HC Deb 25 July 1918 vol 108 cc2048-58

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Section, a coroner within whose jurisdiction the dead body of a person is lying, if he is satisfied that having regard to all the circumstances of the case it is proper so to do, may, in lieu of summoning a jury in manner required by Section three of the Coroners Act, 1887, for the purpose of inquiring into the death of that person, hold an inquest on the body without a jury:

Provided that—

  1. (a) the foregoing provision shall not apply in any case in which the death has occurred in prison or in such place or under such circumstances as to require an inquest under any Act other than the Coroners Act, 1887; and
  2. (b) if before proceeding to hold an inquest or in the course of holding an inquest without a jury there appears to the coroner to be any reason for summoning a jury he may, and if there appears to him to be any reason to suspect that the deceased came by his death by murder or manslaughter, he shall proceed to summon a jury in the manner required by the Coroners Act, 1887.

(2) The procedure at an inquest, or at any part of an inquest, which is held without a jury shall be in accordance with existing practice and the provisions of the Coroners Act, 1887, subject to such modifications as are rendered necessary by the absence of a jury or as the Lord Chancellor may prescribe.


I beg to move, after the word "jury" ["hold an inquest on the body without a jury"], to insert the words "but such inquest shall take place in the presence of at least three persons whose names are upon the jury list."

I do not think the Solicitor-General can accept the Amendment in this form and I would rather ask him to deal with my meaning than with the actual words. I did not see any other way in which I could express the idea I have. It would be a misfortune if any idea grew up in this country that in certain cases inquests were not being held which were really indispensable. I am thinking of cases where accidents have taken place and where it is possible that the question of the liability or the negligence of an employer may be challenged, and it may be asserted that the workman has lost his life because of some deficiency of apparatus. Workmen are very sensitive upon the point that in such cases a full scrutiny should take place, not so much because of the loss of the individual's life, but to see if anything may arise out of the inquest whereby the jury could suggest, as they often do, some improvement, some guarding of a machine or some alteration in the works in question, which may save lives in future. I do not think there is any real danger, but it is necessary that we should not have this suspicion aroused. Sometimes it is difficult to keep it down. The fact that three persons on the jury list had to be present to hear the evidence would tend to allay suspicion. I am anxious to avoid any possibility of a charge being made that a certain thing has been hushed up. It may be difficult always to get twelve men and if three wore got to attend in order that there might be more or less of a Court and some independent persons might hear all that went on, it might be taken advantage of, we will say, in the case of the death of a workman, by an official of the union or one of his workmates hearing the whole of the evidence, and in the majority of cases they would be satisfied and would so report, and good might come of it. It seems to me a rather large change, where a sudden death has taken place, to remove the jury altogether and not take any steps to ensure that some persons should be present at the trial by right in order to observe and report.

5.0 P.M.


The purpose for which the Amendment has been moved is, of course, quite clear and commendable, but it is not really necessary. The general object of the Clause is to enable a coroner, in a proper ease, to dispense with the jury for the purpose of holding an inquest, and the general provision is that if the coroner is satisfied that having regard to all the circumstances of the case it is proper so to do, he may hold an inquest without the help of the jury. But that is subject to certain limitations, over and above existing statutory limitations. In the first place the provision is not to apply in any case where the death has occurred in prison, or in any other place, or in any other circumstances in which there must be an inquest held otherwise than under the provisions of the Coroners Act. The second limitation is that if there is any reason to suspect that the deceased has come by his death by murder or manslaughter the coroner must summon a jury. In any other case also it is provided that if there appears to be any reason for summoning a jury he may do so. What is the suggestion of the Amendment over and above these limitations? It is, as I follow it, that wherever a coroner decides that he will hold an inquest without the help of a jury he shall be required by Statute to have the help of three persons. In other words, there shall be substituted for the existing coroner's jury a jury of three, who will have no function except the function of being present. I submit that it is not necessary, partly because of the limitations upon the coroner's discretion to which I have already referred, and partly because of the existing statutory provision. The Committee are, no doubt, aware that in a considerable number of cases it is provided by Statute that the relatives of the deceased shall have the right to attend. It is so, for example, where the inquest takes place upon a person who has been killed as the result of an accident in a mine. It is so, for example, in a case where death has been caused by an accident in a factory or workshop, and there are other similar provisions. I think there is no real necessity for such a substitute for the jury as that contemplated by the Amendment.


