HC Deb 12 May 1875 vol 224 cc514-29

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, it was identical with the one which passed a second reading last Session, and which enacted that coroners should be paid by salaries and not by fees. It might be described as a measure for improving the administration of justice in Ireland and raising the condition of the coroners in that country, which was at present unfair to themselves and injurious to the public interests. They were at present paid by fees instead of salaries, while in England the coroners had, since 1860, been paid by salaries in the place of fees. The coroners of Ireland were, in fact, the only judicial persons who were at the present moment paid by fees; and, as it might be said that they held inquests unnecessarily for the sake of the fees, they wished to be protected against such an imputation. The Select Committee who sat on the Grand Jury Laws in 1868 recommended that the coroners should be paid in future by salaries upon an average of the duties they had performed for the last five years. The Irish coroners were willing that this recommendation should be carried out, but not upon the basis of the present miserable scale of payment. The fee for an inquest in Ireland was only £1 10s., although in many cases the coroner had to travel long distances, and although the inquest might be protracted over one, two, or three days. Living was more expensive than it was when these fees were originally fixed, and the keep of horses had also greatly risen. It was therefore proposed that in fixing the payment by salaries the expense of holding the inquests during the last five years should be taken at £2 10s., instead of £1 10s., together with the average of all allowances actually received by each coroner during the same period. That would give each Irish coroner, on an average, a salary of £83, and not more than £100 in any case, which was not unreasonably high, considering that the English coroners received, on an average, from £200 to £500 a-year, and that the Middlesex coroner received £2,000 a-year. If there were any reason to complain of inefficiency on the part of coroners in Ireland it must be attributed more to the law than to themselves, for there was now no qualification required for the office—anybody might, in fact, fill it. He therefore proposed that magistrates might be coroners, as they could not always obtain the assistance of professional men, and accordingly after the passing of the Act no person was to be appointed to the position unless duly qualified to practise medicine or surgery and registered under the Medical Act, a barrister-at-law, a solicitor or attorney, or a justice of the peace of five years' standing. The Bill further provided for the production of prisoners on remand, and that the election of a coroner should be concluded in one day, and not, as at present, continued for two days. He believed that this measure would tend to improve the administration of justice in Ireland by raising the condition of coroners, on whom a great responsibility was cast in elucidating the truth and administering the law. The Bill gave coroners power to appoint deputies, a privilege which existed in the boroughs of Ireland and in all the districts of England; but he thought coroners should not be Government officers, as they had sometimes to decide questions which arose between the Crown and the subject. It also proposed to grant superannuation, because men remained in the office longer than they could properly perform the duties of it; but it would be limited to two-thirds of the salary when the coroner had attained 70 years of age, and be paid only after 20 years' service in the office. They could, however, claim such superannuation earlier if they were, according to satisfactory medical testimony, incapacitated by reason of infirmity or illness. He believed the measure was almost universally approved by the Irish Members, and he trusted the Government would allow it to be read a second time, on the understanding that in Committee whatever Amendments were suggested would be fully considered and most likely carried out.


seconded the Motion, expressing a hope that the measure would meet with a better fate than that which befel a similar Bill introduced last year. Should the Government wish to oppose the Bill, he hoped they would defer doing so until it was in Committee.

