HC Deb 07 March 1860 vol 157 cc77-90

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he rose to move the second reading of this Bill. The chief object of the measure was to alter the mode of paying coroners. At present they were paid by fees under an Act of the reign of George II. For some years there had been a conflict between the magistrates and the coroners as to the allowance of these fees. Sometimes they were allowed, and sometimes, under precisely similar circumstances, they were disallowed. In Middlesex, Kent, Norfolk, and twelve other counties, this conflict had taken place. He looked upon the office of coroner as one of great importance; and as the conflict raged and was spreading, it was desirable they should terminate it by altering the law as to the mode of payment. The dispute appeared to have begun soon after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Practically, the fees of the coroners were formerly paid out of the poor-rate; but the Poor Law Board, wishing to take from the poor-rate every payment not strictly chargeable upon it, obtained an Act which rendered it no longer legal to pay coroners' fees out of the rate for the poor; but the magistrates were enjoined to pay them out of the county rate. The magistrates, then, beginning to look more particularly into these expenses than before, and in some cases, perhaps, thinking they could supersede the coroners altogether, began to disallow their charges of fees for inquests. The practice began in the county of Middlesex, the magistrates of which passed a resolution in the year 1851 stating that the office of coroner was unnecessary. Other counties adopted the same resolution, citing the example of Middlesex as an authority for so doing. From that time there had been a strong contest raging against the coroner. In Middlesex a great number of cases had been disallowed without reason assigned. In Kent the magistrates had instructed the coroner Dot to hold an inquest except in cases where there was a suspicion of criminality. In some instances the coroner had been instructed not to hold inquests at all. When some years ago the numerous cases of poisoning in the county of Norfolk excited public attention it was stated that twenty persons lost their lives by the administration of poison, without any inquest being held on them; and the Home Secretary of that time (Sir James Graham) expressed his regret at the jealousy existing between the magistrates and the coroners, which discouraged them from holding inquests. He (Mr. Cobbett) had received several communications in which the same opinion was expressed, and he might add that the number of cases of suspicious death was attributed in a petition from Durham to the disallowance of the coroners' expenses by the magistrate. In the counties where the fees were most generally disallowed the coroners' juries frequently passed a resolution condemning the conduct of the magistrates in disallowing the expenses. This proved there was a strong feeling in those counties, adverse to the course taken by the magistrates. His attention was drawn to the subject from hearing that in the West Riding of York the magistrates had issued a circular to the constables, instructing them as summoning officers in what cases it would be necessary to inform the coroner and summon a jury. This seemed to him to be calculated to lead to great mischief. The document directed the constable to make inquiry into suspicious cases, and, having satisfied himself, to act accordingly. He put it to the House whether that was not practically abolishing the office of coroner, or at least subordinating to the police-officer a jurisdiction which was one of the safeguards of the country. The police-constables could not possibly know all the circumstances of every death by accident. They were instructed not to inform the coroner of such cases as death by being thrown from a horse or falling from a scaffold, or an infant overlaid in bed, "or such like." Only by inquiry could it be ascertained if the scaffold was properly constructed or not; or whether a man in a quarrel might not have been pushed off the scaffold by another person. Death from such a fall might involve the guilt of murder or manslaughter. The cases of "infants overlaid in bed" were especially open to suspicion; it was a lamentable fact that in the last thirty years the proportion of deaths among infants bad enormously increased and was increasing. If a kind of impunity were extended to deaths from such a cause, and the check of an inquiry by the coroner were removed, he feared the crime of infanticide would be fearfully increased. And could it be imagined that any person would give impunity to such cases, as was done by the circular of the magistrates in this instance? He had also received many letters on the advantages to the public of coroners' inquiries, among others from Mr. Dickinson, an inspector of coal mines, who stated that coroners' inquiries brought into discussion the management of mines. What would be the condition of the workpeople if there was no inquest? The principle of the Bill was that in future coroners should be paid by salaries instead of fees; that the amount of salary should be calculated on the area and population of a district; the amount to be fixed, on that calculation, by agreement between the magistrates and the coroner; in case they could not agree the salary would be fixed by the Secretary of State. There were other clauses amending the law in matters in which it had been found defective under recent statutes.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said, he would move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, which should also be instructed "to consider the state of the Law and practice as regards the taking of Inquisitions in cases of death, and the election of and the remuneration now paid to Coroners; and whether it is expedient that any, and what, alteration should be made in the manner in which such remuneration is now made; and to consider the effect and operation of the Statutes now in force upon that subject, and to report thereupon to the House." There were three principal points which were important enough to be examined by a Select Committee—first, whether coroners should be paid by fees, as at present under the Statutes of Geo. II., or, secondly, by fixed salaries, and, thirdly, whether the office ought to be abolished or retained. He thought the House would pause before it decided that such an office should be abolished. It was the most ancient in the kingdom, so ancient that its origin was scarcely known. He believed it could be traced to the reign of Alfred, and it was certainly in full operation in the time of Elizabeth and James I. That was shown by the illustration of "Crowners' quest law," given in the play of "Hamlet" by Shakspeare; with regard to which it was doubtful whether the great dramatist intended to vindicate the authority of the coroner, or to satirize a celebrated case reported in Plowden, in respect to the inquest on Sir James Hales, the Judge who tried Lady Jane Grey. But it was certain that the office of coroner was a very ancient one. The hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Cobbett) had referred to the value and importance of a coroner's duty. But he might be allowed to mention a very remarkable case, in which, had it not been for a coroner's inquest, a great criminal might not have been brought to justice. It was the case of Palmer. The medical men in that case had given their certificate that Cook died of apoplexy, and the body would have been buried on that certificate, had not the father-in-law of Cook gone down to Rugely and obtained an inquiry into the cause of death by a coroner's jury. On the verdict of that jury Palmer was indicted for murder. When the duty of a coroner was properly performed it was a great safeguard. He did not say that duty should be exceeded, and that the coroner ought to wound the feelings of families by making an inquiry into every case of sudden death; but in all cases of which no explanation could be given of the circumstances under which the body was found, no doubt the coroner's inquiry was a great security. The other two questions were as to the different modes of paying the coroner, and on these points the House would derive great advantage from an investigation by a Select Committee. He thought the payment by fees brought the coroner into unseemly conflict with the magistrates. In some cases the magistrates were wrong. But the difficulty was that nothing like precedent could be established on which they could decide. It must depend entirely on the various circumstances of each case. It was impossible to lay down any fixed rule. It was a hard case for the coroners that one bench of magistrates might take one view of a case, and another a totally different one. The verdict on an inquest might also involve the visiting magistrates in blame when it was held in the county gaol or asylum. The next question was whether a coroner ought to be paid a fixed remuneration. Men of high authority upon the subject were of opinion that coroners ought to be paid by means of salaries, and almost the only argument which he had heard against that proposal was that the stimulus to hold necessary inquests, which under the present system existed, would thereby be removed. The best control, however, he could not help thinking, which could be exercised in the matter was that which was afforded by public opinion, and by the selection for the office of coroner of honourable and upright men. There would then be no fear that the duties of the office would not be properly discharged, as from his own experience he believed they were at the present moment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'a Select Committee be appointed, to consider the state of the Law and practice as regards the taking of Inquisitions in cases of death, and the election of and the remuneration now paid to Coroners; and whether it is expedient that any, and what, alteration should be made in the manner in which such remuneration is now made; and to consider the effect and operation of the Statutes now in force upon that subject; and to report thereupon to the House,"—instead thereof.


