HC Deb 05 May 1898 vol 57 cc484-500

Amendment proposed— Page 7, line 10, after 'cease,' insert— Provided always that any existing coroner who may be deprived of office, or who may suffer any loss of fees or allowances in consequence of such alterations of districts, shall be entitled to compensation in the manner provided by this Act. Where by operation of this Act a borough becomes merged in a county, the existing coroner, if any, of such borough shall, if deprived of office, be entitled to compensation as provided by this Act. Should any existing coroner be, at the passing of this Act, coroner for a county, and also for a borough situate within the limits of said county, and should said borough be constituted by this Act a county borough, he shall be entitled to compensation, as provided by this Act, in case he is deprived of office in either such county or borough."—(Mr. T. M. Healy.)


My honourable Friend the Member for Dublin has a better clause than the one I propose lower down. I have not studied my Friend's clause, beyond knowing that it is a better one than mine.


The Government will be willing to accept the Amendment put down in the name of the honourable Member for North Dublin.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed— Page 7, line 10, after 'cease,' insert— Provided always that any existing coroner who may be deprived of office, or who may suffer any loss of fees or allowances in consequence of such alterations of districts, shall be entitled to such compensation as is provided by this Act for existing officers who suffer loss of income or fees by virtue of this Act or of anything done in pursuance or in consequence of this Act."—(Mr. J. J. Clancy.)


The Amendment to clause 13, line 10, is unnecessary, because it is: provided for in clause 22 of the Bill. The second part of the Amendment is also unnecessary.

MR. J. J. CLANCY (Dublin Co., N.)

I understand that the right honourable Gentleman will accept my Amendment.

Amendment proposed— Page 7, line 11, to leave out sub-section 3." (Mr. Clancy.)

Question put— That the words, 'the Lord Chancellor may,' stand part of the clause.


Take the case of a county. I understand that a county council can change the coroners' districts. Will that put them in this position, that the county council might consolidate two districts and compel the officer to do the work of those two districts? I may say that I have raised this question at the request of a body of coroners. That is their view of the clause.


It is quite possible that the county council might amalgamate districts in that way. But under the Amendment proposed by the honourable Member for North Dublin the coroner would be entitled to compensation for any such amalgamation by reason of that amalgamation.


But would that mean that he would do double work and get double pay?




The Amendment of the honourable Member for Londonderry raises the same question, and there is also an Amendment by the honourable Member for Louth which raises the same question in a better form.


I beg to move that sub-section 3 be omitted, on the ground that the coroner is really a judicial officer, and that to give a judicial officer insecurity of tenure is really detrimental to the interests of justice. I understand that the law at present is that a coroner can only be removed by judicial force. A regular legal process must be instituted to have the matter brought before the court and inquired into. It is only after such a process that any coroner can be removed, if he can be removed at all. The coroner has duties to perform which are quite as important as those of any judge in the land. Questions of very serious importance often arise, cases of murder or suspected murder, and the like, and it seems to me that an officer discharging such duties, and presiding over investigations of such a character, and having such subjects to inquire into, ought to be quite as independent as a county court judge or a judge of the High Court, though even at present he has not such absolute security. He cannot be removed, like a judge of the High Court, by an address to both Houses of Parliament; he can only be removed from his office by a motion before the Lord Chief Justice. Upon that motion the coroner can be heard, and it is only plain justice that if he is to be removed now, he ought to have the protection he at present enjoys—namely, the opportunity of defending himself before a judicial tribunal. If this subsection is carried, the Lord Lieutenant will have absolute power at his own discretion to remove the coroner. You will have one judge sitting in judgment on another judge, and having the power of depriving him of his office upon his own responsibility and upon his own motion. That state of things would be intolerable in the eyes of the public, and I do not think the public would have confidence in a coroner who was so subject to the will of any judge of the land. They would not have confidence in a coroner whom it would be possible to remove without his being heard in his own defence. In this case, under this clause, a judge can act upon his own motion, he need not have any evidence upon which to go. He may, as an executive officer, decline to give his reasons for removing him, and I can imagine some cases in which he might say, "I do not think it desirable in the public interest to mention my reasons." Imagine a coroner being placed in such an invidious position as that. It would be intolerable, perfectly intolerable, and no public man would continue to perform his functions if he were subjected to removal by such means as that. I think the Government ought to have the power of removing the coroner which they have at present. At present, as I understand, it is not only in the power of the Government to set the law in motion, but it is in the power of any subject of the Crown to take action if he has a good ground for doing so, and the matter comes before competent tribunals, presided over by the highest judges in the land, and the proceedings would be reported by the public Press. The public would be entitled to go and hear the proceedings, and I think the Government ought to be satisfied, under the circumstances, to leave the law with regard to this subject where it stands now. I beg to move.


