HL Deb 11 March 1926 vol 63 cc556-66

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the main objects of this Bill are: (1), to carry out the recommendations of a Committee which reported in 1910 upon coroners; (2), to replace by permanent provisions the provisions of an Act of 1917, the Coroners (Emergency Provisions) Act, which reduced the minimum number of a coroner's jury to seven, and a provision in the Juries Act, 1918, which enabled a coroner to dispense with a jury altogether in a certain limited class of cases; and (3), to deal with a point which was raised in debate in this House in the month of May last year, and to prevent the unnecessary duplication of proceedings before coroners and before justices. This is really an amending Bill, and, if it is passed, consolidation will become necessary, but it is proposed to reserve that consolidation for a later Bill.

I will only comment on some of the more important clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 requires that coroners shall have a professional qualification, either medical or legal. There is a saving for persons who have served as coroners for a period of not less than five years prior to the commencement of this Measure—a franchise coroner or a deputy to a county or borough coroner. The provision which prevents an alderman or councillor of a county from acting as coroner is extended to boroughs, and there is a provision which abolishes the requirement that a county coroner must possess land in fee—a qualification which seems no longer to be necessary. To Clause 2 I need not refer. Clause 3 makes provision for the appointment of a coroner in the Isle of Wight. Hitherto, under a special clause, the Governor of that Isle has been appointed coroner and he has appointed a deputy, but with His Majesty's knowledge and approval it is proposed to abolish that old system and to put the island on the same footing as other parts of the Kingdom.

Then, by Clause 4, it is proposed to abolish another old system—namely, that of franchise coronerships, as from the next vacancy and, incidental to that, to enable the Sovereign, if he desires it, to relinquish the right to appoint a franchise coroner in the Duchy of Lancaster. The existence of these franchise coronerships has long been an obstacle in the way of a convenient and economical re-arrangement of coroners' districts, and I think this alteration will lead to economy as well as to greater efficiency. By Clause 5 borough coroners, like county coroners, will be paid by salary instead of by fees. I think every one who is cognisant of the system of payment of these county officers will agree that the payment of a salary is better than payment by casual fees, which may vary. It is sometimes said, I think without foundation, that the fee system induces the coroners to multiply inquests. Clause 6 enables the council to call upon a coroner to retire upon pension and fixes the maximum amount of pension. There is also a provision to enable the coroner to retire voluntarily, or on medical grounds. Then come a number of clauses to which I need not refer. Clause 11 provides for the rearrangement of county coroners' districts. Under the present law it is done by Order in Council, a somewhat inconvenient and cumbrous method, and it is now proposed to allow the Secretary of State, on certain applications, to make an Order for that purpose

Clause 12 makes permanent Section 7 of the Juries Act of 1918, to which I have already referred. This enables a coroner to dispense with a jury altogether in certain cases, but it has been suggested that safeguards are necessary before that can be done and accordingly some additional safeguards are contained in this Bill. The Bill provides that a jury must be summoned if it appear to the coroner

  1. (a) that the deceased came to his death by murder, manslaughter or infanticide; or
  2. (b) that the death occurred in prison or in such place or in such circumstances as to require an inquest under any Act other than the Coroner's Act, 1887; or—
and I think this is new—
  1. (c) that the death was caused by an accident, poisoning or disease, notice of which is required to be given to a Government Department, or to any inspector or other officer of a Government Department, under or in pursuance of any Act; or
  2. (d) that the death was caused by an accident arising out of the use of a vehicle in a street or public highway; or
  3. 558
  4. (e) that the death occurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public.
I think your Lordships will agree that those are useful safeguards, and will secure, in those cases in which a public inquest by a jury is especially desirable, that a jury shall be called.

Clause 13 makes the viewing of the body obligatory only on the coroner himself. Clause 14 extends the power of the coroner to accept the verdict of a majority of the jury, and also, in other cases of disagreement, to discharge the jury and begin the inquest afresh, instead of adjourning it to the Assizes, as at present is required. Clause 15 and Clause 16 are intended to meet the difficulty which has arisen where two deaths arising from the same cause may have occurred in different jurisdictions. In those cases it may be necessary at present to hold two separate inquests by two separate coroners. This clause will enable a body to be taken, by order, into another jurisdiction, so that only one inquest may be necessary. Clause 17 enables an inquest to be held, by direction of the Secretary of State, even when the body is destroyed or otherwise not available. Clause 18 enables a second inquest to be held where the High court is satisfied that, by reason of the discovery of new facts or evidence, it is necessary or desirable in the interests of justice that another inquest should be held.