said, he feared the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just spoken must, after the Motion which he had made, be regarded as in some measure guilty of infanticide, and the Bill before the House as a fit subject for a coroner's inquisition, inasmuch as he found on the back of it the name of the hon. and learned Gentleman himself. So far as the office to which the Bill related was concerned, he could only say that it was one of high antiquity, and one by means of which great security for the preservation of human life was provided. It must, nevertheless, he thought, be admitted that changes and improvements had of late years been introduced into our social system which rendered the duties of the office of less importance than they were in ancient times. He might also observe that Shakspeare, in referring to "crowner's quest law," in the passage to which the hon. and learned Gentleman had alluded, had not intended to speak of it with any very great respect. In Scotland no such office as that of coroner existed, and yet he had never heard that life was in that country less secure than in England or Ireland. The fact was that the light which in modern times was thrown upon events, the intelligence which the newspapers supplied in each county with respect to everything which took place within it, and the general institution of the county police, had diminished the value of the office in question; and to that fact it was, he thought, to be attributed that the magistrates showed a desire to diminish the extent of its operations. In many counties the magistrates had, in certain instances, disallowed the fees for inquests which had been held; while in others a rule had in express words been laid down to the effect that unless reasonable cause of suspicion arose that the death of a person had been produced by illegal and improper means no inquiry before the coroner should be entered upon; that was to say, that such inquiry should not take place in those instances in which death was found to have been accidental. It was perhaps to the repeal of the old law of deodand in 1846 that that change in the views of the magistrates in particular localities was to be attributed; for to ascertain the deodand had, before the repeal of the Act to which he referred, been one of the functions with which the coroner and a jury were intrusted. There was, however, in the existing state of things with regard to holding inquests an evil which called for some remedy—he alluded to the conflict of opinion on the subject which prevailed between the magistrates and the coroner. The coroner had no defence against the magistrates, whilst the Home Secretary was unable to interfere. It was with a view to provide a remedy that he had introduced the Bill which stood on the paper for second reading in his name. In that Bill he proposed to give the coroner in those cases in which his fees had been disallowed by the magistrates a right of appeal to the Court of Queen's Bench; and, although he had heard it stated that that proposal would be rendered nugatory in consequence of the expense which the appeal would involve, yet he did not think it ought to be rejected in deference to that argument, because, notwithstanding that it was quite clear that if appeals were to be made every time a sum of 20s. was matter of dispute the objection would be valid, still he could not help believing that such would not be the case, but that, the question of right once tried, the decision pronounced would become of general application, and the principle contended for would be settled one way or the other. But, to advert for a moment to the Bill under discussion, the hon. and learned Member for Oldham proposed to give up payment by fees in the case of coroners, and to substitute for it payment by salary. Now, one obvious objection to that course was that it might make the coroner, under the altered system, less zealous in taking all the steps which would be desirable to inform himself with regard to the circumstances of the different deaths which might take place in his county, whereas while the payment continued to be by fees it was his direct interest to do so. The hon. and learned Gentleman, moreover, proposed to enable the coroner to enter into an agreement with the magistrates as to the amount of salary which he should receive, empowering him, if he were not satisfied with his bargain, to apply to the Secretary of State, who might without any control charge the county rates with the sum which he might think fit by way of increase of salary. Now, to act upon that proposal would be to impose a charge on those rates on a new principle, and he for one did not deem it expedient, unless some strong necessity for making the change could be shown, to resort to so extreme a remedy. The same might be said of the power given to the Lords of the Treasury to settle a scale of superannuation. He should, under these circumstances, vote against the second reading of the Bill, while he should not object to the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the subject.


