HC Deb 11 May 1870 vol 201 cc548-59

Order for Second Reading read.


, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that its principal object was to alter the mode of paying county coroners in Ireland, by placing them upon salaries, instead of remunerating them by fees. The payment of judicial officers by fees was very liable to abuse, and calculated to expose those officers to suspicion in regard, to the discharge of their duties; and the system had been deemed so objectionable that in almost all cases except that to which this Bill referred it had been abolished and fixed salaries substituted. Coroners of counties in England had been paid by salary since 1860. He did not implicitly follow the recommendation made on this subject by the Select Committee on Grand Jury Presentments, for he proposed that salaries and duties should be equalized. There were 86 county coroners in Ireland, and the Bill provided for the reduction of that number by 18 on death or resignation, the Lord. Lieutenant being empowered to hold special sessions for redistributing the districts in which reductions were made. In placing the salary at £100, he had adopted the amount fixed by a Bill passed some years ago for regulating the office of coroners, in which the maximum salary was laid down at that sum. That was to say, if their fees had amounted to that sum, they should be entitled to that sum and no more. In an ordinary way it amounted to about that sum, and under his Bill no further burden would be imposed on the county than at present. It might be said that if coroners had salaries they would neglect their duties; but then the Attorney General had power by the Bill to proceed by attachment against any coroner who should refuse to hold an inquest. Another matter was as to the cost of electing coroners. Previously he had proposed that the election should rest with the grand jury; but strong objection had been taken to a departure from the old constitutional mode of election, and, on the whole, he thought it would be better to continue the election in the hands of the constituencies, but to confine the poll to one day instead of two, which would lessen the expense by about one-half. He thought, however, that the election should not rest with the freeholders, but should be given to the general constituency. The Bill would also give a limited superannuation to coroners in Ireland, as in England, but beginning at the age of 70, and to be defrayed partly out of the Consolidated Fund and partly out of the local rates, after the analogy of the case of the medical officers in Ireland. Another provision of the Bill was, that there should be power given to coroners to appoint deputies in their unavoidable absence; there was already such a power in the boroughs in Ireland, though not in the counties. The last provision was, that there should be power to obtain from coroners copies of informations, which at present were reserved entirely for the use of the Superior Courts. It was thought by some few persons that it would be well to abolish the office of coroners and transfer the duties to an inspector of police or a stipendiary magistrate; but there were grave objections to such a course, and it was obviously most important that such functions should be entrusted, as at present, to a class of officers who were independent of the Government of the day, and free from political influence. As bearing on that point, he begged to read the following extract from a legal journal:— There is one important distinction between a coroner's inquest and a police-court examination. The first involves no suspicion, and the other a direct charge against some person or persons. The result of an investigation may be highly important, although it carries blame to no individual as its sequence. The removal of unfounded suspicion or prejudice is one of the most beneficial consequences of such inquiries; at the same time it can hardly be doubted that the coroner's court leads to the detection of many criminals. The murder of Cook by Palmer was mainly discovered by the coroner's inquest, for although Palmer was taken before the magistrates, they came to the conclusion that he was innocent; but a relative of Cook's had the body disinterred, when poison was traced and the criminal was brought to justice as the result of the inquest. The office of coroner was a very ancient one, for in England it was as old as the time of Alfred, and it was in full force in Ireland in the reigns of Elizabeth and James. It was a particularly useful office in Ireland, where there was so much difficulty in the detection of crime, because it enabled an investigation to be followed up in a way in which it could not be done in any other Court unless a direct charge was made. In addition to the holding of inquests the coroner might have writs directed to him in the event of the death or absence of the Sheriff, or where the Sheriff was himself a party in the case—matters in respect to which the coroner's duties were both important and responsible. He trusted that his Bill would raise the status and dignity of county coroners in Ireland, whose organ he was in bringing the measure before the House, and who had been grievously disappointed, ever since the passing of the Act relating to their English brethren, that nothing had been done to place them on a similar footing. He was fully prepared in Committee to entertain any Amendments that would improve the measure, and he begged to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Vance.)


said, he thought that the withdrawal of the proposal that coroners should be appointed by grand juries removed one objection to the Bill. He had every confidence in the coroners themselves as a body; but he doubted whether the public would place equal confidence in the deputies whom they might appoint. The power of appointing their deputies was, moreover, unnecessary, inasmuch as the coroner of a neighbouring district or a magistrate could easily act for them in their unavoidable absence. As to equalizing the duties of the coroners he did not see how that could be done, unless the deaths in the different districts were first equalized. He had, however, no objection to coroners having fixed salaries instead of being paid according to the number of inquests. He would give the grand jury the power to give the salary and fix the amount. He had also no objection to there being a superannuation allowance, if the amount, or half of it, at least, was to be paid out of the Consolidated Fund. He believed all that was wanted by the coroners was that there should be fixed salaries and a superannuation allowance, and that the rest of the Bill was superfluous.