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


differed in many respects as to his view of the Bill from the two hon. Gentlemen who preceded him. He did not rise for the purpose of moving the rejection of the second reading; but he believed that a considerable number of the Irish Members were either not aware of the provisions of the Bill or were satisfied that no necessity existed for its enactment. Instead of being a Bill for the better administration of justice, the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Vance) would have more correctly described it as a Bill for doubling or trebling the salaries of the coroners in Ireland. He confessed he was one of those who thought that in the present day the coroners might be dispensed with altogether, and assuredly if such an institution did not now exist no one would think of establishing it. The whole strength of the argument in favour of this office lay in its antiquity, and one of the chief features connected with this antiquity was that of unrestrained popular election. Coroners were elected by the ratepayers of the county, a popular body, very much as seats in that House were filled up, not on account of particular fitness for the duty, but by reason of some popular motive, and the choice of the electors was not confined, as was proposed in this Bill, to doctors, lawyers, or retired magistrates. He doubted much whether these technical qualifications would improve the state of things, and they seemed to him inconsistent with the idea of free popular election, which more generally turned upon questions as to a man's politics—whether, for instance, he was a Home Ruler or an Orangeman—rather than upon his technical fitness. His experience did not lead him to the belief that every man who was called to the Bar really knew law, and he doubted whether a qualification which was possessed by every briefless barrister would add to the strength of the office—so long, at least, as the election depended upon politics. If the hon. Member for Armagh allowed the law to remain as it was, and did not ask to have it amended, no person, perhaps, would stand up to propose the abolition of the office; but he objected to being asked to give local bodies the power of doubling or trebling, or it might be quadrupling by way of fixed salary, the rate of remuneration which had been paid for so long a period. In country districts he considered that the duties of coroner could very well be undertaken by the resident magistrates, or by two justices of the peace, who now were empowered to act in the absence of the coroner. His main objection to the Bill was the proposed increase of remuneration, and consequent increase in the rates. At present, no coroner could under any circumstance receive, no matter what amount of work he performed, or how many inquests he held, more than £100 a-year; but under the 4th clause of the hon. Member's Bill the Grand Jury were called upon to sanction a minimum increase by 75 percent of each coroner's remuneration, and as much more as they liked. There was really no restriction placed on their liberality. The first Grand Jury, too, that was empannelled after the passing of the Act was to settle the salary for ever in each respective county. Besides these, he had other very strong objections to the details of the Bill, which were very clumsily drawn out; and especially he considered that it would be very objectionable to reward a coroner, who had perhaps during the last five years been holding many unnecessary inquests, by fixing his salary at a higher figure than the salary of the coroner who had conscientiously done his duty.


hoped that the Bill would be read a second time without a division, although there, no doubt, were matters in it which would require much consideration in Committee. He did not agree that the office of coroner should be abolished. It was an office of great antiquity, and was admirably adapted for the duties it had to perform, and he doubted if it would be possible to create a new officer exhibiting the same dignity and independence as that apportioned to the office of coroner. Although in Scotland the functions of coroner were discharged by the Procurator Fiscal, who was a most important officer, yet he certainly thought that it would be unsatisfactory to mix up the duties of stipendiary magistrate and coroner—unsatisfactory as regarded the duties of both of those offices. The matter should receive very careful and serious attention before any change was made in the office of coroner. The coroner was elected by the freeholders, and he was the representative of the people by virtue of the Queen's writ. As to the qualification for the office, anyone might be elected; but it was always supposed that no one would be chosen who was not fit for the office. The position of coroners in Ireland would be somewhat raised by this Bill, and it was a mistake, he considered, to make their salaries depend upon the number of inquests held in a given number of years, for the number of inquests did not depend upon the coroner himself, but upon mere accident; one year there might be a large number of accidental deaths in a certain district, whilst during the next year there were none at all. The salaries should be paid on the principle of a sufficient salary, with a view to securing the services of respectable, independent men, suitable for the performance of the duties of the office. He trusted his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General for Ireland, when the Bill went into Committee, would consider, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, what salary was likely to secure an efficient person. On the whole, he (Sir George Bowyer) considered the Bill as one which deserved to be read a second time.


expressed his general concurrence in the views expressed by the hon. Member for Roscommon (The O'Conor Don). He did not understand the hon. Member to propose the abolition of the office of coroner; but the question, whether the duties of the office might not be quite as efficiently performed by other persons, was at least worth consideration, and many reasons might be adduced in its favour. It was said that in Scotland, where there were no coroners, the same functions were discharged by the Procurators Fiscal. But we had, besides coroners, officers analogous to the Scotch Procurators Fiscal. In Ireland there were, in every county, local sessional Crown prosecutors, who might well discharge some of the functions now discharged by coroners. There were also for each county, barristers, who on representing the Attorney General conducted all important Crown prosecutions at the assizes; and, besides, there were the stipendiary and other magistrates. It could hardly, therefore, be contended there was not in Ireland a staff of other officials quite equal to the discharge of the coroners' duties. "With respect to the proposal in the Bill to allow coroners the power of appointing deputies, he believed such a course would be very inexpedient. The result would simply be absentee coroners and deputies doing the work for one-fourth of the salary, just as in the case of the Clerks of the Peace at present. Again, as to the proposal to fix and provide an increased salary to the office, it should be recollected the coroners were paid out of the county cess, which fell upon the farmers, and they might justly feel aggrieved by any appreciable increase to that impost. However, all he asked for was full consideration of the question. He did not oppose the second reading of the Bill; but as Notice of a Motion had been given to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, it occurred to him that this would be a desirable course to pursue, so as to have not only a careful examination of the several clauses, but also an inquiry into the larger question as to whether the office should be permanently continued.