said, it was formerly the practice to pay the highest judicial officers by fees, but this system was abolished because it was desirable that they should be rendered independent. He did not see, therefore, why the ancient judicial office of coroner should not be placed on the same footing. The Bill, however, would not remedy the state of things that existed; he was anxious, therefore, that it should go before a Select Committee. One of the evils of the system as it stood undoubtedly was that unseemly contests between the magistrates and the coroner in many instances prevailed, while the latter was fettered in his freedom of action by the fact that he had not only to come to a decision whether it was desirable a particular inquest should or should not be held, but also to take into account the probability, in case it should be held, of the proceeding obtaining the sanction of another body. He was also of opinion that the mode of electing coroners—in connection with which at present bribery to a great extent prevailed, so that the coroner de jure was not in all cases the coroner de facto—was a subject which might with advantage be investigated by the Committee. At present there was no remedy for the abuses that took place, except by a quo warranto on the part of the defeated candidate; and under that issue the jury would have to try the validity of all the votes given at the election.


said, be thought that the whole subject of inquisitions in case of death should be referred to a Select Committee, and that any legislation on the subject which might take place ought to embrace Ireland as well as this country. The order of reference to the Committee, if one were appointed, should be more extensive in its scope than the provisions of the Bill would seem to justify, and he hoped that, pending the inquiry before the Committee, the Secretary for the Home Department would not press his Bill through the House. The office of coroner was, he might add, a most important one; it was, according to the report of the Registrar General, a popular institution, inasmuch as the county coroner was elected by the freeholders. It was also, according to the same authority, one of the great advantages of the inquest that it engaged the body of the people in the administration of justice. He trusted, therefore, that the Committee would enter into an extensive investigation of the subject.


said, he should support the Amendment. The ground stated by the hon. and learned Member for Oldham (Mr. Cobbett) for reading his Bill a second time was that inquests were not holden in cases where they ought to be. Now, he (Mr. Collier) thought that if they paid coroners by salary, and not by fees, their interest would be to hold as few inquests as possible. Coroners were placed in an entirely different position to the Judges, who had to deal with the business brought before them by other persons. The whole mischief had arisen through a mistaken view of the law by certain justices in some counties, and he thought they had taken a far too limited view of the duties of coroners. The justices had acted under a misapprehension of the law when they supposed that a repeal of the law affecting deodands interfered with the question of the payment of coroners. With respect to the Bill of the Government, it seemed to him to deal with a matter quite independent of the duties of a Committee.