The question is, clause 13, page 7, line 11, that sub-section 3 be omitted.


I am aware, Mr. Lowther, that this sub-section was taken out of the English Act—the English Coroners Act—and, of course, I acknowledge that so far as symmetry is concerned, it is apparent, but it is absurd to argue that the countries are in any sense alike. In this country you have a vigilant Parliament and a vigilant Press, and the interests of the whole people conserved by Parliament. In Ireland you have a hostile Lord Chancellor and an indifferent Parliament, and whatever is done against Ireland, you have the general body here agreeing that it is perfectly right. Under those circumstances, to take the words of the English Act and to say it was sufficient in the past here is not sufficient. You have no justification, so far as I know, for doing so. I never shall forget the case of the honourable Baronet the Member for West Kerry when he was Sheriff for the city of Waterford. He, my honourable Friend's father, held large estates in the county of Wexford and in the county of Waterford, and he had for 20 years been Sheriff of the city of Water-ford. Well, he made a speech one day which was not favourably received by the Lord Chancellor. I think it will be admitted that my honourable Friend's father was not an extreme revolutionist. One day he received a letter by the penny post, asking him to explain his speech, and he ceased to be Sheriff from that time. That is not the principle in England. In England a prisoner is assumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. I should like to know what would happen, supposing we differed from the Lord Chancellor to-day, as it has always been the honour for me to do, without more protection than we have, so far as these functions are concerned, to which is attached a salary of £200 or £300 a year, upon which a man depends for his living, and for which he may have given up some other means of livelihood. He is suddenly to be removed by a sort of fluctuating official who goes out and comes in with the Ministry. What is the protection of the county council? In this country you have a great Parliament. You had the Miss Cass case, and the whole House was revolutionised because a woman was taken off the streets to prison; the whole country was shaken to its foundations; but you might have all the women and children in Ireland starving, and you would not shake this country in the slightest degree. I think there is no reason why, when getting the county councils into the country, they should be subjected to tyranny of this kind. Furthermore, there is in the law of this country an ancient device—I have never seen a writ myself for the removal of a coroner—but I have always understood that the Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench is, by virtue of his position, Her Majesty's chief coroner over that particular part where he presides, and that he has some means in his power of depriving the coroner of his office. I do not know how that would Work, but, if it were necessary, I think some means could be found in law to remove the coroner from his position. Accordingly, as I understand, there is that ancient process in the hands of the Chief Justice, and now you are going to give a power to the Lord Chancellor, so that when you may have been successful at the hands of the Chief Justice you may have to go with all the chances against you to the Lord Chancellor, and, therefore, I support the Amendment of my honourable Friend.

MR. G. MURNAGHAN (Tyrone, Mid)

I hope the Government will stand by this sub-section. I stand here in the interest of the ratepayers, and I have no feeling whatever against the coroners. I desire local government, and good local government. I desire to see the government of the country properly and efficiently carried out in a manner satisfactory to the people of Ireland. And I say advisedly that the Government would be ill-advised to withdraw this sub-section and allow the coroners to hold office independent of any authority. I do hope the Government will stand by this clause and insist upon giving Ireland men who will fulfil these functions in a proper manner, and with efficiency.


Having regard to the duties which coroners discharge, it is obvious that there should be some power of removing them from office in case they are unable to discharge their duties. The coroner has to discharge duties of a judicial character, and at the present moment he can be removed by a judge or by the Lord Chancellor. It is obviously desirable that the power should be vested in somebody to remove in the case of persons who are unable to discharge the duties of their position. I think that power to dismiss the coroner for misconduct may be safely left in the hands of the Lord Chancellor.


It is perfectly right that there should exist that power, but that power does exist at present. It is expressly stated that nothing in this clause shall alter the jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor. There is a form for removing the coroner. This clause provides for his removal without trial. That is the difference between the procedure under this clause and the old procedure. Under the old common law before a man was dismissed from his office a charge was made against him, and he was tried by a judge, and, I apprehend, before a jury. The right honourable Gentleman does not want to give the Irish coroner any judge or jury. What he proposes is that the Lord Chancellor, without one word of explanation or of, defence, shall remove a coroner from his old office. His defence is that this provision is contained in the English Act. This provision, no doubt, is contained in the English Act. But what is the parallel between England and Ireland? We hear in Ireland of the danger of the abuse of power by public bodies. Well, this clause will provide us with the danger of the abuse of power by high functionaries. Every class in Ireland will be equally subjected to this abuse of power on the part of high functionaries in times of political excitement. I agree that the Lord Chancellor will not dream of putting a clause like this into operation unless there is some good excuse for it. But some day, under certain circumstances, whenever the action of this judicial officer becomes displeasing, the official executive, without one word of trial, might remove that officer. This is a valuable office. It is an office with a substantial sum attached to it; and is it tolerable that it should be in the power of any judicial functionary at one stroke of the pen to remove this person from his position? There is no justification for introducing this clause into the Bill.

