HL Deb 18 June 1980 vol 410 cc1184-94

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill comes to your Lordships' House from another place where it was introduced by Mr. Nicholas Budgen, the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, and it went through unopposed. Of course, that does not exempt me from attempting to explain its contents to your Lordships, which I will do briefly.

The Bill deals mainly with the jurisdiction of coroners to hold inquests. This jurisdiction, strange as it may seem, is founded upon the fact that the coroner has seen a dead body. It is a jurisdiction which recalls the mediaeval custom whereby, on a sudden or violent death, the men in the neighbourhood were called together to form a jury to inspect the body, under the aegis of the coroner, to examine it for any signs of ill-treatment or wounds and to decide the cause of death. Indeed, there was a criminal jurisdiction because they were also able to order anybody to be arrested if they so advised. Then, of course, the question arose as to whether somebody was to be fined, because that was the earliest kind of punishment.

The criminal jurisdiction of coroners and their juries was ended quite recently by the Criminal Law Act 1977. But it is still the law that the coroner cannot hold an inquest until he has viewed the body. Your Lordships may think that that requirement has become an anachronism. Let us consider the matter. A qualified pathologist usually holds a post-mortem and then establishes at any rate the medical cause of death. As for the identity of the deceased person, the police make their inquiries not merely of the relatives. Sometimes it is a very distressing thing for the relatives to be called in to identify the body, and sometimes that can be obviated. But the police will make their inquiries with the help of neighbours, friends, acquaintances, and in that way they will enable the body to be identified. The coroner is then given evidence under, I think, five heads: first, that there is a dead body; secondly, where it is; thirdly, who it was; fourthly, the medical cause of death; and fifthly, the surrounding circumstances.

Your Lordships may well feel that if the police are able to give evidence under those five heads, there should be no need for the coroner himself to view the body. Clause 1 in fact abolishes the need for the coroner to view the body, and that means, therefore, that it would cease to be the foundation of the coroner's jurisdiction. But the fact that the clause abolishes that need does not prevent the coroner from viewing the body if he should still think fit to do so. Clause 2 of the Bill gives power for inquests to be held in areas other than that in which the body is found or to which it has been brought.

It sometimes happens that when, alas! there is a disaster like a mine disaster, a train crash, an aircraft crash or a shipwreck, people may be taken to hospitals in different coroners' areas and they may die in different coroners' areas. But it would surely be absurd then to insist that there should be separate coroners' inquests in each of those areas. So Clause 2 enables a coroner in whose area a body lies to ask another coroner to hold an inquest in his area, and by a certain amount of liaison between coroners we may find that one inquest could be held, whereas strictly speaking several inquests might otherwise be necessary.

Of course, if the request by the coroner in whose area the body lies is refused by the coroner in another area whom he approaches, or if there is any other disagreement as to where the inquest should be held, the Home Secretary is given power under subsection (3) of Clause 2 to determine the matter and decide where the inquest shall be held and then give a direction to those concerned. It is also provided that where jurisdiction is assumed by another coroner, the body need not be transferred to the area in which the inquest is to be held, but again there will be nothing in law to stop the body from being transferred if that coroner feels that it is desirable for it to be done.

Clause 3 contains consequential provisions of a mainly administrative character. Clause 4 extends the present powers which coroners have of exhumation of bodies. I think that for the moment that is really all the explanation it is necessary for me to give to your Lordships. However, I would just add that the Bill is based upon some of the recommendations of the Brodrick Committee which reported in 1971 under the chairmanship of the learned Judge Brodrick, Queens Counsel. If I may later have the leave of the House to speak again, I shall try to answer any questions which any of your Lordships may raise. Meanwhile, I commend the Bill and I beg to move accordingly.

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

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise straightaway to the House for not notifying my intention to say a very few words on this Bill in sufficient time for my name to be added to the list, but I have taken the precaution of having a word with those concerned and other speakers, and I hope that I will have the indulgence of your Lordships' House in this matter. Perhaps I might earn that indulgence if I am extremely brief, as I intend to be.