said, the subject was of importance not only to the part of the United Kingdom to which it specially referred, but also to the other parts where the office of coroner had been in full operation for many hundreds of years, and was now in operation with the general approval of the country. There could not be a doubt that complete satisfaction was given in the performance of their duties by the very learned and other persons who were holding the ancient and dignified office of coroner in the country; and any proposition to abolish the office would be looked upon as revolutionary, though a coroner might occasionally make some observations which were not befitting his office. He could quite understand that in Ireland there might be objections as to the way in which coroners were appointed and paid, and as to the necessity of raising the qualifications of persons who were candidates for the office, but he could not understand how those objections should be made reasons for abolishing the office itself. He believed that in Ireland, as in England, it would be impossible to carry on the administration of justice efficiently without Coroners' Courts. Of course, they heard complaints from time to time of the proceedings in those Courts. The decisions of the juries and of the coroners were called in question, but that was only what happened with another ancient institution—trial by jury. They often heard complaints of ignorant or perverse verdicts, but no one proposed, therefore, to abolish trial by jury. As to the mode of electing coroners, it had been said that candidates appealed to political feeling, and that in many cases they succeeded in obtaining the office in consequence of party excitement or influence. That might be regretted; but he believed that it had not been proved that persons so elected had allowed party feelings to influence them in the discharge of their duties. If such misconduct were proved it would be in the power of the proper authority to remove the offender. It had been suggested that the public prosecutors in Ireland might act as substitutes for coroners; but the duty of a public prosecutor was to prosecute, and he could not do that until there was a person to be prosecuted. The inquiry of the coroner into the cause of death was to find, if necessary, who that person was. It was one thing to point to a person as being guilty and another to conduct a legal trial, with a view of fixing that guilt, and securing condign punishment; and therefore it was most important that they should not have the duties of a prosecutor mixed up with those of a coroner, which involved very often the admission of evidence that would not be allowed in a criminal investigation. He should vote for the second reading of the Bill, though there were some of its four leading provisions which, he thought, might be amended in Committee. It proposed that elections should not extend over one day. This shortening of time was adopted for the saving of expense, and was in the direction of all modern legislation. He also thought that payment by salaries instead of by fees would be an improvement; but as it had been objected that a coroner who had held many inquests might thereby be awarded a higher salary than another less active, but not less efficient, who had held fewer inquests, he would suggest that that objection might be met by spreading the average amount of fees over a larger number of years than those named. The existing law as to qualification it was proposed to repeal, and to secure, as far as possible, a qualification which would lead to efficient persons being elected. In Committee he should be quite ready to support alteration in the proposed qualifications. The other provisions of interest had reference to the payment of witnesses and the superannuation of coroners; and with regard to those, he should be prepared to receive any reasonable proposition on the matter. In conclusion, he would express a hope that the Bill would receive a second reading.