Then comes Clause 19, which deals with the difficulty on which many of your Lordships have already expressed a view. It relates to cases of suspected murder, manslaughter or infanticide. It was pointed out in discussion that in those cases considerable difficulty sometimes arose from the clashing or simultaneous holding of the coroner's inquest and the inquiry before the magistrates, and I think most of your Lordships thought that the suggestion I then made should be supported—namely, that in cases of that kind the inquest should be suspended pending the criminal inquiry. This clause gives effect to that suggestion. It requires that in certain cases of the nature I have described the coroner shall, in the absence of reason to the contrary, adjourn the inquest until after the conclusion of the criminal proceedings. He may, if he thinks fit, discharge the jury; and then, after the conclusion of the criminal proceedings, he will resume the adjourned inquest if he is of opinion that there is sufficient cause to do so. But it is provided that where the inquest is not resumed the coroner must furnish the particulars necessary for the registration of the death. It is added that, whether the jury is the old jury or a new one, the issues decided in the criminal proceedings are not to be canvassed at the coroner's inquest. There, are certain consequential provisions which I need not mention.

Clauses 20 and 21 provide for certain post-mortem examinations or analyses being made without holding an inquest. Then there are some machinery sections to which I do not think I need refer on this occasion. Then the First Schedule contains a graduated scale, which has been the subject of discussion with those, who represent the coroners and which I understand gives satisfaction. Those are the main provisions of the Bill and if your Lordships consider that they effect a useful reform of the law and get rid of some real practical inconvenience which has arisen, I hope you will give it a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, on behalf of the association of county councils, who, in counties, have the appointment of these coroners, may I say that generally we welcome this Bill and approve of its provisions? I should like. however, to draw the attention of the Lord Chancellor to one or two points. I will mention first of all Clause 2, to which I think the Lord Chancellor did not refer. There is one point in it which is rather hampering from the county council point of view. That is that when a vacancy in the office of coroner occurs it shall be filled within one month, except on getting leave from the Secretary of State for leave to have an extension of time. The suggestion of the County Councils' Association is that that one month should be extended to at least three months as the county councils only meet once a quarter. Unless that suggestion is adopted, you would be continually having county councils applying to the Home Secretary for extensions, and I think the Lord Chancellor might be inclined to agree that that would be unnecessary. It would be a greater safeguard if the period were extended to three months, because the county councils would naturally wish to fill up the vacancy at the earliest opportunity. It might be said that such an extension would be prejudicial, but there is always a deputy coroner, and there are also assistant deputy coroners as well, so that no harm would ensue.

I wish to refer also to Clause 6, which deals with the superannuation of coroners without any contribution to the superannuation fund. The County Councils' Association recognise that as regards all existing officers it is only fair and just that they should not have to make any contribution, because they are making sacrifices on their own part. The suggestion I make is that in the future all coroners should have to pay to the superannuation fund. That will only be following the general precedent with regard to local government officials, all of whom, so far as I am aware, have to contribute to superannuation funds, if they wish to avail themselves of them. Of course, there are people like the clerks of county councils who are not obliged to come in, but, if they do, they have to contribute like anybody else.

There is also a point as regards deputy coroners and assistant deputy coroners. Under the Coroners Act, 1892, every coroner has to appoint a deputy, to be approved of by the chairman of the county council, but it seems to me that the right of appointment of deputy coroners and assistant deputy coroners should be with the county council, as in the case of all other appointments of deputies of local authorities, so that they may have control over their own officials. I believe I am right in saying that, as regards other officials of local authorities, say, the medical officer of health for a county or a rural district council, the deputy is in all cases appointed by the council itself. I hope the Lord Chancellor will be willing to make some concession on this matter, because in other respects than those I have mentioned we thoroughly approve of this Bill and are anxious to forward it in every possible way.


My Lords, with reference to the speech which has just been made, I think the Government will have to consider carefully before they extend the period of one month to three months. It is very undesirable that a district should be left without a coroner for three months because things happen. With regard to who should make the appointment, I doubt whether anybody is so competent as the coroner himself to ascertain who is a suitable person to act as deputy.