I think this power to dispense with the jury requires to be watched and safeguarded, especially if we consider the Report on Coroners' Law by the Committee in 1910, which reported a year or two later. If these inquiries are to be conducted by the coroner he has to be able to satisfy himself in any particular case that he can dispense with a jury, and I think attention should be called to the nature of the investigation which he conducts, and especially to the coroner's officer, who is an official at present unknown to the law and who is sometimes not always a person who is adequately qualified to conduct the delicate investigations upon which the coroner may rely. My experience on the London County Council in the early days of that body in the administration of the coroners' law satisfied me that at that time many of the coroners' officers were not persons to be trusted to carry out these delicate inquiries. Therefore, I do hope that if this alteration in the law is to be effected care will be taken to see that the coroner's officer is a person of position and well qualified to advise the coroner on all matters' on which the coroner will have to make up his mind. That same Committee also reported on the desirability of the coroner having power to order a post-mortem examination without summoning an inquest. I cannot help thinking that those who drafted this Bill, although it is of a temporary character, might have had regard to that recommendation. It would have saved a good deal of time and money if that recommendation had been included in this Bill. I do not wish to criticise the Clause except to offer a word of warning that these dispensing powers of the coroner to do without a jury, which on the whole serves a very useful purpose, should be watched carefully, and that special care should be taken with regard to the personality of the coroner's officer.


It seems to me that it would have been much better if the Government had provided in a case such as that contemplated that there should be no inquest at all.


We have a number of kindred Amendments on this Clause. Had we not better keep to the point of this Amendment before we discuss the case as a whole?

Amendment negatived


I beg to move, in Subsection (2), after the word "be" ["a jury shall be"], to insert the words "held in public and."

I beg to move this Amendment, which stands in the name of the hon. and learned Member for the College Division of Glasgow (Mr. Watt). Now that coroners are to be allowed to dispense with juries it is very important that the question raised by this Amendment should be considered. The inquest may be held in connection with a very serious case. At the opening of the inquest it may not have been known that the case would be so serious, and yet the inquest may be held by the coroner alone with his officers. That raises a very great question, which has never been decided, as to whether the public have the right to attend inquests, whether an inquest is a public judicial proceeding like the proceedings before judges and Courts of justice, or whether it is an inquest held at his office, so to speak, which he can conduct in private, as its done in cases when the grand juries deliberate in private, and also when the magistrates have applications made to them in private. A coroner may be able to exclude the public altogether, and there is no law, so far as I know, that says that except in certain cases anybody need be present except the coroner himself. There are a number of Statutes which say that there must be the finding of a jury in certain cases, such as those referred to by the Solicitor-General, but there is no law where it is laid down that the public have a right to attend an inquest. Now that trial by jury is to be abolished I think it is time that this point should be considered by the Government as to whether it ought to be settled. I have referred to the authority on the subject, Jervis. After quoting authorities, he says: However strong these authorities and arguments may at first sight appear, they do not, upon examination, establish a universal right for all the public to be present; but, at most, extend only to such as are summoned, suspected, interested in the result of the inquiry, or are inhabitants of the vill where the body is found dead. That is an unsatisfactory state of things, and, finding this Amendment standing in the name of the hon. and learned Member, and the hon. and learned Member not being here, I thought I would move it and see if we could get the opinion of the Solicitor-General upon it. It is high time that the question was settled. It is remarkable how many matters which appear to be extremely simple, and everybody would say that they must have been settled long ago, but which, on inquiry, we find that they have not been settled at all. This is one of them. I do not wish to divide upon a question of this sort, or to press it upon the Solicitor-General if he thinks it would be inconvenient to settle it at this time, but I think it is a matter for the consideration of the Committee that when the right of trial by jury in coroners' cases is to be taken away, the public should have the right to be present, as they have the right to be present in ordinary Courts of justice. It should not be that the coroner, by virtue of his office, is entitled to hold these inquests in secret and only summon such witnesses as he pleases or summon none at all I do not know whether he is obliged to have a medical examination of the body. He may himself decide the cause of death. The coroner himself in many cases, I believe, holds an inquest and determines the cause of death without the assistance of any independent medical man, and that, I understand, can be done under this Bill.