said, as his name was on the back of the Bill, he wished to say a few words as to the reasons which induced him to give it his support. One of the reasons which he thought showed the necessity for amending the present law was the fact that a coroner might have a person before him charged with committing murder, and at the close of the first day's proceedings, before the jury had arrived at their verdict, the prisoner might be committed to the county gaol for safe keeping. Next day, when the jury met again, the production of the prisoner might be refused. The hon. Member for Roscommon (the O'Conor Don) objected to the use of party symbols in the election of coroners; but it was not shown that this had any other effect than proving that the candidates were in harmony with the political feelings of those among whom they lived, not that it would injuriously or improperly affect the discharge of their official duties. He ventured to say that after the discussion which had taken place, and the expression of public opinion by English Members, no hon. Member would propose to abolish the office of coroner. The only question, therefore, was whether the existing law required amendment or not. He thought it was utterly impossible to uphold the present state of things, and that the Government would do what was wise and prudent in fixing the salary of the coroner. The Bill contained provi- sions for improving the machinery of the Coroners' Courts, especially with respect to the expenses of the coroners in attending inquests and the fees to medical men for attendance and post-mortem examinations. The Bill was, perhaps, not free from objections in some of its details, but those objections could be dealt with best in Committee, and it was important that such a momentous matter should be settled satisfactorily. He thought that it would be cruel now to disappoint the expectations raised in the bosoms of Irish coroners by preceding Governments.


hoped the second reading of the Bill would be agreed to. He approved of its provisions on the whole. It would be a great mistake to suppose that the abolition of the office of coroner would be popular with any class of the people of Ireland. It would be regarded as a great change upon the ancient Constitution of the country to which they were deeply attached. The administration of justice by an independent and popularly elected officer gave them a feeling of confidence, which would be greatly weakened by the abolition of the office.


supported the second reading, and said, that in Committee he should propose that the election of coroner should be by ballot.


said, the names of the hon. Members on the back of the Bill showed that the question was not a Party one. As to the appointment of deputies being open to abuse, that might be prevented by giving the Lord Chief Justice power to revoke such appointment.


was in favour of the office being maintained; but, at the same time, approved of the fixing of higher qualifications on the part of candidates. Those specified in the Bill were an improvement on the present law.


said, that both in England and in Ireland the elementary and primary idea of Coroners' Courts had been widely departed from. The Coroners' Court was established for the simple purpose of inquiring into the cause of death, and it was for the legal Courts to determine the question of guilt or innocence; but in consequence of the Coroners' Courts having gone beyond their original jurisdiction and inquired into all sorts of irrelevant issues, there had been within the last 20 years inquests extending over days, and even weeks. He therefore desired that a clause in the measure should clearly indicate that the proper province of the coroner was an inquiry as to how death had occurred and that investigations as to who, if any, was guilty ought to be left to the Criminal Courts. He thought this Bill might be read a second time, because it introduced several improvements in the existing law. The payment of a salary instead of fees, and the fixing of qualifications higher than those of ordinary outsiders, were two of those improvements; and further, he agreed with the principle under which prisoners had a right to be present at an inquest. On the other hand, there were some objectionable provisions which would have to be carefully considered in Committee. One of those was the power to appoint deputies. No matter how much that power might be nominally subject to the approval of the Judges or magistrates, they might depend upon it that whenever the power of appointing a deputy was given it would be exercised. The coroner would reside far away from the district or county for which he was appointed, and some broken-down man, with the nominal qualifications, would be appointed as deputy at a low salary, or on small fees, to perform the duties. He also thought the principle of superannuation a right one, although he objected to the way in which it was proposed to be calculated, as it might lead to possible abuses. There were other provisions to which exception might be taken; but he would not oppose the second reading of the Bill which would require much consideration in Committee.


said, he was glad the position of the coroners of Ireland had been brought under the consideration of the House, for it could not be denied that their present position was very unsatisfactory. He strongly objected to the abolition of the office, for it would be very hard to obtain another tribunal which would discharge the duties of the coroners in so just a manner. It had been recommended that the duties should be undertaken by unpaid magistrates; but that proposal had been tried in one county during the time the office of coroner was vacant, and had not been found to answer. The result was that the office had to be filled up. It would be a very hard matter to get two magistrates to come down and devote three or four hours, or, perhaps, two or three days, to holding an inquest. And if magistrates were appointed, he was convinced that they would demand from the Treasury a higher rate of payment than the coroners would receive. He also condemned the proposal, because, in the first place, the duties were of a judicial character, and should be discharged impartially; and, in the next, that those gentlemen were officials of the Government, and more or less under their influence. It was an office of great importance, and required to be filled by gentlemen of capacity and possessing an intimate knowledge of the country. He had heard no objections which would warrant hon. Members in opposing this measure. There was one portion of the Bill which he was afraid would inflict serious injury on some half-dozen coroners in Ireland. The Bill provided that coroners, on attaining the age of 70 years, should cease to hold office, and if they had served in the office for 20 years, they were to receive a pension. But those who had not served 20 years would not receive a pension, and therefore they would be deprived of their means of livelihood. He thought that would inflict a great hardship on those persons. He would suggest that the clause should be altered so as to provide that no coroner appointed in future should be allowed to hold the office after attaining the age of 70 years. Upon the whole, he thought that the objections taken by hon. Members to the Bill were such as could be easily dealt with in Committee.


