HL Deb 11 May 1954 vol 187 cc465-9

3.11 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, when this Bill was passing through another place and was under the charge of my honourable friend the Member for Kidderminster, it received support from all quarters of that place and also from Her Majesty's Government. I hope it will have the same treatment from your Lordships here this afternoon. Briefly, the background of the Bill is this. As your Lordships know well, members of the medical profession may be directed or requested by coroners to make post-mortem examinations, and members of the general public may be summoned to give evidence in coroners' courts. Your Lordships will, I think, agree that these persons—the doctors and the members of the public—who go to coroners' courts should be paid a fair fee for their services. Indeed, you may go further and think that there is, from the witnesses' point of view, no difference between the evidence they give in coroners' courts and the evidence they give in criminal courts; therefore, the fees for medical men and for other witnesses should be the same in one class of court as in another. Unfortunately, unless we pass this Bill, that cannot be so.

The Home Secretary not long ago fixed the allowances of medical and lay witnesses in the Witnesses Allowance Regulations, 1948. Under those Regulations a medical witness may receive up to £5 a day. Furthermore, under the Criminal Cases Act, 1908, the Home Secretary can make regulations varying the scales when he thinks fit. That is the position in regard to witnesses in the criminal courts. The fees for the medical witnesses in coroners' courts, however, are laid down in the Coroners Act, 1926, and allow only a maximum of three guineas for medical evidence, as against five guineas in the other courts which I have mentioned. In regard to the lay witnesses, their fees are prescribed by schedules made by local authorities under two Coroners Acts—one the Act of 1887 and the other the Act of 1926. These schedules vary a great deal as between one local authority and another, and I think your Lordships will agree that the time has come to standardise both the regulations and the fees for witnesses. Therefore, this Bill repeals that part of the 1926 Act which deals with witnesses' fees, and gives power to the Home Secretary to prescribe fees by rule. I have no doubt that if the Bill becomes law, the Home Secretary will make use of the power to clear up the position. I know that we in this House are chary of delegated legislation, and we are all the more chary of it, perhaps, when we are in Opposition. I hope, however, that in this case noble Lords will agree with me that the right course is to delegate the matter to the Home Secretary and allow him to make the regulations and set out the schedules; and instead of inserting the words "five guineas" in the new Bill, we should take the words "three guineas" out of the old one.

There is another point covered by the Bill. Sometimes a coroner has to order a special examination of a dead body or of its contents. These examinations vary widely in character and in importance, and, therefore, so does the standing of the medical man who has to do the job. The cases dealt with may vary from a simple case of drowning, where it is perfectly clear that the man met his death by drowning, to some complicated poisoning case which may in due course lead to a charge for murder and which requires the highest class of analysis to be made. The fees for these special examinations are authorised by an Act made as long ago as 1887, under which the scales are made by local authorities and can be altered by them where neces- sary. This arrangement does not work too badly, and it is thought by those who know that those scales can well be left alone. That is why in Clause 1 (1) of this Bill there is a proviso to that effect. There is little more I need say about the Bill. As your Lordships will see, it does not apply either to Scotland or Northern Ireland. The proposals have, I am told, been thoroughly discussed with the local authority associations and the Coroners' Society, and I am given to understand that they have received the general support of those bodies (which is quite understandable) and also (which is even more understandable) the support of the medical profession. I hope that this Bill will likewise have the support of your Lordships in all quarters of the House, and also of Her Majesty's Government. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Viscount Bridgeman.)

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I must at once confess to your Lordships that, in speaking on this Bill, I speak as a person with some interest in its provisions. I have not appeared at a coroner's court for quite a long time, but when one did a certain amount of work for those courts one was conscious that the fee paid was not as much as one received in the High Court. The coroners were extremely kind. When a doctor had given his evidence, he was told he could leave as soon as he wished. That was often convenient, but sometimes the doctor wanted to know what was going on. Probably the coroners realised that medical witnesses were not being paid very much and could make more outside. Whether that be so or not, I have great pleasure, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches, in supporting the Bill.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to give the blessing of my noble friends on these Benches to this small, though quite valuable, Bill. I have had a long association with coroners' courts in various capacities. They are amongst the most ancient of courts—probably the High Court of Parliament is the only older court in this country. The coroner's court in some form is said to date back to the reign of King Alfred. For a long time in this matter of witnesses' fees the coroner's court has been somewhat of a Cinderella. The fees for medical men in particular and certain other witnesses have been quite inadequate. I am authorised by the Coroners' Society to say that they welcome this Bill. It would seem essential to have in all courts, and not least in a coroner's court, contented witnesses who are willing to come and testify to the truth in regard to the cause of death of any individual. Payments to witnesses have been somewhat of a scandal, certainly since the war, if not since 1926, when they were last altered. They have been too small. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has mentioned that those fees are paid under either the Coroners Act, 1887, or the amending Act of 1926; and although the fees of medical men when giving evidence in criminal causes were improved in 1948, their fees for giving evidence in coroners' courts were not improved. This Bill will remedy that position and enable fees to be dealt with with more flexibility.

I gather that under the Bill the Secretary of State will make a statutory instrument, which can, of course, be altered from to time in accordance with circumstances, and which will in the majority of cases establish a uniform scale of fees. The local authorities who hitherto have been responsible for the paying of witnesses' fees will, I gather, not be responsible for paying such additional fees as may be attributable to this Bill. By means of the equalisation grant the local authorities will have the difference made up to them. In any event this is a useful Bill. It will enable witnesses to receive adequate payment for the time they frequently have to spend in courts; it will enable a flexible position to be brought about in regard to witnesses' fees so that alterations can be readily made in the future; and it will ensure that witnesses will give even more willing and helpful service in coroners' courts than has hitherto been the case. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will agree to the Second Reading of this Bill.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, there is little I can or need add to what has already been said. From this Box I should first like to thank my noble friend, Lord Bridgeman, for introducing this measure. It is, I think, a measure which is long overdue and a reform which is greatly needed. He has explained the Bill admirably to your Lordships and, as your Lordships will have heard, it has been supported from all sides of the House. One point which may be of interest to noble Lords is that my right honourable friend will consult the local authority associations, the London County Council, the British Medical Association and the Coroners' Society on the scales of fees and allowances to be prescribed; I think it is right and proper that he should do that. Apart from that, there is nothing more that I can say except that the Government wholeheartedly support this Bill and that they will give to my noble friend any assistance that he may need at any time in getting it passed through Parliament. We hope that it will be on the Statute Book very soon indeed.

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