HL Deb 10 May 1983 vol 442 cc434-9

3.41 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It may seem presumptuous of one who has been in your Lordships' House for fewer than four months to be so soon seeking your Lordships' support for legislation. That presumption must be the more compounded when the legislation is concerned with the office of coroner, which dates from the year 1194–789 years ago. I can only ask that that presumption be excused.

I wish, first, to pay tribute to my honourable friend in another place, Mr. Christopher Price, who introduced this Bill there in April this year. It is true to say that, despite the great age of the system of coroners' courts, there has been disquiet over recent years about a number of aspects of the way in which those courts are run. There has been considerable public disquiet about particular decisions of the courts, but I do not think it is appropriate for me to go into any particular cases.

The present position of coroners' juries is that it is not like juries in other courts. In courts, the Juries Act 1974 governs the qualification of persons to serve as jurors in the Crown Court, the High Court and county courts, the summoning of jurors to attend for service and related matters. But there is no such clear indication in legislation of what the position should be for coroners' juries. When a coroner is obliged or desires to summon a jury he: shall, as soon as practicable, issue his warrant for summoning not less than seven nor more than eleven good and lawful men to appear before him at a specified time and place, there to inquire as jurors touching the death of such-and-such a person. I quote from the Coroners Act 1887, Section 3(1). This not only leaves open the issue of whether there should be a jury, although that issue has been somewhat closed by recent amendments to the Administration of Justice Act; it also leaves entirely the issue of how and from whom the coroner's jury shall be selected.

The coroner's warrant is directed to the coroner's officer who, in turn, issues summonses to a number of adults sufficient to make up a jury. There is advice from the Home Office about how to use the electoral roll and summon jurors on a random basis, as is the case with other juries, but it is still the case that in some areas coroners' officers do as they think fit. It was suggested in another place that they might go out and take people going to or from meetings of the National Front or the Communist Party.

I think we may see that as being somewhat fanciful, but there is evidence that in some parts of the country the coroners' officers, who tend to be police officers, look for retired people who are less likely to seek to be excused, and less likely to make expensive claims for loss of earnings. Of course, the discretion in the hands of the coroner's officer is itself a matter of concern, because, unfortunately, there are deaths in police custody and the idea that a police officer, being a coroner's officer, should have any real discretion about the selection of a jury when the case concerns a death in police custody is worrying, to say the least.

There are other things that could be said about coroners and coroners' juries which I do not think it is appropriate to raise in detail. We could—and I hope that in a new Parliament we will—be talking about legal aid in coroners' courts. We could be talking about the disclosure of police evidence. We could be talking about coroners' courts being held on behalf of the Queen and not on behalf of relatives, so that a wider range of witnesses could be admitted. We could also be talking about civilian coroners' officers, rather than police officers.

But we are concentrating now on one thing and one thing alone, which is the constitution of coroners' juries. This Bill follows recommendations in the Brodrick Report of 1971 and in the Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place in 1980. It had the support in another place of the Government. It has the support of the Coroners' Society, whose secretary, Dr. John Burton, I understand agrees with this particular reform, though possibly not with some of the others to which I have referred.

The Bill is a short one. Clause 1 is concerned with the qualifications of jurors, and it seeks—I shall be extremely brief about this—to make the qualifications the same as for other courts, and to make the penalties for misrepresentation or serving on a jury while knowingly being ineligible the same as they would be in other courts. It empowers the appropriate officer—that is, the coroner's officer—to question people who have been summoned to see whether they are qualified, and it defines the fines which are applicable for offences against the Bill.

Clause 2 refers to the extension of the rule-making power, which is concerned entirely in this case with the conditions under which persons may be excused jury service. Again, it seems entirely appropriate that the conditions of being excused for family or business reasons, or for any other appropriate reasons, should be as they are in the courts.

Clause 3 is mostly formal, but includes a provision, lest we should be thought to be infringing on the Royal prerogative, that excludes any inquest held by the coroner of the Queen's Household. As noble Lords will know, the coroner of the Queen's Household holds sway in the Royal Palaces and in this Palace of Westminster.

As I said, this is a relatively modest and uncontroversial Bill. It is part of a whole series of amendments which might be thought desirable to the system of the coroner's court. But, as it is, I believe that it deserves the support of all Members of your Lordships' House. My Lords. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I think that I shall be speaking for the whole House when I congratulate my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey on the skilful manner in which he has, for the first time, introduced a Bill in this House. Bills which are thought to be modest and uncontroversial very often turn out to be highly technical and extremely difficult. I remember on one occasion in the Appellate Committee someone submitting to Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest that the point being taken by his opponent was a merely technical point. Lord Morris said "Ah, yes. Very often, what you regard as a mere technical point your opponent has discovered to be an important point of principle." So there are pitfalls in the apparently uncontroversial.

This Bill has, as my noble friend said, received support from sources well qualified to express a view from experience and knowledge of these matters, and certainly it has our support. I confess however that I think this is a classic case for early consolidation. No fewer than four Acts of Parliament are referred to in the Bill. We start with the Coroners (Amendment) Act 1926. Then there comes a reference to the need to amend the Coroners Act 1887. Next there is the Juries Act 1974 and finally the Criminal Justice Act 1982. In relation to the Juries Act 1974, one reads: If a person serves on a jury knowing that he is ineligble for such service under Group A. B or C in Part I of Schedule 1 to that Act he shall he guilty of an offence". All that is very bewildering, and clearly it is somewhat meaningless in some ways—on a first reading, at any rate.