DR. J. A. RENTOUL (Down, E.)

The honourable Member who has spoken seems to be an expert entirely in regard to the protection of coroners. But there is another side to this question, and that is in regard to the protection of the public. The duties of coroners differ much from the ordinary duties of any other judge. Almost all the cases he tries—or, at least, a large proportion of the cases—are of people who are suddenly plunged into very great sorrow. However well the coroner may be able to perform the mere legal function of his office, there is something wanted more than that. I have myself known several instances of coroners in Ireland who if they were tried, as the honourable Member desires, before a judge, would have been convicted, the cause being simply that they deserved to be removed from their office. The honourable Member for Cork knows very well how extremely difficult it is to succeed in an action for negligence. It is very easy to bring an action of that sort. But how often, in cases of that sort, has the plaintiff succeeded? I suppose in actions for negligence it is not once in 50 times that the plaintiff succeeds. There are oases in which the Lord Chancellor might remove the man to the very great advantage of the public of that district. Anyone who has watched some of the cases heard before coroners, and who has listened to some of the feeble jokes and jests practised by them in circumstances under which a whole family has been bereaved, must have felt that these were cases in which a man who acted in that way ought to be removed from his office. I am speaking exclusively of Irish coroners. I have before my mind the cases of coroners in three counties, who not only acted in that manner once or twice, but who acted in that manner habitually. I know, in regard to several cases, that there have been objections to the conduct of their cases by several coroners who are in the habit of making speeches, which ought never to have been uttered. I think it is a wise policy to give the Lord Chancellor some discretion in regard to these people, instead of dragging the matter before a tribunal, which would give pain to a great many persons. I think the Lord Chancellor might be trusted to exercise his discretion. It is very unwise to imagine that any person who has been placed in the position of Lord Chancellor would be actuated in turning any man out of his office purely for political reasons. I think that every protection that can possibly be given in this matter ought to be given. If there is any better method I should like to see that method used. But I cannot think of any system that would work with less pain to the relatives of the deceased persons than this clause that the Government has submitted. It is not in any sense whatever a political question. If there ever was one question on which Irish Members might agree I think it is on a question such as this. Any Member might be obliged to appear before a coroner and give evidence. This is a very important matter, and I trust the Government will stick firmly to this clause.

MR. J. E. REDMOND (Waterford)

It is to be regretted that the honourable and learned Gentleman who has spoken should make these wholesale charges against the coroners. Anybody who is acquainted with Ireland, who has heard the speech, will agree that this is an erroneous impression. If such cases have occurred they are certainly most exceptional. What I desire to point out is that under the present state of the law cases of that kind can be dealt with. The point at issue is very simple indeed. It is—is the present law sufficient to deal with cases of improper conduct on the part of coroners? When the right honourable Gentleman says that the public ought to be protected, he utters a sentiment that everybody will agree with. I want to point out that under the existing state of the law, even on the statement of the right honourable Gentleman the Attorney General himself, there is adequate protection for the public, and that there is a tribunal of authority over the coroner; the Lord Chancellor has power to deal with coroners under the ancient writ. Under the ancient writ the Lord Chancellor proceeds by way of complaint after hearing what the coroner has to say in his defence. The fact that this is in the English Bill is no reason why it should be imported here. This is a constitutional change of a very grave character. A judicial functionary, such as the coroner, ought to be protected from the remotest possibility of capricious interference from any higher authority. As a judge is hedged round with all sorts of protection, so in a minor degree ought the coroner to be. It seems to me an unfortunate and unjust proposal to subject a coroner to the jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor. It is an injustice to any judicial functionary to place the power of removing him in the Lord Chancellor or any other official. It is a very grave constitutional change, and utterly out of place in a Local Government Bill of this kind. I maintain that the coroner ought to be protected from the capricious interference of even a high authority like the Lord Chancellor. For these reasons I am opposed to this clause, and I trust the Government will reconsider their position and will accept the Amendment.