An important question is here raised. The hon. Member (Sir W. Collins) has told us that coroners have misbehaved themselves in the past. I was a member of the Middlesex County Council when he was on the London County Council, and I remember being engaged in disputes with our coroners as to their conduct, which was very flagrant in some cases. You might have a coroner sitting alone without any witnesses, and only with his officer, or even without him, examining the body himself, ascertaining the cause of death himself, and giving his own verdict, which may be wrong. That power may be wrongfully used. He may be got at. The whole object of an inquest is for the cause of death to be ascertained with certainty, and there ought to be no doubt about it. Under these circumstances, I beg to move the Amendment.

Sir J. D. REES

I submit that this Bill is not a Bill to deal with the coroners, but only to dispense with juries, and the Clause as drafted provides that when an inquiry is held without a jury it should be in accordance with existing practice. Therefore I submit that it would not be convenient to go further on this occasion, inasmuch as existing practice practically includes publicity.


No; there is no right.

Sir J. D. REES

It does, as a fact. The object of this Bill is as I have described it, and it would be going entirely outside those objects to deal with the practice of coroners. I value the Bill very much because it dispenses with juries, and I demur to any Amendment being included which does more than actually provide for the objects of the Bill, which I hope will be made permanent instead of temporary for the period of the War.


As I understand the law at present, it is shortly this—there is a discretion in the coroner to determine whether the public shall or shall not be admitted. I believe it to be true to say that, as the law now stands, there is no absolute legal right upon the part of the public to be present at an inquest. This is subject always to the fact that there are certain Statutes, some of which I have already referred to, which make specific provision for the presence of the relatives of the deceased.

But, subject to those statutory provisions, the coroner at present, and at any rate since the year 1827, when I think this matter came to be decided after a good deal of controversy, has the discretion to exclude the public. Of course, in practice that discretion is usually exercised in the sense that the public is admitted. The reason for it is that it may be desirable, perhaps in the interests of decency, perhaps out of consideration for the wishes of relatives, that the public should not be admitted, and, so far as I am aware, there is no reason for interference at this stage with the decision of the coroner. It is said that mistakes are committed. Well, mistakes are committed in every department of life, but, so far as the findings of a coroner or of a coroner's jury are concerned, it is always open to have them quashed. The purpose of this Amendment is that, in cases where the coroner has thought fit to dispense with the jury, there shall be a right on the part of the public to be admitted. I am sure it will be appreciated that the limits within which the Amendment, if it were accepted, would operate are somewhat narrow. There are, after all, only certain cases in which the coroner may dispense with the jury, and one imagines that in those cases—they would only be a very small number of cases—he would be disposed to exercise his discretion in favour of admitting the public. I must say that, although the matter is no doubt well worthy of consideration, upon the facts and material which are at present before me, I see no sufficient reason for taking away from the coroner absolutely and without exception that discretion which is reposed in him.


I should like to withdraw that Amendment, but I am glad I moved it, and I hope that the Government will keep it in mind, that the House will think it over, and that public opinion will be brought to bear upon it, because the coroner determines which are the cases in which it is not necessary to have a jury.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I understand that the hon. Member for Haggerston has now put his Amendment in another form, and I will ask him to move it.


I beg to move, after the word "which" ["in which the death has occurred in prison"], to insert the words "the relatives demand that a jury be empanelled or in which."

My reason for moving this Amendment is to raise one point. There are certain cases where uncertainty, prejudice, and suspicion are roused, and I have in my mind particular cases in which medical practice is involved. A large number of coroners are not lawyers at all, and there come before them cases involving legal practice, most widely prevalent among these being the cases of death from vaccination and matters of that kind. Very often the coroner is a doctor, and we know that many of these medical coroners have, a great prejudice which almost inevitably prevents the judicial frame of mind in these things. Evidence is produced again and again that death results from one or other of these medical practices, and again and again decisions are given contrary to the evidence as judged by the general public. We have had cases where medical men sitting as coroners have declared that they will not give verdicts which discredit the practice of vaccination. That practice is widely discredited throughout the country at the present moment, as is indicated by the fact that half the parents refuse to have their children vaccinated. It is desirable that in such cases where the relatives themselves, desire that a jury should sift the evidence they should have the right to secure the services of the jury and not have to rely upon the coroner, who, as I say, is not a lawyer of great standing, but who most likely would be a medical man whose judgment they themselves would not be inclined to accept in the matter. I hope the Solicitor-General will be able to meet me in this, because I know there is a good deal of public opinion behind it.