My reasons for speaking at all are two-fold. First, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for his clear explanation of the purposes of this Bill, and I should like to assure him that certainly it has my support. He knows this very well from discussions we had many years ago in another place when we acted together on similar matters. He knows entirely that I am in support of the purposes of this Bill, and I should like him and others in your Lordships' House to know that my noble friends on these Benches would certainly wish to see this somewhat modest little measure proceed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has said it would if brought into effect undoubtedly create very considerable savings in trouble, in money, and indeed in distress to a great many people. Of the kind of examples that the noble Lord gave of the inconvenience and the trouble that arises from the present arrangements I have professionally, as a medical practitioner, had direct experience on a number of occasions. If those difficulties can be removed, so much the better, and this Bill certainly seeks to do that.

My second purpose in speaking is, since this is a Second Reading debate on this matter, to invite the noble Lord who will reply to go just a little further and to wonder whether this modest measure, desirable though it may be, is enough in this particular field. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, reminded us that it is nine years since the report of the Brodrick Committee was published, and I think he will recollect, as I am sure will many other noble Lords, that the Committee in fact sat for six years before it finally produced its report.

Noble Lords will recollect that it made many recommendations which were enthusiastically welcomed by all parties with regard to substantial changes which could be made in the whole method of inquiring into sudden, unexplained, accidental or unnatural deaths. It made many recommendations which have not yet been followed up. I am bound to say —and I do not wish to go into the detail of this—that I am afraid, from what I have seen of the procedures adopted in Scotland, that, as with so many other matters, they are well ahead of us and in fact proceed with their arrangements under the procurator fiscal in a much more efficient way.

I should like to raise some general questions. I do not necessarily want totally to sweep away coroners and inquests, and I should like to acknowledge that many of them do a remarkable job. Perhaps on this occasion I may publicly express my personal regret at the death only this week of one of Her Majesty's Coroners, Gavin Thurston, who did so much during a distinguished career to raise the esteem in which Her Majesty's Coroners were held by the general public, by the medical profession and, indeed, by the legal profession.

There is no doubt at all that coroners' inquests, as at present held, are expensive and time-consuming and can on many occasions be extremely distressing to relatives and to other parties not necessarily directly involved. The procedures adopted, as reported on by the Brodrick Committee, sometimes mean that people who may be concerned later are not legally represented. I have seen many examples of cases in which relatives, through no fault of their own and through no kind of culpability, have been caused very grave distress by the manner in which inquests are held publicly, with juries, press reporting and things of that kind.

We have to remember that the verdict of a coroner's inquest carries no legal force at the end of the day. There have been many occasions and many events historically recorded in which steps have been taken that were totally contrary to the original coroner's verdict. We also have to remember that all sudden, unnatural, unexplained deaths are fully investigated, and indeed it is entirely right that they should be fully investigated. I really believe that, in bringing forward this limited measure, desirable though it most certainly is, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, reminds us that perhaps it is high time we looked again at the Brodrick Report and some of its recommendations and wondered whether we could have much greater simplification than even the little simplifications which are brought forward in this desirable Bill.

After all, we are operating under a Government dedicated to sweeping away unnecessary bureaucracy and waste, and I would venture to suggest, without trying to be unduly critical of Her Majesty's Coroners, for many of whom I have the highest regard, that if the Government investigate this field I believe they will find some waste and some bureaucracy which could perhaps be done away with, or that at least we could move to new procedures. In doing that, I think we could perhaps help ourselves greatly if we looked at what happens in Scotland and follow their example a bit more closely. Certainly my noble friends on these Benches will do what they can to see that the noble Lord's Bill has a fair wind.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, it is rarely that we have an opportunity to debate coroners and coroners' courts, but despite that I shall resist the very real temptation to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes on this subject. There are two ample reasons for that. One is that this Bill is limited in scope, and the other is that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has given a comprehensive and clear explanation of the purposes of the Bill. I should like to thank him for doing that and for introducing this Bill here in your Lordships' House.