I confess that I am altogether in sympathy with my honourable Friends who oppose this clause. I would remind the Committee that the office of coroner is a freehold office. A coroner has a right to hold his office during good behaviour, like a judge. This sub-section 3 strikes at the fundamental principle of the judicial tenure of office. It proposes to give the Lord Chancellor power to remove a coroner at his absolute discretion. I am one of those who think that discretion is a very dangerous thing. The discretion of a Chancellor, it has been said, is to be measured by the length of the Chancellor's foot. There is no ground for contending that this change is necessary, because power already exists to remove a coroner for good cause. The law now governing the office of coroner in Ireland is the 9th and 10th Victoria, chapter 37. Under that Act a coroner can be removed if it be shown that he has lost qualification, or has been convicted by a jury of extortion, or wilful neglect of duty, or misdemeanour. The point is that he must have been convicted by a jury of one or other of these things. For that very reasonable provision, it is now proposed that a coroner may be removed from office at the mere discretion of the Lord Chancellor, "for inability or misbehaviour in the discharge of his duty." I hold it is most undesirable to put a coroner's position at the mercy of the Lord Chancellor, or any other functionary, however exalted, and whatever the probability that the power of removal would be conscientiously discharged. I do trust that so dangerous a precedent as this will not be established by the Committee, and that the Amendment will be adopted.


I think this subsection is a very oppressive and tyrannical one. It is an attempt to increase the number of slaves under English rule in Ireland. Up to the present the coroners have been elected by the people; we have a tenderness for them on that ground alone. The object of this sub-section is to enable the Lord Chancellor to whip the coroners into line with the officials of Dublin Castle in all political matters; and, if it is passed, it will not be long before we see that result brought about. If a coroner, who has been elected by the people, goes to an amnesty meeting, or a '98 meeting, the Lord Chancellor will promptly come down on him and remove him from office. On these grounds I oppose the sub-section. On the general question of the appointment of coroners, I think that the county councils should have a certain discretion as to whether a particular coroner should be appointed when a vacancy arises.

MR. J. DALY (Monaghan, S.)

I view with great suspicion any provision that would leave a coroner in the hands of the Lord Chancellor. There are already quite sufficient removable officials in Ireland discharging judicial functions, and I do not want to see the coroner also made a removable fixture. If he is made removable at the discretion of the Lord Chancellor, it stands to reason that a great deal of his independence will be gone. I hope that the honourable and learned Member for East Down was not serious when he spoke of coroners being jocular when conducting inquests. Such a thing I am certain must be of the very rarest occurrence in Ireland, and the Executive would, under the present law, have no difficulty in dealing with a coroner who took such a view of his duties. I hope the Government will not insist on this sub-section, and thereby practically deprive the people of Ireland of the right they at present have of electing their own coroners.


The honourable Gentleman who has just sat down has, in happy, if somewhat contradictory, language, exactly described what would be the position of a coroner under this sub-section; he will be a removable fixture; he will be nominally removable, but really a fixture, unless he is guilty of misconduct which would justify his removal. One of the objections raised to this sub-section by the honourable Member for Cork was that, whatever may be said for or against our proposal, it was out of place in a Local Government Bill But this Bill deals with the election of coroners, and, strange to say, a great many Amendments have been put down by honourable Members opposite dealing with the remuneration of coroners and other matters. It cannot be said that if those matters are germane to the Bill, a sub-section of this kind is alien to the Bill. The honourable Member for South Leitrim suggested that this is a device of ours to "increase the number of slaves under English rule in Ireland," and that coroners would be liable to be deprived of their offices at the mere whim of the Lord Chancellor. Of course there would be no more chance of such a thing under this sub-section than there is under the present law. The right honourable and learned Gentleman opposite contended that there is already sufficient power of removal under the 9th and 10th Victoria, chapter 37. I would point out to him that that Act only gives power to remove a coroner on his conviction in a court of justice for certain offences. He may be guilty of gross misconduct, but unless that is brought home to him at a trial by jury he still retains his office. It is certainly desirable that the position of the Lord Chancellor, in regard to dealing with objectionable holders of these important offices, should be strengthened, and it is absurd to imagine that the power we propose to confer would be abused in the manner suggested by honourable Gentlemen opposite. Of course no Lord Chancellor would think of dismissing a coroner without calling on him for an explanation of any charge made against him. I think the fears of honourable Members are quite groundless, and for this reason I cannot accept the Amendment.