However, I do not rise to go into details. I have only been able to give somewhat cursory consideration to the provisions of this Bill, but, having given that consideration and subject to further reflection, it seems to me to be a good Bill. Must of us remember the description which Dickens gave in "Bleak House" of the proceedings of the coroner at the inquest—I think it was on the body of Mr. Crook. We have got a good deal away from those times now, but the law has advanced very little beyond what it was then. This Bill is a long-delayed but, I think, a useful attempt to put the law upon a mere modern footing. It is obvious to me that, if the Bill passes, one of the first duties of the Lord Chancellor will be to get a Consolidation Bill put on foot, because the mass of amendments which are made in the Second and Third Schedules is so great that a Consolidation Bill will be urgently required. But that is a detail.

What is important is the way in which the Bill gets rid of franchise coroners and King's coroners, and of the necessity of the conditions restricting the action of juries, and of the impossibility of delaying proceedings until the proper criminal investigation has taken place. All these and other things, which the noble and learned Viscount on the 'Woolsack has enumerated, have needed amelioration, and I think this Bill does ameliorate them in a very substantial fashion. We cannot tell, until we see what public opinion declares, and until we get to the Committee stage, how this Bill will turn out on closer scrutiny, but as far as I can see, the main provisions are thoroughly useful provisions, and I am very glad that the Government have decided to introduce the Bill.


My Lords, I think that any one who has read this Bill and has had any practical knowledge of the subject matter will agree with my noble and learned friend who has just spoken in saying that the changes proposed are long overdue, and that they seem, upon the first view of them, to be obvious and definite improvements on the present system. But in reading the Bill it occurred to me that if careful changes are to be made in this time-honoured system, which is peculiar, I think, to this country and to Ireland, which dates, I imagine, from before the Conquest and has not undergone very drastic reconsideration at any time that I am aware of, it might be worth while to go somewhat further.

I am sure that everybody who has any experience of the subject will entirely agree with the proposals made for doing away with the duplication of inquiry; but I think it ought to be borne in mind that the coroner now fulfils in this country functions quite apart from those for which he originally existed. He originally existed to take care of the interests of the Crown. They were mostly material interests, I think, so far as they can be traced. But he has come to be a specialised functionary, who makes inquiry where the cause of death is not known. The Bill greatly modernises and improves that process; but there are directions in which I think it might be found, on examination of the Bill by the Home Office or in the chambers of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, or by those who examine the Bill with experience, that one could go further in the public interest than the Bill now goes, with advantages in point of economy, which will ultimately be served no doubt when the Bill in its present form is further advanced.

Then there are areas of inquiry which are much more important than inquiry into a case of accidental death, or the case of an unknown man who is found drowned, and inquiries of that sort There are inquiries which are very necessary in the public interest and are not the business of anybody at all unless the Public Prosecutor or the local police find it necessary to ascertain whether there has been some criminal transaction. In the City of London there is a customary proceeding of inquiry into fires. I say it with bated breath, but it has been suggested that even in the City of London the procedure might be improved and might have more regard to the interest of individuals. But large fires occur in the country and there is no provision for any such inquiry at all unless the police go about in their quiet way and make inquiries.

On the other side of the Border there are organised inquiries into happenings which need investigation. Those are made by the Procurator-Fiscal, who, I believe, is the only officer in Scotland who, if they are to be inquired into, inquires into matters which the coroner investigates in this country. In so far as I have seen his work, or have been able to form any opinion about it, the Procurator-Fiscal conducts his inquiries without publicity and with a great deal of advantage. I would ask my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack to consider whether it is possible to go any further than the Bill now goes in preventing the needless duplication of inquiries and the expense of formal and needless investigations, and whether, on the other hand, it is not possible to give to the coroner or somebody else such powers outside the City of London as are exercised to inquire into fires in the City of London, and, if those powers are given, to regulate their exercise generally both in the City of London and elsewhere. I venture to make those observations in the hearing of my noble and learned friend. I have had no personal communication with him on the subject. It is a very interesting topic, and I think the Bill could be made even more useful than it appears to be on the face of it.


My Lords, I think some amendment of Clause 5 of this Bill will be necessary. It is purely a Committee point, but I think it well to mention it now. Clause 5 provides that a coroner shall be appointed by the county council and that the salary paid to him shall be agreed upon between him and the county council. That seems to me to be a very excellent arrangement; but that arrangement having been made, it is altered entirely by subsection (2), which practically says that after he has been appointed by the county council and has agreed with that council as to the salary he shall receive, he can go to the Home Secretary and, notwithstanding that an agreement has been made, the Home Secretary can alter the salary to any amount that he chooses or that he thinks is the proper one, although as a matter of fact the county council are the people who have to pay it and not anybody over whom the Home Secretary has control. I hope, therefore, that the Lord Chancellor will consent to an amendment which will leave out subsection (2) and paragraph (c) of subsection (5) of Clause 5.

