HL Deb 19 May 1925 vol 61 cc329-36

LORD DARLING had given Notice to call attention to the not infrequent practice of Coroners' Courts holding inquests on the bodies of deceased persons simultaneously with the hearing by Justices of charges against persons arrested and accused of causing the death of the same deceased persons; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I venture to call attention to what really is, I think, a grievance or, at all events, a very great inconvenience, in some cases where there has been a death in suspicious circumstances. In such cases it is the duty of the coroner, as we all know, to hold an inquest to discover what is the cause of death. To do that it may often be necessary to call a great many witnesses, and in some cases it is necessary to call witnesses who are very expensive, being highly qualified persons who can only be got to give evidence if their proper fees are, paid. But what one must have noticed in some cases lately is that, whereas it is quite light that the coroner should hold a proper inquiry to ascertain how the deceased person came by his death, it has not infrequently happened that the coroner has gone on with this inquiry long after it has become manifest how the death of the person was caused, and long after a person has been arrested by the police, brought before the magistrates, and accused of the crime, and much evidence has been given.

I do not want to say a word against coroners' courts as such, but it is, to my mind, time that some step should be taken to make it illegal for the coroner to go on holding an expensive inquiry at the same time that an inquiry into the death is being made by a court with much fuller powers of investigating the truth, and bound by the rules of evidence, so that the person who may be suspected is not put to the disadvantage of things being said there which are not strictly evidence against him, but which may, and often do, gravely prejudice his case. It is chiefly for that reason that I have ventured to trouble your Lordships with this matter.

It may be interesting to say a word or two as to how the coroners came to have this jurisdiction. The coroner is a most ancient officer. Coroners existed in the very early days of the establishment of this Kingdom. The sheriff, the bailiff and the "coronator" as he was called—ordinary English people quite properly translated "coronator" by "crowner," and that is what he used to be known as, and is frequently called still, and the "crowner's quest law" has become a branch of science entirely by itself—the coroner or "coronator," and the sheriff and the bailiff had taken upon themselves to hold inquiry, to make accusations against people, and to investigate as to whether those people should be punished or not. This happened so long ago that if your Lordships will again read Magna Charta you will find it there laid down that neither the sheriff nor the bailiff not the coroner is to concern himself with the placita coronœ he is not to try people, to intervene between the Crown and the subjet—because by that time there had grown up other officials who were better qualified to do it.

We have improved somewhat in the trial of cases since Magna Charta was passed, and it appears to me that now it is less than ever necessary that the proceedings before coroners should be protracted, as they very often are. I would not go to the length which was proposed by the Commission which was set up in 1879 to inquire into the Criminal Law and its administration, a Commission upon which were Lord Blackburn, Sir James Stephen and Mr. Justice Barry, of the Irish Bench. They reported that the coroner should not be allowed to commit a person for trial at all. But the Coroners' Act, passed since that time, recognises and lays it down, properly as it seems to me, that the coroner should inquire into these matters, and if it appears manifest to him that some one is guilty of the death of the person on whom the inquest is being held he may, by his warrant, put that person on his trial. It seems to me that if the magistrates are dealing with the case at the time the coroner might very well hold his hand and not proceed any further to embarrass the accused, or to put any one on his defence, by going on with his inquiry at the same time as a magisterial investigation is being held.

There is a very good reason, I think, for what I would propose. The coroner's inquest used to be held in private. The public had no right to be there. News papers did not report what passed. I am not sure that the public have an absolute right to be present now if their exclusion were insisted upon; but I dare say it is too late to do that. It may well happen, I think it often happens, that the evidence given before the coroner points to the guilt of some particular person who may or may not be under arrest. That person has no right to be represented at a coroner's inquest by an advocate. Further, at the coroner's inquest it is perfectly proper to allow evidence to be given which could not be given in a police court where a person is charged. Yet that evidence which is given before the coroner may point to the guilt of a person who is not present or may be subject at the very time to a charge made against him in the magistrates' court. It is evident, and if your Lordships have read the proceedings you must often have seen, that something has been said about a person at a coroner's inquest by some one on oath, which could not possibly have been said, and which would not have been evidence against him, in a police court, where it may be that that person had appeared the day before, or will appear the day after. All this evidence may be published and may go before those who may very possibly be called upon to sit on a jury if the person is committed for and takes his trial. It seems to me, therefore, for that reason alone, that it is very expedient that these inquiries should not be allowed to overlap.

There is another grave matter. Take a murder case such as those of which there have been a good many lately, in which a great deal of medical evidence has to be given. Your Lordships know very well that if one doctor is called it is the habit of those who are looking after the defence to call another. Such evidence can only be obtained at a very great expense, and where the Public Prosecutor has taken up an important case and much scientific evidence has to be given, it is provided and laid before the magistrates by those who are in charge of the case on behalf of the Crown, and no earthly good can be done in having all those witnesses before the coroner, as has been done again and again in recent times, to give the same kind of evidence, to have it disputed by the same kind of questions and to put the public, the accused, or a private prosecutor to the cost of paying expensive witnesses to give evidence twice which is just as efficacious and as much to the public advantage when given only once.

Therefore, what I would suggest is something of this kind—that if, on an inquest regarding the death of a person, the coroner is informed before the jury have given their verdict that someone has been charged before justices with the murder, or manslaughter, of the dead person, in the absence of good reason to the contrary it shall be the duty of the coroner to adjourn his inquest. He need not abandon it. He can adjourn it, and when the whole case has been thoroughly investigated and brought to an end, some formal meeting of the coroner and the jury would result in the returning of a verdict which would have no effect beyond regularising the proceedings which he had taken.