believed the present position of coroners in Ireland was exceedingly unsatisfactory, and for his own part he preferred their being paid by salary instead of by fees, which tended in many cases to improper and illegal practices. He objected, however to the proposal of having resident magistrates appointed to the office, as being officials connected with the Government.


thought it was quite time that some such change as that proposed by the Bill was adopted, although some alterations might be required when the Bill got into Committee.


thought from what he had heard said by hon. Members at both sides of the House that the office of coroner required some change. He would not abolish the functions of the coroner altogether, as it might be necessary on many occasions to hold a public inquiry. He should support the second reading. In Scotland there was nothing distinctly corresponding to a coroner's inquest, and there was some want of such an inquiry. The Procurator Fiscal was not a judicial functionary. He was the public prosecutor and the public prosecutor only. His inquiries were not of a public, but of a private character. No doubt, generally speaking, he performed his duties extremely well; but there was not the same satisfaction in the public mind that there would be, provided there was a public inquiry by a proper judicial officer. In Scotland he should be satisfied to entrust the inquiry to a sheriff.


was of opinion that it would be better to pay coroners by a fixed salary instead of fees. He should support the second reading of the Bill; but there were clauses in it which he should endeavour to alter in Committee.


was also of opinion that the Bill in many instances required to be considerably altered; but as that could only be done in Committee, he should reserve his objections until it went into Committee.


supported the second reading of the Bill, although there were clauses in it which he should endeavour to get altered in Committee. He was an advocate for the payment by salary and not by fees, and should have the expenses paid, one-half by the ratepayers, and the other by the Government.


said, he was prepared to support the second reading of the Bill, on the condition that it should be referred to a Select Committee in order to put it into proper form. There were a number of changes proposed by the Bill, which were now suggested for the first time, which ought not to be accepted without careful inquiry, and he thought a Select Committee ought to be appointed to consider the subject. He believed the Bill as it stood would not be in the interest of the public service. Within the last few years the question of altering the mode of election and many of the incidents connected with the office of coroner had been the subject of Bills and Motions brought forward in that House. If legislation of a novel character was to take place in connection with the law and the office of coroner in one part of the United Kingdom, it must not be forgotten that it would have some effect upon the law and the office of coroner in other parts of the Kingdom. In many respects it was a very extraordinary Bill and required great attention on the part of the legal and medical Members of the House. It did not deal with a very important question—namely, the unseemly conflict between the magisterial bench and the Coroners' Court, which so often brought the administration of justice into contempt. This important incidental question was one which ought not to be omitted in any legislation on this question. This Bill for the first time defined and specified the qualification of coroners, it made an important change in the proceedings attending the election of coroner and it introduced a superannuation clause which had never before appeared in any Coroners' Bill. There was another provision in the Bill to which he objected, and which he was surprised had not provoked some comments from hon. Members opposite. It authorized the coroner before he had commenced the inquest, to commit persons to prison on mere suspicion. Then as to the appointment of deputies, the choice was limited to members of the legal and medical professions, and to that restriction he also objected. As to the payment of coroners by salaries, he was of opinion that in many cases it would not have so good an effect as payment by fees, inasmuch as it might induce these officers to neglect their duties. With respect to the superannuation clause, he thought it was a most extraordinary and unheard-of-thing to propose that a public officer should be compelled to retire after attaining the age of 70 years. He ventured to assert that there was no precedent whatever for the insertion of a clause of that description. He thought if the Bill was intended to pass and to be of any practical use it could not be amended in Committee of the Whole House, but ought to be referred to a Select Committee.