said, he quite agreed that the subject before the House was one of considerable importance. The object of every hon. Member must be to secure that all inquests which were necessary should, and that all those which were unnecessary should not be held. Then arose the question, what means it was most desirable to adopt in order to secure that end. Was payment of the coroner by salary the best system which could be adopted, or was payment by fees preferable? Now in deal- ing with that point he could by no means concur with the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department in the opinion that the office of coroner was less necessary now than it had been in former times, or that inquests should be held only in those cases in which a person had come by his death by illegal and improper means, to the exclusion of those instances in which death was the result of accident.


said, he had pronounced no opinion of his own upon that point, but had simply referred to the view of the matter which was in all probability that which was taken up by the magistrates.


continued: Although the right hon. Gentleman had expressed no opinion of his own on the subject, yet it appeared to him that the tone of his remarks was such as to have justified him (Mr. Henley) in the inference which he had drawn. But, be that as it might, a question which naturally suggested itself was, how the coroner was to ascertain that death in a certain case had been the result of illegal and improper causes, unless inquiry into the matter were instituted. Take the instance of a railway accident. It was the duty of a coroner to inquire into the whole matter. Again, there were deaths which arose from negligence. That was an important matter, and, if he might use the phrase, it had received great development in the course of the present century. But it was said that the duties of the coroner were less necessary on account of the publicity given to such matters by the newspapers. It was the inquest, however, which gave that publicity which was turned by the newspapers to such valuable account, and in dealing with the subject that which such an investigation often prevented as well as what it brought to light ought, he should contend, to be duly regarded. Persons too often came to a hasty conclusion, from the nature of the verdict, that such and such an inquest should not have been held, forgetting that the holding of inquests prevented a great deal of bad work, as he should call it, going on. Coroners had other duties to perform than that of merely sitting in judgment. They had to ferret out the whole case. He was very glad the subject was to be referred to a Select Committee. It was not a very simple or easy question. Generally speaking, he believed coroners were a very respectable class of men, with important judicial functions to discharge, and they did their duty honestly, fairly, and well. He could not, however, approve paying them by salary; that would take away one of the strongest existing inducements to an active performance of their duty, particularly as the magistrates who paid would have an interest coincident with that of the coroner in preventing many inquests taking place. He thought the Government Bill should be referred to the same Committee so as to improve its machinery as much as possible, as there would be more difficulty in working out his Bill than the right hon. Gentleman appeared to imagine. No one case could properly form a precedent for other cases, for every case would depend on its own surrounding circumstances. He hoped, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman would allow his Bill to go through the same ordeal with that of the hon. Member for Oldham. He should support the Amendment of the hon. and learned Gentleman.


said, he was at a loss to know why the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State would not send his Bill before a Select Committee. Supposing the right hon. Gentleman's Bill passed into law, they would call upon the Queen's Bench to perform duties which they had already declined. He thought both Bills should be referred to a Select Committee. The reference should also, in his view, he enlarged to comprehend an inquiry into the election of coroners. In Middlesex, for instance, persons amply qualified for the office were deterred from becoming candidates in consequence of the great trouble and expense involved in an election where the constituency was so very large and a contest might extend over ten days. The election was in the hands of the freeholders, but not freeholders on the parliamentary roll or any roll; nobody knew who they were; but they came forward and proceeded to establish their claim at the time of election. The coroner had often most important judicial functions to discharge. The Bill for the regulation of mines contained clauses imposing penalties not only on masters but on miners, for neglecting to carry out the regulations that were prescribed. Was it not absolutely necessary that the coroner should have the opportunity of inquiring into the causes of death in such cases? Who was to do it if not the coroner? The causes of the late accident on the Eastern Counties Railway were now being investigated before the coroner, and he had no doubt the result of the inquiry would be pretty nearly decisive, not indeed as to the amount of damages that should be awarded, but as to whether there was any negligence on the part of the railway.


thought the law in an unsatisfactory state, from the different course which was taken by different benches of magistrates,—some placing no check on the discretion of coroners, and others too narrowly restricting them. It was urgently pressed upon him that the law should be altered, and it was suggested that the payment of the coroners should be by salaries. But the difficulty connected with the payment of coroners by salary was this, that it would take away every motive but a sense of duty for holding inquests. At present their payment depended on the number of inquests held; but the moment a salary was substituted for fees their interest would lie in the opposite direction. He thought, however, it would be right to give them a power of appeal when their allowances were too small. He agreed with the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire that coroners had very important duties to perform, and effectual precautions should be taken against their neglect. This Bill was totally silent on that point, and in other respects would require extensive alterations. The Commission which sat on the costs of prosecutions had taken some evidence which bore on the question, but only incidentally, and it was most desirable that, without committing the House to this Bill, the whole subject should be inquired into by a Committee. The terms of the inquiry proposed by his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. E. James) would include everything except the mode of appointing the coroner; but words might be added to the reference which would embrace that point as well. On the order of the day for the second reading of the Bill of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State he would explain the course he intended to take in regard to it.