said, the present mode of electing coroners was often attended with very great abuse. He considered the payment of coroners by salaries preferable to their payment by fees, and was therefore in favour of the second reading.


said, he would support the Bill, the essential principle of which was the substitution of payment by salary instead of by fees. In illustration of the present unsatisfactory mode of remunerating coroners in Ireland he might cite a ease within his own knowledge. A woman being suspected of having murdered her infant child, the coroner was summoned from a distance, and, after travelling some 40 miles, he conducted the inquest with the greatest care, when the woman was found guilty of wilful murder. For his services he received 30s., and could claim, in addition, 6d. per mile for the distance he had traversed; but not one farthing for his journey back; while he had to pay £5 or £6 out of pocket in fees to medical men, which could not be recouped to him until the matter had been brought before the grand jury. He thought that the provision as to appointing a deputy was a salutary one; and as to the suggestion that improper persons might be appointed, he would remind the House that the Court of Queen's Bench had a control over such appointments. The principle of having a superannuation allowance had already been sanctioned in England. He thought that it would be salutary to do away with the property qualification for coroners, especially as there was now no property qualification for Members of Parliament. The present mode of electing coroners was very objectionable, because it was so expensive. Dr. Hayes, in his evidence, stated that the expenses average from £200 to £1,000, and all to secure the magnificent sum of 30s. for each inquest. It was also objectionable because it opened the way to incompetent persons who might have money; but that could not happen if the power of appointment were in the hands of the grand jury or the county magistrates, subject to confirmation by the Lord Lieutenant.


said, that the principle of the Bill was to substitute salaries for fees. He always looked with suspicion on such proposals. About 40 years ago a similar arrangement was made in reference to the clerks of the Crown and clerks of the peace; but afterwards they received salaries as well as fees. Something of that kind might, perhaps, happen in reference to coroners. When it was determined that county officers should be paid by salaries instead of fees, it was understood that they would regularly present accounts of their receipts to the grand juries; but that was seldom done. In no instance had the counties been credited with their amount. He did not know whether, at that moment, the amount of fees received by the coroner, averaged £100 a year; but, formerly, the entire expense of the office of coroner was only £80 a year. The stipendary magistrates might very fairly be expected to discharge all the duties of coroners. The appointment of deputies was a serious question, and a most objectionable provision; the responsibility of the person elected would be at an end, and no confidence would be entertained by the public in their nominees. He would much prefer leaving the law as it now stood—that in the absence of the coroner inquests should be held by two magistrates of the district where the death occurred; under this provision he had held various inquests. He objected strongly to the very expensive mode in which these elections were carried on; the expenses of Mr. Wakley for Middlesex were upwards of £5,000. If the office was to be maintained it should be properly paid for, which was not the case now; the qualifications of the person holding it more strictly defined—more power to check abuses vested in the Grand Juries. Generally speaking he was not favourable to those points in which the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Vance) had departed from the recommendations of the Select Committee on Grand Jury Presentments. As this was a subject that must form an element in the Grand Jury Bill which the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland proposed to introduce in the next Session, he saw no reason why the present measure should now be pressed forward.


said, he approved the principle of payment by fixed salaries; but did not think it necessary that two coroners should be appointed for every county, as that would throw needless expense on the grand jury cess. The duties in such a county as Fermanagh could be very well discharged at a cost of £100, instead of £200 a year. He would give his support to the second reading.