said, he thought the debate had necessarily and very properly travelled somewhat beyond the points in which an amendment of the law was desired by the coroners themselves. For many years the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Goldney) had brought forward a Bill dealing with the duties, salary, and position of coroners; but that Bill had never got beyond the stage of second reading, because great doubt was entertained whether it was necessary to continue the office of coroner at all. There was great force in the argument of the right hon. and learned Member for Londonderry (Mr. Law) and other hon. Members who had dealt with the subject from this point of view. The case of Ireland was even stronger upon this point than the case of England or Wales, because in England there were no public prosecutors, whereas in Ireland there was a system of Crown prosecutors; and in England there were not, as there were in Ireland, stipendiary magistrates all over the country who might be entrusted with discharging another portion of the duties pertaining to the office of coroner. It was, however, an office of great antiquity; the persons appointed to hold it were elected by the people themselves, and he did not think, therefore, that any proposal to abolish the office of coroner or even to alter it in any essential character could be adopted by the Government, or would be assented to by the House of Commons. As, therefore, it would be admitted that the office should be retained, it was well to consider whether the law regulating it could not in some respects be improved; and the question was, whether that end was properly attained by the Bill. A Committee which sat some years ago on the Grand Jury laws in Ireland recommended that the appointment to the office of coroner should be vested in the magistrates or grand juries, subject to the approval of the Lord Lieutenant; but that was a proposal to which he could not agree. He would continue the office as it was, and the mode of election to it; for it should be borne in mind that the mode of election in Ireland was much more satisfactory than the English system. He observed the Bill made no provision for avoiding the conflicts which sometimes arose between coroners and the magisterial bench. Now, in any measure dealing with the authority of coroners that matter ought certainly to be considered. He looked upon the inquiry before the coroner as an inquiry rather into the cause of death, than into the guilt or innocence of any accused person; and he thought means were already provided for following up criminal inquiries without the aid of Coroners' Courts. It was proposed that coroners should be allowed to appoint deputies. On that point, he would only remark that in Ireland there were offices in which the appointment of deputies was a great public evil, and he did not wish to add to their number. The practice in itself was a bad and somewhat dangerous one, and the Bill did not sufficiently specify the circumstances under which deputies could be appointed or show how they were to be paid. The suggestion to make certain professional qualifications necessary for coroners was a wise provision; but he did not see any good reason for abolishing the existing property qualification. It was also a reasonable proposal that coroners should be paid by salary instead of by fees; but he objected to the high scale of fees on which the salaries were to be based, and thought it would require alteration in Committee. The Bill further proposed that coroners after 30 years' service should be at liberty to retire upon pensions. That was a proposal not founded upon the recommendations of the Committee on the Grand Jury Laws, who recommended that pensions should only be granted to officers who had devoted their whole time to the service of the country. It was a just principle—that officers who had served the public long and faithfully should be entitled to retire upon pensions; but there was considerable difficulty in applying it in the case of those whose public duties had occupied but a small part of their time. It was proposed that these pensions should be charged upon the fines inflicted for offences by Petty Sessions Courts; but that was a fund intended for the benefit of clerks of petty sessions, and he could not conceive anything more unfair than to draw upon a fund intended for such a purpose, and thus diminish a sum the application of which was an established rule. There was one clause in the Bill which proposed that coroners should be authorized to retire upon pensions, however short their service; but that was a proposal which he doubted would be accepted by the House. Nothing was said as to the limitation of age on appointment, and he thought that the clause relating to that matter would also require further consideration. On the part of the Government, he readily consented to the second reading, but considered the Bill would require a great deal of amending in Committee, and was, therefore, rather inclined to think it would be wise to adopt the proposal of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite and the hon. Member for Londonderry, and refer it to a Select Committee. He would, however, put himself in communication in the Whitsuntide Recess with authorities in Ireland on the subject of the measure; and he would now say, speaking for himself, that he would give his hearty support to the second reading.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday, 24th May.