said, that as a member of the Commission which had been referred to, he wished to state the course he should pursue on this matter. He thought the Bills should be referred to the consideration of a Select Committee. Unfortunately he had, as magistrate for Kent, been engaged in a contest with the coroners through a difference of opinion in reference to their charges. It was a matter which he did not like, but, as a guardian of the public purse, he felt that he was bound to inquire into the holding of inquests. He would suggest this. If the Government Bill could not be referred, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would abstain for the present from further legislation, and until the House received the Report of the Committee, for the appointment of which he should vote.


said, he also should support the Amendment. He wished, moreover, to point out that the constitution of the jury in the coroner's court was a matter that ought to be investigated. These juries had often delicate and difficult duties to discharge, and yet no qualification whatever was necessary for the office.


said, he was in favour of paying coroners, as well as all other judicial officers, by salaries instead of fees, which salaries should be fixed by the magistrates on taking area and population into account. He then denied the imputation that a salary would render coroners indifferent; he held that they were a most respectable class, and he was sure that in every case they would do their duty. He objected to the Government Bill on the ground that if an appeal were taken to the Queen's Bench, the Judges would only give a decision on that particular case, and it would be of no value for guiding other cases. If their Bill, therefore, were not sent to the Committee he hoped at least it would be withdrawn. He hoped, also, the hon. and learned Member for Oldham would withdraw his Bill, and allow the whole matter to go to the Committee.


said, he also would recommend that both Bills should be simultaneously referred to the same Committee. They would thus best meet the convenience of all parties, do full justice to the case, and most effectually secure the object they all sought to attain. He was the more sincere in this advice, as he had himself on former occasions brought in a Bill on the same subject.


said, that in cases from Kent and Gloucestershire the Court of Queen's Bench had declined to entertain the jurisdiction of deciding cases which, might guide the Courts of Quarter Sessions in saying whether the fees ought to be allowed or not. Therefore he thought the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State, to allow an appeal to the Queen's Bench in certain cases, would end in no decision being obtained which would be of the slightest use. He happened to be able to speak from experience, on a matter that had lately come before the Court of Queen's Bench on the propriety of holding an inquest, and in that case affidavits were filed at an expense of from £50 to £100, and it was the opinion of the Court that the coroner had acted properly. The Bill of the Home Secretary proposed that a case should be stated for the opinion of the Court of Queen's Bench; but what materials would there be for such a case? No question of law would be raised, and if it were not a matter of law or principle the Court of Queen's Bench would decline to adjudicate upon it, and would probably send down the case again to the Court of Quarter Sessions, that it might be determined whether the coroner had exercised a proper discretion in holding the inquest. With regard to the Bill of the Government, he thought it ought to be referred to the same Select Committee as that of the hon. and learned Member for Oldham. Everybody seemed to be agreed that it was important to retain the office of coroner, and the only question for consideration was to ascertain how the performance of his duty could be secured in the most efficient manner. The best mode of arriving at a satisfactory decision upon the subject was to refer the whole matter to a Select Committee, and he trusted that the Home Secretary would accede to the suggestion.


said, the debate had very much turned on the Bill that he proposed, but he wished the House to understand that the Bill was intended to remove a pressing evil, and it afforded a remedy for that which was admitted to be a grievance in a great number of counties. His belief was that it would afford a constitutional and effective remedy, and that it would not prejudice the question whether the coroner should be paid by salary or by fees. As it appeared to be a general wish that the Bill should not be proceeded with till the Committee had reported, he had no objection it should be postponed.


said, he thought the general feeling throughout the country was in favour of the Bill of the hon. Member for Oldham, in preference to that of the Government.


remarked, that if a Scotch lawyer were asked the question, he would say that the sheriffs of counties in Scotland were as vigilant as the coroners in England, but the fact was it was a mat- ter of reproach in Scotland that there were not sufficient inquests held, and the reason assigned was that there was no coroner who had his fee. He suggested that the Committee should include some gentlemen of legal experience in Scotland.


said, he was gratified by the discussion which had taken place, as his only object was to secure the efficiency of an important public officer. He was perfectly willing to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, as it appeared to be the general wish of the House.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Ordered, That a Select Committee be appointed, to consider the state of the Law and practice as regards the taking of Inquisitions in cases of death, and the election of and the remuneration now paid to Coroners; and whether it is expedient that any, and what, alteration should be made in the manner in which such remuneration is now made; and to consider the effect and operation of the Statutes now in force upon that subject; and to report thereupon to the House.