said, the Bill consisted of a small number of very important clauses, and a great many of less importance, which might be called "padding." Originally there were three important clauses, but they had now been reduced to two. The 4th clause, which made a great change in the mode of appointment, putting an end to election by popular suffrage and transferring it to grand juries, had now been given up by the hon. Gentleman; and, in doing so, whether wisely or not, he had given up one of his most important proposals. Clause 5 altered the mode of payment, and Clause 7 provided for a system of superannuation. These were the really important points. As to the minor provisions, assisted by his right hon. Friend the Solicitor General for Ireland (Mr. Dowse), he had examined them very carefully, and they did not appear of such a nature as to make it incumbent on Parliament to legislate as far as they were concerned. The proposal to appoint deputies was doubtful. He had not heard any good reason for it, and the exceptional case mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Charley) would be hardly considered as furnishing sufficient foundation for the change. He was about to speak of Clause 8 with very great want of respect, but he had been informed by his hon. and learned Friend that it existed already in the English law. That clause proposed that if a coroner refused to hold an inquest, application might be made to the Court of Queen's Bench, or the vacation Judge, for a rule calling upon the coroner to show cause why he should not hold the inquest. But that could not be done in a few days; and, when the rule had been granted, he would leave it to the House to imagine in what condition the unfortunate subject must be. He admitted, however, that the hon. Gentleman had copied that provision from the English law. Clause 10 gave power to the coroner to commit persons charged on information with "being feloniously implicated in the death" of anybody. But he had great doubt as to the expediency of giving such a power, as the law amply provided already for the committal of such persons, either by the local or stipendiary magistrates. Coming now to the two important provisions retained in the Bill, he wished to compare them with the recommendations of the Grand Jury Presentments Committee. Allusion had been made to the dictum of the Postmaster General the other night as to the authority of Committees of that House. Far be it from him to say that Committees of that House were infallible. Their recommendations must be judged upon their merits, and also in part upon the character of the members, their knowledge of the subject, their unanimity, and all the circumstances of the case. Judging this question by these tests, he could not imagine a Committee of higher authority than the Committee which sat under the presidency of the right hon. Member for Roscommon (The O'Conor Don), and of which the Earl of Mayo, Lord John Browne, the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. W. H. Gregory), and other hon. Gentlemen of weight were members; and their recommendations on the subject of county coroners were very different from those of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Vance). The Chairman of the Committee upon Grand Jury Presentments—than whom no one in the House understood the subject more thoroughly, proposed to do away with the office of coroner altogether; and there might be some ground for the proposal, though he was far from saying he had come to that opinion. That part of the paragraph dealing with the subject of coroners—and that part only—was omitted by a decided majority; and all the other paragraphs were, if he mistook not, unanimously adopted. Well, that Committee recommended that some professional qualification for coroners should be necessary in every case. The Bill required no such qualification. The Committee recommended that the appointment of coroners should rest in future with the grand jury or the magistracy, subject to confirmation by the Lord Lieutenant, as the present mode of election was, in many respects, objectionable. The Bill as it now stood, omitting Clause 4, made no change whatever in the mode of appointment. Then, with respect to the desire to assimilate the law of Ireland to the law of England, the Bill failed to accomplish that object. There was no "fixed" salary attached to the office of coroner in this country; but the salary was on the average of the number of inquests for five years. The Committee said that they saw no objection to a system of salaries, instead of fees, adding the important words— Provided that the salaries be fixed in proportion to the number of inquests held during a certain number of preceding years. But that important proviso was entirely omitted in the Bill. In reference to the provision for superannuation, he (Mr. Chichester Fortescue) confessed he saw no sufficient grounds for providing superannuation pensions at all. According to the general rule—which was very rarely departed from—no superannuation could be provided for officers, unless it could be shown that those officers had devoted their whole time to the public service. The proposal was to throw those superannuated persons upon the Consolidated Fund. That was one which was wholly inadmissible. Under all these circumstances, it would not be in his power to give his support to the second reading. He admitted, however, that the position of coroners in Ireland was not satisfactory. It was impossible for him to introduce a Grand Jury Bill this year, as he had intended, founded more or less on the recommendations of the Committee; but, if he could have done so, that Bill would certainly have dealt with the case of coroners, and nothing but a want of time had prevented such a measure from being introduced. It would, in his opinion, be the duty of whoever had the charge of such a Bill to deal with the question of coroners; and, if the House would allow him, he would leave the matter on that footing, fully admitting that the question was one which deserved the attention of the Government and the House.


said, he thought that as a general rule, the Government, and not a private Member, was the proper quarter from which proposals for changes and amendments connected with the law and the administration of justice ought to proceed; because whatever related to the administration of justice in a country was of so much importance as to demand the attention of the Executive. But he had observed that when Bills were introduced by private Members on matters which ought to command the consideration of the Executive, whether those matters were the Ballot, the office of county coroners, or any other subject, the reading of them a second time had the effect of stimulating the activity of the Government. Therefore, solely on that ground, and without at all entering into the minute criticism passed by the Chief Secretary for Ireland on the present Bill, he should vote for its second reading. He also thought it desirable to affirm the principle that the mode in which coroners were now paid in Ireland was not satisfactory. It had been suggested that coroners should be got rid of, and their office handed over to stipendiary magistrates; but in that proposal he saw a vista of the creation of another office in connection with the jury system, and he thought it better, in the administration of justice, to build on the old foundations instead of inventing new, and to leave coroners to discharge duties which they had always discharged according to our law, making any such modifications in the system as were necessary to meet present exigencies.