Although the changes in the law proposed in the Bill are quite modest ones—to abolish the need for a coroner to view the body; to enable an inquest to be held in an area other than the one the body is in; and to provide coroners with statutory power to order exhumations—they are nevertheless all very useful reforms. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has reminded us, they are based on some of the proposals made in the report of the Brodrick Committee—the Committee on Death Certification and Coroners—which, as he has also reminded us, reported as long ago as 1971.

The proposal to end the requirement to view the body seems an eminently reasonable one. Long ago, as the leading authority on these matters, Jervis on Coroners, points out, Anciently it would seem that the body was lying before the jury and the coroner during the whole inquiry and that it was itself evidence". Passing on from that time, it has always been necessary for the coroner to view the body; and until 1927 it was also necessary for the jury to view it as well. But the need to view has, for some time, been largely superseded by post mortem examinations, as the committee itself points out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has indicated, and by reason of a number of other factors as well.

Then there is the proposal in the Bill to allow a coroner of another district to hold an inquest. When looking at that I was interested to see a passage in Jervis on Coroners which reviewed the history of the office. It said there: In considering the significance of the coroners work it must be remembered that the Crown was interested not only in the due administration of criminal justice but also in the revenue derived from such administration. The forfeiture of sureties, the seizure of the possessions of felons"— that has a ring about it connected with current events— and the confiscation of deodands, wrecks and treasure trove, must have been a by no means negligible source of revenue for the Crown in those days. Presumably it was to insure that the tax collecting duties of coroners were properly carried out that coroners were required to be landed gentry so that any failure on their part could be made good out of their possessions". I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will have no difficulty in assuring us that the power to transfer an inquest to another coroner is not to enable a coroner to escape his responsibilities. Mercifully, I think we no longer require a coroner to make good any losses in that way. Nor, indeed, do we impose a sort of means test, which was apparently imposed in distant times.

I am sure for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has given, and which therefore I do not need to go into again, that the proposal in the Bill here is a useful one. It does seem right, for example, to enable an inquest to take place in an area where an incident, perhaps an accident—one of the examples he gave—has occurred rather than in the area where the body itself happens to be. The proposals on exhumations also seem valuable.

On a more general point—this was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley—the committee's report said it did not feel that the proposals it had made should necessarily wait on other recommendations before being implemented. We have had to wait some time for these modest measures today to be put into effect, if the Bill becomes an Act, since the report was presented in November 1971. Let us hope therefore that some of the other proposals in that excellent, thorough and interesting report, with its historical account, will be introduced before much more time has gone by.

While I would not wish to see coroners and coroners' courts abolished—and both the Brodrick Committee and the Departmental Committee on Coroners in 1935 unanimously supported their retention—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, that the recent committee, the Brodrick Committee, advocated substantial changes which it would be good to see implemented. Another brief point I would make is that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has enabled us to debate this matter, something which was not done in another place, although certain amendments were made there without any debate even on those. So again your Lordships' House is performing its useful legislative functions which, if they had not been performed here, would not have been performed at all. In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I join him in commending the Bill to your Lordships.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, that it has been not only for the convenience of your Lordships' House but for the interest of anyone who will be reading the Official Report of this debate that it has been possible for some discussion to take place on the Bill, which was not possible in another place, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for the interesting speech he made and to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for feeling able to take part in it. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton on the admirable grasp he has shown of coroners' law, a subject which has always appeared to me to be wrapped in mystery dating back, my noble friend said, to the Middle Ages. In his remarks in presenting the Bill, my noble friend has clearly shown how in present times the provisions of the Bill are desirable.

