient to conduct these inquiries. He should be prepared to vote for the second reading of the Bill; but he hoped that his hon. and learned Friend would take these remarks into consideration, and in the Amendments which he intended to introduce into his Bill adopt such of the suggestions as he thought were well founded.


said, he was glad to find that the evils now experienced in connection with the office of coroner were about to be remedied, but he doubted whe- ther the suggestions as to future appointments was one which the House could adopt. He thought there would be great objection to place the appointment in the hands of Lords-Lieutenant, who each in his county was of decided party politics. He thought it would be better to improve the present mode of election by lessening the expense, and if that attempt did not answer it could be again revised. He was much in favour of the principle of paying coroners by salary instead of fees, but he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary that, if that principle were adopted, the institution should he made to harmonize with it.


said, he thought the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman for the removal of the coroner, should his removal be desirable, a good one, and he was willing to accept it on behalf of the promoters of the Bill, of which he was one. He should have no objection to see a power of control placed in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, who might be empowered to remove the party holding the office in the event of inability from old age to perform its duties, or misbehaviour. He would agree to any such alteration in the system, but as to the other suggestion of altering the rule of election, he trusted the right hon. Gentleman before attempting such an alteration would give the subject very serious consideration. Not merely was it an old office, but it was an office vested in the freeholders, and had in times past been a great safeguard to the liberties of the people. He admitted that it would be well to reduce the expense of election, but he should regret to see the day when the office of coroner would cease to be an object of ambition.


said, he was not sanguine as to the good effects which were likely to result from the present Bill. If the character of juries was to be raised, he thought their numbers ought to be diminished. The Bill was directed against the restrictions which some magistrates had imposed upon the payment of coroners; but, in his opinion, these disputes were not of sufficient number or magnitude to require the interference of the Legislature. However, he should not oppose the second reading of the Bill.


said, he should support the second reading. In the county of Durham, which he had the honour to represent, during the last three years 207 inquests had been disallowed in a popula- tion of 391,000, and in the West Riding, in a population of 1,325,000, only 378 had been disallowed. It would appear, in fact, that Durham was at the head of the counties in which the disputes between coroners and magistrates prevailed. It was necessary to provide some remedy, and therefore he was very glad to see that the right hon. Home Secretary had given his consent to the second reading. However, he agreed with the noble Lord (Lord Harry Vane) that the appointment to the office ought not to be vested in the Lords-Lieutenant; he thought it would be better to vest it in the county magistrates.


said, that if an alteration in the mode of appointment were to be at all made, he would prefer to see the appointment in the hands of the responsible Ministers of the Crown rather than in those of any other parties. On the other hand, if it were determined to maintain the system of election, he would suggest that the electors should be the freeholders on the Parliamentary register—a mode which would preserve the old elective system, and at the same time save it from being, as it now practically was, a mockery and a delusion. He would further suggest that the power given by the Bill to a Judge in the Court of Queen's Bench to direct an inquest to be held should be given to the Judge of any superior court.


suggested that the elective system in connection with the office should be preserved, but that the electors should be not the freeholders of the county, but all parties, whether freeholders, leaseholders, or others, who might be on the Parliamentary register.


suggested that means should be provided in the Bill for paying medical men to prosecute to the utmost the post mortem examinations which circumstances might prove to be required.


said, it was very desirable to render the composition of coroners' juries as respectable as possible. Nothing, however, could be more objectionable than to transfer the appointment of coroners to the Lords-Lieutenant of counties. He approved of the proposal for placing the election of coroners in the hands of those whose names appeared in the Parliamentary register. It was exceedingly desirable to reduce the expenses of the election to this office, which were often very large. He trusted that with some Amendments the Bill might be found to work effectively.


said, he also approved of the Bill, but he likewise objected to the suggestion of placing the appointment in the hands of the Lord-Lieutenants of counties. What they wanted was to prevent the office of coroner falling altogether into disuse; but at the same time many of the inquests that were held were altogether unnecessary. For instance, something like 180 inquests were held on the bodies of those who were lost in the Royal Charter; and there was no necessity for so many inquests, as the verdict in one case ought to rule the rest.


submitted that there ought to be a more liberal allowance to the coroner when obliged to go a long distance. The proposed allowance was in his opinion quite insufficient.


said, he was opposed to the mode in which coroners were at present elected, and he thought that the appointment should either be made by the Lords-Lieutenant on the magistrates of the county. By which a great saving of money now expended on the elections of those officers might be effected.

Bill read 2°, and committed; considered in Committee, and reported; to be printed, as amended [Bill 271]; re-committed for Friday.