May I say a word in support of this Amendment? It seems to me very reasonable, firstly, because at a time like a sudden and unexpected death the feelings of a person's relatives are excited, their suspicions are aroused, and any suggestion that rights which they had of an inquiry with the jury should be taken away must act painfully and prejudicially. Moreover, there is another class of case to which my hon. Friend has not alluded, namely, where there are a number of deaths owing to an accident or fatality of a large and public character like a railway accident, a conflagration, a tramway accident, or an accident where the operation of public safeguards is called in question, as in the case, say, of a great mining fatality. In these cases there is also, of course, another public inquiry very frequently held by a departmental official or inspector, but the privilege which the people of the locality have in such cases to go into the matter with a jury of their neighbours and their friends is very highly valued. I think this is a case that ought to be present in the mind of the Solicitor-General and should make him more ready to accept this Amendment.


I have not had the opportunity of considering this Amendment, which is a manuscript Amendment, but I am bound to say that upon the arguments that have been adduced here to-day I cannot see my way to accept it. The Committee will observe a curious contradiction which would arise if the Amendment were to be carried. Clause 7 provides that in certain cases the coroner may dispense with the jury—in a certain limited class of cases. Upon what condition, as the Bill now stands, may he dispense with the jury? It is if he is satisfied that, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, it is proper so to do. If this Amendment were carried it would have this curious effect, that notwithstanding that the case is one in which no Statute required the inquest to be held, in which there was no suspicion of manslaughter or of murder or in which the coroner was satisfied, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, that he could dispense with the jury, the jury must be summoned if the relatives demand it. I am quite sure my hon. Friend will perceive the vagueness of the term "relatives." How many relatives? Where are they to be found? Who is to decide the degree of relationship and how many?


One relative I suggest.


If one relative, however distant, requires the jury to be empanelled, then it is not a matter for the coroner in the exercise of his discretion, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, to decide—because any relative demands it a jury is to be summoned. My hon Friend perceives this further consequence. In the cases in which it may be that a jury may be dispensed with, the Bill as it now stands puts the responsibility upon the coroner. Is it not manifest that if the decision were put as it would be by the acceptance of this Amendment, not primarily in the hands of the coroner but ultimately and in fact in the hands of the relatives, it would be open to any person to say that although the coroner had decided that he for his part would and could do without a jury, the relatives should have had one? It shifts the responsibility of the burden in my opinion to the wrong shoulders, and when one has regard further to the fact that under the provision of this Clause as it stands there is, in a large number of cases, a jury by compulsion, I do suggest that this Amendment could not be usefully accepted.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."


I have only one word to say upon this. It seems to me that it would be very much better if instead of providing that the coroner should hold an inquest without a jury, within the limitations provided by the Bill, the coroner should have power of not holding an inquest at all. If you can trust him to do away with the jury it must be under such circumstances that there is nothing to inquire about at an inquest. If there is to be an inquest it does seem to me that it should take place in the ordinary way by coroner and jury. A coroner's inquest is most useful in criminal procedure. It has two great uses. In the first place, it is held immediately after the death and the members of the jury are drawn from the immediate neighbourhood, and if there is any general feeling in the neighbourhood it would be in the minds of the jurymen, and they are enabled in that way to suggest the bringing forward of evidence which in the case of criminal prosecutions might otherwise be lost. The other reason is that the coroner's jury are entitled to, and in nearly all cases where the circumstances warrant it do, make recommendations which comes to the ear of the Government and in time to Parliament as to anything which requires to be done as shown by the accidental deaths which have occurred. Now you are going to all the trouble of an inquest, but you are going to take away from that inquest the real valuable part of it which is the coroner's jury. This is a case quite different from juries in civil matters, which I support, and is one in which juries have been found to be most beneficial in actual practice. It seems to me that the only case in which the coroner should have any power is where there is no necessity from the circumstances surrounding it to suspect anything or to have an inquest at all, and, as the Solicitor-General has pointed out, the cases in which the coroner can act are strictly limited by the Section itself. It would be quite safe, therefore, to trust him and to say that there is no reason for an inquest at all, rather than have only half an inquest under the Bill. I could not support the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract, because his idea of having three persons present would not help. The coroner would be the only person who would have the right to act. Under these circumstances I am opposed to this Clause being added to the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.