said, there was great unanimity among the representatives of Ireland in favour of that measure, and all the objections that had been raised to it by the Chief Secretary for Ireland might be dealt with in Committee. It was admitted upon all hands that the position of coroners in Ireland was not satisfactory. The desire of the coroners themselves was that they should be placed in such a position as not to be any longer dependent upon fees for their remuneration. Chairmen of quarter sessions and petty sessions clerks were now paid by salary instead of by fees, and why should not coroners be placed on a similar footing if their office was to be continued? He objected to transferring to grand juries, whose present powers were quite large enough, the election of coroners; and he could not see why coroners, whose duties were often of a very pressing character, should not be allowed to appoint deputies to act in their unavoidable absence. He concurred in thinking that much good resulted from private Members bringing in Bills on Irish subjects and urging them on the attention of the Government. The question of Union rating and other important matters connected with Ireland were pressing for consideration, and yet they had not been taken up by the Government.


said, he should support the second reading of the Bill There was conclusive evidence in favour of paying coroners by salary and not by fees. Coroners were the only public prosecutors we had, and they ought not to be paid by fluctuating fees, which were grossly inadequate. The system of payment by fees tempted a coroner to hold unnecessary inquests to swell his income. But in making the change regard must be had to the amount realized by fees. The quinquennial average was adopted in England. He thought the sum fixed in the Bill was not unreasonable. He approved of the principle of superannuation; it was the best possible economy, and the most graceful way of getting rid of an officer appointed for life, who was unable from age or infirmities to efficiently discharge his duties.


said, he thought the paucity of his right hon. and learned Friend (Dr. Ball's) arguments in favour of the Motion told strongly against it. His right hon. Friend supported the second reading of the Bill because it would have a stimulating effect on the Government; in other words, they were asked to read the second time a Bill full of defects in order to get the Government to bring in a better one. That was not a principle on which the House should avowedly proceed; they ought not, unless they approved its principle, to read a bad Bill the second time merely to stimulate somebody else to introduce a good Bill. The hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Downing) complained that they had not sufficient Irish business before them this Session; but there would be no use in the Government undertaking a measure of that kind this year, because it would be impossible for them to deal with the question in the comprehensive manner that was desirable. The subject could not be satisfactorily treated piecemeal; but must be regarded as part of a general system of grand jury laws in Ireland with a view to their amendment. The Government would be prepared to introduce a measure conceived in that spirit as early as possible next Session; and, therefore, there could be no good reason for hurrying forward the present Bill, which was so faulty in all its details that it could not be passed through Committee without being turned into an entirely new measure.


said, that it the faultiness of its details was a good ground for throwing out a measure, the Irish Land Bill, almost every line of which had to be amended, would certainly have very little claim, to their favour. He did not himself approve all the provisions of this Bill. He objected to the appointment of deputies, who were almost invariably made to do the work of the coroners themselves. He was also of the opinion that the ratepayers should have the power of saying whether pensions were to by granted. But he hoped his hon. Friend (Mr. Vance) would go to a Division, and he should support the second reading of the Bill.


said he thought the Government were adopting a wise course in declining to deal with the grand jury system of Ireland piecemeal, or otherwise than in a comprehensive and complete manner. This subject should be dealt with in a Bill embracing the whole of the grand jury system, and brought in by the Government. It must be satisfactory to the Irish people that, as a consequence of the small number of inquests in Ireland, the coroners there could not live on their fees, but had to ask for a salary.


said, he would support the second reading of the Bill on the ground that the hon. Gentleman (The O'Conor Don) opposed it. The Bill was a step in the right direction. If the whole of Ireland were polled there would be as large a majority for the principle of this Bill as there had been the other day for Napoleon in France. In Ireland coroners could not accept land; in England they could. In Ireland coroners could not appoint deputies; in England they could. He was for assimilating the law of both countries. The Irish Government was a thing which ought not to exist at all, because it was nothing but a sham.


said, he agreed with those who thought that this question should be dealt with in connection with the Irish grand jury system as a whole.


said, on behalf of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, he would beg to move as an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Ayrton.)


, in reply, said, that as the question of the coroners of England had been dealt with by itself, he did not see why the same course should not be adopted in the case of the Irish coroners.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 98; Noes 172: Majority 74.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.