It may not be uninteresting if I mention that coroners have been asked to take, and have taken, this course in some cases recently. I well remember that three years ago it fell to my lot to try a very difficult case of poisoning with arsenic. The accused, a man named Armstrong, was tried at Hereford Assizes. The case lasted twelve days at the Assizes and there was a great fight over the medical and scientific evidence. When the case came before the magistrates an inquiry was also going on before the coroner. It gave those in charge of the prosecution the greatest trouble to get witnesses before the magistrates and the coroner on the one day and the inquiry was prolonged at the expense of everybody—a state of affairs which everybody would be glad to have brought to an end. In that case an adjournment was suggested to the coroner, I believe; at all events, he did a very reasonable thing and adjourned the inquest. I find that this man was convicted on April 13, three years ago, the inquest was concluded on April 27, and the final verdict was given after the case at the Assizes was all over and done with.

Then, in the case of a man named Mahon, who was committed by the justices on June 6 last year, the inquest ended five days later, on June 11. The trial and verdict occupied the days from July 15 to July 19. In a more recent case, that of a man named Thorne, the conviction took place on March 16 of this year. On April 7 there was an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal and the final inquest was held nine days after that. There is no harm, therefore, in these proceedings being adjourned, if it becomes apparent that some one has been arrested, that an investigation is going on where a definite person is charged, and which is being conducted according to all the rules which govern evidence in this country, many of which are made for the proper protection of accused persons. It seems to me that it should not be possible that there should be proceeding at the same time a sort of roving inquiry which is very expensive and which may do definite and incalculable harm to a person who is in the difficult position of having to defend himself on a capital charge. I would, therefore, move the Motion which stands in my name for the reasons which I have given to your Lordships at more length than I intended when I rose.


My Lords, the noble Lord has, I think, done a service in calling attention to a matter that has long been debated by those who are interested in this question—namely, the mischief which may follow when a coroner's inquest proceeds alongside an inquiry by a magistrate or a criminal court. The mischief was pointed out, among others, by that veteran of the law Sir Harry Poland, who, some years ago, made a suggestion in regard to it. For myself I do not doubt that mischief does ensue in those cases, and that in more than one way. As the practice now stands, a witness may have to give his evidence no fewer than four times, first before the coroner, then before the justices at petty sessions, then before the grand jury, and, lastly, at the trial of a prisoner on indictment. That is not only a burden and a hardship for the witness, but in some cases, such as cases of an unsavoury character, it is harmful to the public that this kind of evidence should be so often repeated. Further, there is the expense, the needless expense, involved to the persons interested, especially in those cases to which my noble friend has, referred where the evidence of experts must be called; and there is the waste of public time.

More than that, if, after a particular person has been charged with the offence of murder or manslaughter, the inquest continues, there is real risk of prejudice to the person charged. The rules of evidence, so careful of the rights of the accused person, which are observed in a criminal court, do not apply at an inquest, and for an obvious reason. The subject of the inquiry is quite different. The coroner is inquiring into the cause of the death, but the court is inquiring into the guilt or innocence of a particular person, and so evidence which could not be given in a court of justice, evidence throwing suspicion on certain persons, and so on, can be, and is, taken before the coroner. Further, the person suspected is not necessarily present when these statements are made at inquests, nor is he necessarily represented, and yet, on evidence so taken, a coroner's jury may find a verdict either of murder or of manslaughter against the person suspected. It is plain that such procedings, if continued after a criminal charge is made, may inflame public feeling, and may prejudice the trial of the accused person; indeed, it has been said in a case that the accused was a convicted man before he took his place in the dock. In one case which your Lordships may remember, the case of Crippen, about fifteen years ago, these facts gave rise to something like a scandal, and I know that there have been other instances since that date.

What then should be done? Until some criminal charge is preferred the coroner should, no doubt, proceed with his inquiry, because his inquiry may throw light on the question who is to blame, and who should be charged with an offence. Indeed, in some cases it is advisable to complete the inquest before any decision is taken as to a prosecution. But if, and when, criminal proceedings are commenced—proceedings for murder or manslaughter—I agree with the noble Lord that the inquest ought to be suspended until those criminal proceedings are brought to an end. That would not prevent the coroner doing what he alone can do, make an order for a post mortem examination, or give an order for burial, but the inquest should be suspended. Clearly the two proceedings ought not to go on together, and of the two the proceedings in court are, for reasons which I have given, to be preferred. If, after the criminal charge is at an end, that charge has resulted in an acquittal, then of course the inquest will proceed to its natural conclusion. If the criminal proceedings result in a verdict of guilty, then the proceedings before the coroner would become merely formal. That was, as my noble friend said, the course which was taken in the Armstrong case, and I think it turned out to be the right course.

As to the remedy to be applied, my noble friend has made a proposal in terms which make me suspect he is a master of thought reading, because the words which he used were very much those that are to be found in the Government Bill, which was prepared before this question was put down. The Government are proposing to introduce a Bill dealing with the whole question of coroners, and a number of matters which have arisen in connection with coroners' inquests, and they will include in that Bill a clause very much to the effect suggested by my noble friend. The Bill is ready. It is only awaiting approval by some representatives of local authorities in connection with financial matters, and we hope in a very short time to introduce the Bill with that clause and, if possible, to pass it.


My Lords, after the statement of the noble and learned Viscount I have no desire to move for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.