The Bill, though I agree it perhaps lacks glamour, is a useful measure and is welcomed by the Government. I am told that only the other day a newly-appointed coroner in a remote country area had to make a round trip of 106 miles on the first occasion on which he had to view a body. In this day and age it should no longer be necessary to carry out, at so much trouble and expense, what has become in the majority of cases a meaningless ritual, but of course the coroner will still be able to view the body if he considers there is any necessity to do so.

Of the provisions in Clauses 2 and 3 for enabling jurisdiction to be transferred from one coroner to another, either by agreement or on the direction of the Secretary of State, without having at the same time to transfer the body, I need only say that they will put an end to the unseemly moving of bodies from one area to another solely for the purpose of giving a coroner jurisdiction to hold an inquest, something we welcome both as sparing distress to bereaved relatives and as saving unnecessary expenditure. The provision in Clause 4 will enable the coroner to exhume a body for the purpose of carrying out any of his official duties, and my noble friend clearly explained how this will avoid delays and uncertainties in obtaining an exhumation order where it is needed in connection with criminal proceedings which have been instituted or are in contemplation. I understand that it is not expected that the new power will have any effect on the number of exhumations, at present averaging about two a year.

The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, asked whether the noble Lord, Lord Renton, when replying to the debate, would express a view as to whether it would be desirable that we should have legislation which goes wider than the limited objectives of the Bill. I would say from this Bench that not long ago I found myself in the unenviable position of having to answer searching questions from a Select Committee, and on advice I was given, I said to the members of that Select Committee that there were recommendations in the Brodrick Report which my right honourable friend's department would view as being desirable to be put into legislation. The fact of the matter is that we have a very crowded legislative timetable at the present time, and therefore I feel I should to some extent take upon my shoulders the answer to that question.

The Government can give every support to the Bill, which implements some of the recommendations made by the Brodrick Committee, for which I know coroners have been pressing strongly through their representative body, the Coroners' Society of England and Wales. If we are talking about wider legislation, then it is for the Government, as I am now doing, to say that they will of course look closely at what the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said with a view to thoughts for another legislative session. But at the present time, I give the Government's welcome and support for the Bill which my noble friend is asking to be read a second time.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will speak again in order to give the customary reply. I thank noble Lords who have given their support to the Bill and for the interesting contributions they have made. Both the noble Lords, Lord Winstanley and Lord Boston of Faversham, referred to the possibility of other changes in the Bill, whether or not they are based on the Brodrick Report. I beseech your Lordships not to accede to that request on this occasion. This is a Private Member's Bill and, as your Lordships know well, Private Members' Bills do not always have an easy passage in another place; and if this Bill went back to another place amended, it would go to the bottom of the list and might not reach the statute book this Session.


My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that so far as I was concerned, and I suspect so far as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was concerned, we were thinking of future possible legislative occasions and not in connection with this measure.


My Lords, I am greatly relieved by that explanation, but the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, asked whether the Bill went far enough and proceeded to give reasons for its going further. Meanwhile, perhaps I can assure him as to some of those reasons. For example, he said that inquests were expensive. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, there will be less expense incurred if sometimes the inquest can be transferred from one coroner to another, so the Bill may be said to save money. Lord Winstanley then said that inquests were time-consuming; if the coroner does not have to view the body, some time will be saved there, too.

My Lords, I hope that it is not entirely irrelevant, although I agree it is not within the scope of the Long Title, for me quickly to answer the implication in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, that we might on some other occasion even consider abolishing coroners' inquests. May I ask your Lordships not to keep an open mind about that because, if coroners' inquests were abolished, something would have to take their place: either a police inquiry—that might not be the best thing— or an inquiry by a criminal court or by a magistrates' court. Anything one might think of as an alternative might easily be worse than what we have. We have this long-established tradition of coroners' inquests, of an open-minded examination with the jury not being forced to a conclusion, sometimes able to give an open verdict. It does not always give satisfaction but broadly speaking I would suggest to your Lordships that it does, and that the alternative, as I say, might not be desirable.

It would not be right to conclude this debate without expressing our appreciation to the coroners of this country for the fine work they do and the public service they render.

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