HC Deb 11 July 1928 vol 219 cc2244-7

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Coroners Act, 1887. The object of the Bill which I seek leave to introduce is to amend Section 4 (3) of the Coroners Act, 1887, which relates to the powder of a Coroner's jury to find a verdict of murder against the person accused. Sub-section (3) indicates that a Coroner's jury has to inquire who the deceased was; how, when and where the deceased came by his death; and, if he came by his death by murder or manslaughter, the persons, if any, who the jury find have been guilty of such murder or manslaughter. The object of the Bill is to cut out that part of the Sub-section, with such consequential Amendments as may be necessary in the remaining parts of the Act, which relates to the naming of the person found guilty of murder.

The Coroner's Court is a very ancient Court, and in the development of its history it has gradually come to occupy a very different position from that which it hitherto occupied in the administration of justice. The object of putting the provision in the Act originally was that the Coroner's Court was regarded as providing a collateral security for the prevention of crime. It was thought that the Coroner's Court provided a ready avenue to explore whether murder or manslaughter had been committed, and to bring the offenders to justice. To-day, although a Coroner's warrant can commit a, person for trial and has the effect of an indictment and is equivalent to the finding of a Grand Jury at the Assize Court, it is the invariable practice—although it is not necessary in law for the accused person to be brought before a Magisterial Court—for the Magistrate to examine the case and come to a decision whether a prima facie case has been made out. It is not therefore necessary in the present circumstances to have an inquiry, especially under the conditions of examination, conducted before the Coroner's Court.

There are very strong objections to the present procedure. The Coroner's Court is not bound by the rules of evidence. Any evidence can be admitted. Hearsay evidence can be admitted. What the soldier said can be admitted before the Coroner's Court. Such evidence cannot be admitted before the Magisterial Court or before the Assize Court. There was notable instance of this in 1914 in a case which came before Mr. Justice Avory at the Birmingham Assizes. In that case, the Coroner's jury found that the accused woman had been guilty of murder by abortion, and committed her for trial. She came before the Magistrates in the ordinary course and the Magistrates dismissed the allegation. They found no prima facie case. The indictment went before the Grand Jury at the Assizes and Mr. Justice Avory, in addressing the Grand Jury, said that there was no evidence upon which the accused person could be put upon trial. It was true that there was evidence before the Coroner's Court which entitled that jury to commit for murder. Although there was evidence before the Coroner's Court and although there was a verdict of the Coroner's jury finding the accused person guilty of murder, there was no evidence such as could be put before a jury at the Assize Court, and therefore the Grand Jury threw out the Bill.

That is an anomalous position, and I am seeking by this Bill to provide that a coroner's jury shall be limited to finding the cause of death atone. The police and the authorities will know perfectly well the evidence given before the coroner's Court, and if that evidence points to a specific person they can make their own inquiries and bring the person before the magistrates without a coroner's Court finding a verdict of murder. That has been to some extent amended by Section 20 of the Act of 1926, which provides that in a case where an arrest has been made the coroner must suspend the inquest until the criminal proceedings upon indictment have been disposed of; and if the person is acquitted at the conclusion of the criminal proceedings the coroner can completes his inquest or not, as he pleases. If that is the case where an arrest has been made, if the coroner's jury no longer operates until the trial is over, I think the Amendment should go further and include those cases where no arrest has been made, and especially those cases where there is a likelihood of an arrest being made subsequently. The Act of 1926 is unsatisfactory, as Section (20) provides that: After the conclusion of the criminal proceedings the coroner may, subject as hereinafter provided, resume the adjourned inquest if he is of opinion that there is sufficient cause to do so: Provided that, if in the course of the criminal proceedings any person has been charged on indictment… The position, I understand, is this: If a person has been arrested during the time of the coroner's inquest on a charge of murder, the coroner shall then suspend the inquest pending the conclusion of the trial. If the magistrates find that there is no prima facie case, you have a position where there is no conclusion to the criminal proceedings on indictment, and the present position of the law leaves it still open for the coroner to go on with the inquest and for the jury, notwithstanding the fact that the magistrates have thrown out the case, to find the person guilty of murder. That is a very illogical state of the law, and for that reason I am asking leave to bring in a Bill which will limit the finding of the coroner's jury to the first part of their verdict—namely, the cause of death alone

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Morris, Major Owen, Mr. Haydn Jones, Mr. Wiggins, Mr. Hilton, Mr. Thurtle, Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy, Sir Robert Newman, Dr. Vernon Davies, Mr. Tomlinson, Mr. Kelly, and Mr. Ernest Brown.

  1. CORONERS ACT (1887) AMENDMENT BILL, 28 words