I hope that President Kruger will read the report of this Debate, and I regret that the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies has not been in his place to listen to it. We have heard of some very vigorous dispatches written by the right honourable Gentleman to President Kruger, remonstrating against the arbitrary dismissal of Chief Justice Kotze. That gentleman, the Chief Justice of the Transvaal High Court, has been dismissed from office by President Kruger, after a series of dispatches which resemble in an extraordinary degree the speeches of the right honour- able Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland It may or may not be that President Kruger is in the right and Chief Justice Kotze in the wrong; I merely mention the incident in support of my argument, that it is essential that judges and the ordinary officers of the State should have some protection against the Executive. The argument is a sufficiently strong one when we are dealing with officials concerned in the trial of civil cases; but what are the functions of our coroners? A coroner has to try cases upon which depend the absolute liberty and life of the subject, and especially in a country like Ireland it is essential that such an official should be absolutely independent and above the suspicion of dependence or partiality. Can anyone say that the fact that a coroner feels that he may be pulled up at any time by the Lord Chancellor is not likely to affect his actions? At present the coroner is elected by the people, and his office is practically a freehold. This is practically the last plank of free and impartial justice that exists in Ireland as a sort of bulwark for the people, and why the Government, in passing a Local Government Bill, should insist on a provision of this kind I cannot in the least understand. In the case of the land-grabber you destroyed our own ancient procedure as regards claims for malicious injuries, and provided for all sorts of new rules. When you came to deal with roads, you took away our grand jury laws and established an entirely new procedure. And now, when you come to the office of coroner, that ancient office is to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor, and coroners are to be placed under all sorts of irritating restrictions for which there is no necessity. We know what you have done as regards the judges. We have seen on the Bench judges who were deaf, judges who were almost blind, and their infirmities have been overlooked so long as they belonged to the "loyal minority." But the moment any legislation is proposed for the benefit of the people, and the smallest thing is suggested that you can lop off, that very moment the virtue of the British Pharisee is aroused, the discovery is made that there are possibilities of abuse in the existing state of things, and with virtuous indignation the British Government insist on guarding against the possibility of scandal, though in doing so they cut away an ancient and valued right of the Irish people.

MR. H. H. ASQUITH (Fife, E.)

It is quite true that if the power proposed by this sub-section is conferred on the Lord Chancellor there is no likelihood that that power would ever be improperly exercised, but I must say that I doubt whether the Government are wise in pressing this sub-section. The fourth subsection of this clause preserves in their absolute integrity the powers which the law at present gives of removing a coroner who is incapable of discharging his duties. Those powers secure that a coroner shall not be removed without cause shown and after judicial inquiry. When we consider the state of public opinion in a country like Ireland, and the sort of inquiries which Irish coroners have to carry through, I confess that it appears to me to be in the last degree inexpedient and impolitic that a person in a judicial position should be subject to removal without cause shown, and without the opportunity of giving any reasons against his removal, at the mere will of the Executive of the day. I therefore do press on the Government that they may well allow the law to remain as it is—that is to say, to leave the coroner subject to removal if it is judicially proved that he is unfit for his office, rather than subject him to removal at the absolutely unfettered discretion of the Executive, however remote may be the probability that that discretion would ever be abused.

MR. A. O'CONNOR (Donegal, E.)

I desire to ask the right honourable Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland whether there is any corresponding provision in the English law in regard to English coroners?


The relation is entirely identical in English and Scottish laws.


I can only say that if the Government persist in inserting this sub-section it will remain as a very great blot upon their Bill. I have listened to the speeches of the right honourable Gentleman the Attorney General and the honourable Members opposite who supported him, but I have failed to appreciate any single argument in favour of this provision. The sole question is whether the existing law is sufficient or not to provide for the removal of coroners who have been guilty of misconduct or are in any way unfit to hold office. The right honourable Gentleman opposite, I understand, thinks that it is insufficient. Will the right honourable Gentleman point to a single case in which a coroner ought to have been removed, and it was found that there was no power to remove him? Sir, I regret that the Government seem to be impenetrable to all reason and all argument in this matter, and I regret that this is not the only case in which they have shown that spirit. They were not satisfied with the law relating to the summoning, of juries, and now, in this sub-section, they seek, for no reason whatever, to make the law worse than it is at present, to deprive us of the right of popular election of coroners, and, in effect, to make the coroners mere officials of Dublin Castle. I feel bound to press my Amendment to a Division.

Committee divided:—Ayes 162; Noes 90.—(Division List No. 89.)

Committee report Progress; to sit again on Monday.

House adjourned at 12.5.