I wonder whether it is intended to explain to the person who is to be summoned to the jury what it is that he must be sure of before he serves. Group A is fairly simple. Members of the judiciary are ineligible for service. So also are other persons concerned with the administration of justice, the clergy, the mentally ill and a group of persons disqualified under Part II. This group includes those who have served any part of a sentence of imprisonment or detention for a term of three months or more.

This is not a very satisfactory way of proceeding with legislation. Therefore I greatly hope that after it has gone through the House the Bill will be an early candidate for consolidation. If the noble Lord, Lord Renton, were here I am sure we should hear complaints in far more eloquent terms than I have expressed about the need for consolidation. Subject to that point, we on this side of the House give our support to the Bill.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the very helpful speech he has made and for sponsoring what we all agree is a very useful Bill. As your Lordships have heard, the Bill will implement a recommendation made by the Brodrick Committee as long ago as 1971. It is a useful measure and one that is welcomed by the Government. One of the reasons which has traditionally been given for differentiating the coroner's jury from other juries has been that the coroner's jury may have to be called together in haste. That was indeed the case when at one time the only statute governing the matter was the Coroners Act 1887, Section 3 of which requires the coroner to have his jury summoned "as soon as practicable".

However, Section 13(2) of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 1926 enabled the coroner to open an inquest without a jury, subsequently adjourning it and summoning the jury rather more at leisure, so that there is nowadays no reason why that jury should not be selected in exactly the same way and by the same means as juries in other courts. That is what the Bill will achieve. Clause 1(1) of the Bill, by applying to coroners' jurors the same qualifications and disqualifications as already apply to jurors in other courts under the Juries Act 1974, will enable the selection of coroners' juries to be made at random from the electoral roll.

It is intended that if the Bill becomes law, administrative arrangements should be made for this to be done by the same machinery as in other courts. Selection of jurors will therefore no longer rest with the coroner's officer, as at present. The clause goes on to create a number of new offences—new, that is, in relation to coroners' jurors, since they and the associated fines are identical with those which the Juries Act 1974 applies to jurors in other courts. The clause also provides for the coroner to authorise a person to question, or cause to be questioned, any person summoned to serve on a coroner's jury to establish whether the person is in fact qualified to serve as a juror.

Clause 2 extends the rule-making power in Section 26 of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 1926 under which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor makes procedural rules in relation to inquests. This will enable those provisions of the Juries Act 1974 which relate to the excusal of jurors to be applied to coroners' jurors. Although these rules are made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, I understand that he is advised in this matter by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary who has a general responsibility for the law under which coroners work.

Clause 3 gives the short title of the Bill, and provides that if it becomes law it shall come into force on a day to be appointed by the Secretary of State. I have already referred to the administrative arrangements which have to be made for the selection of coroners' jurors by the machinery used in other courts. It would take a month or two to apply that machinery to coroners' juries, to make the new rules I have mentioned and to promulgate the arrangements to all those concerned. It is envisaged that the rules will come into force on the same day as that appointed by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Act to come into effect.

Clause 3 also removes from the Coroners Act 1887 a disqualification which has become redundant since it is now covered by the disqualifications in the Juries Act 1974, and provides that the Bill, if it becomes law, will not apply to any inquest begun before it comes into force, or to any inquest held by the coroner of Her Majesty the Queen's Household. The Bill applies only to England and Wales.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, asked about the possibility of a consolidation measure. I should like to follow this up with a letter to the noble and learned Lord on the matter. As I understand it, there is the possibility of introducing further legislation in due course, taking into account the recommendations of the Brodrick Committee before any further consolidation measures come into effect.

Until yesterday I had fully expected that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and I would not be so fully in accord over another rather larger Bill which was to have been before your Lordships' House this afternoon, so it is with much pleasure that on behalf of the Government I welcome this Bill whose aims the Government fully support.

Lord Morris

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask him, regarding the question put to him by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, concerning consolidation, whether the Government could possibly think up more excuses for avoiding consolidation than the one he has just promulgated, because the excuse which is always given is that there is more legislation in the pipeline and this is the wrong time to consolidate.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot fully respond to my noble friend's point about consolidation. I should like to seek advice and talk to him about it.

On Question, Bill read a second time.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution):

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I understand that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Motion agreed to; Bill read a third time.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. In doing so, I must express my appreciation to the Government and to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for the welcome they have given to the Bill. I am particularly gratfule to the noble Lord for making it clear that the Government will attempt to simplify the introduction to the Bill by simplifying the dates provided for in Clause 3. We are already indebted to the Government for another matter; namely, the institution of rules by the Attorney General for juries in other courts, whereby the procedures drawn up by the Royal Statistical Society for the random selection of jurors from the electoral roll have been brought into force by this Government. Since it is the last week of this Government, it would seem churlish not to say so before they vanish into oblivion.

My noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn Jones referred to the necessity for consolidation. Although I sympathise with him, it would be sad if we were to lose some of these splendid words which appear in the 1887 legislation. I should hate to lose from the statute book the words: good and lawful men as applied to coroners' juries. And since the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, referred to the Telecommunications Bill, I have a particular affection for another 1887 Act, which crops up in the Telecommunications Bill, and that is the Military Tramways Act. Again, that is something that I would be sad to see being lost from the statute book.

I wish to mention just one other point, which concerns the disqualification of jurors. Some noble Lords may have been puzzled by the proposal in this Bill to remove the disqualification of prison officers under certain circumstances. The reason for that is that there occurs in existing legislation for other types of juries a general disqualification in respect of prison officers. I felt it was necessary to refer to that in case this proposal was thought to be a step backwards rather than a step forward. These, however, are minor points. I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken and I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Bill passed.