With regard to the statement made by the noble Lord opposite as to contributions by the coroner to the pensions fund, it would be better, no doubt, if the coroner were placed in the same position as that in which the majority of officials in this country are placed at the present moment. But if the salary was left to be settled between the county council and the coroner it could be arranged that the salary should be so much, in consideration of the fact that eventually he would be entitled to a pension without having to contribute towards it.


My Lords, I am glad that the Bill generally has had a favourable reception. With regard to what was said by the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the Opposition I entirely agree with him that it is desirable to consolidate the law as soon as possible. We passed quite a number of Consolidation Acts last year with the result that the volume of Statutes is larger, I think, than it has ever been in the memory of man. I do not know whether it would be possible to consolidate the Coroners Acts this year, but at all events the suggestion will be considered.

With regard to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, on behalf of the County Councils' Association, I will, of course, consider his criticisms. I confess I have some sympathy with the noble Lord in his suggestion that the period should be extended from one month to three months, because I know that, although in London the county council meets frequently, in many counties the usual course is for the council to meet sometimes six and sometimes only four times a year, and there might be great difficulty in calling a special meeting of the county council for the single purpose of appointing a coroner. But we will consider that question.

As to the superannuation fund it had occurred to me as to my noble friend, Lord Banbury of Southam, that it is the intention of the framers of the Bill that the salary shall be fixed on the footing that it will include provision for contributions to the superannuation fund. I know that is not the usual system. In the case of the police and of other officers there is a percentage deduction from every payment of salary which is carried to the credit of the superannuation fund. In many ways that is convenient, I think, because the holder of the office knows that he has to contribute towards the pension he will draw when the proper time comes. There may be a special reason for departing from that system here, but I will make inquiry as to why this course was adopted and will inform your Lordships regarding it on the Committee stage of the Bill. With regard to the appointment of deputies I should like to think that over. I have not made up my mind whether the suggestion of the noble Lord is one which it would be well to adopt.

My noble and learned friend Lord Merrivale suggested that the Bill might go further. He did not say in what respect, except that he did refer to the system of holding inquests in case of fire, which obtains, I think, to-day only in the City of London. That matter was considered by the Committee which reported in 1910, and I agree with my noble and learned friend that the Report contains a good deal which is of interest on this matter. That Committee said, I think, that they found some objection taken, for instance in Manchester, to the holding of fire inquests, but they did throw out the suggestion that it might be possible to pass an adoptive Act enabling local authorities which thought fit to adopt the Act to have inquests held in cases of fire. That is a very important question, and I have no doubt it is one upon which ninny different opinions will be held. I do not know whether it would be possible to enlarge this Bill to that extent, but of course, if the noble and learned Lord finds, within the rules of order, that such a change can be made, we shall have to deal with it in Committee.

With regard to what was said by my noble friend Lord Banbury of Southam, who appeared to object to the clause which gives power to the Secretary of State to determine a difference of opinion between a council and a coroner on the question of an increase in his salary, my noble friend knows that the same system obtains in the case of other officers. For instance, a clerk to magistrates, when he cannot agree with the Standing Joint Committee of the County as to his salary, can appeal to the Secretary of State. I think the origin of this clause is probably this. Whereas the salary may be quite sufficient when the coroner is appointed, the number of inquests may grow, and therefore more work may be thrown on the coroner. Where that is likely to happen it is, I think, quite right to remember that he may become entitled to an increase in his remuneration, and to provide that, if he cannot agree with the council upon the amount of that increase, he shall have some kind of appeal to the Secretary of State. As at present advised I think that is right, but, of course, I will consider carefully what the noble Lord may say if, after consideration, he decides to move an Amendment.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and referred to a Committee of the Whole House.

[From Minutes of March 10.]

The LORD CHANCELLOR acquainted the House that he had received from the Senior Registrar in Bankruptcy a certificate that George Harley, Earl of Kinnoull, who sits in this House as Baron Hay, was adjudicated a bankrupt on the 8th day of March, 1926.