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Coroners' Bill

Volume 117: debated on Wednesday 28 May 1851

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Order for Second Reading read.

in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said that it was identical with the Bill of last year, the principle of which had received the sanction of the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary and a large number of the Members of that House. The principle of the Bill was the payment of coroners by fixed salaries, instead of by fees as at present. There was a popular feeling that coroners' inquests were unnecessary; but he thought the House had evidence before it to show that some jurisdiction of the kind exercised by coroners was essentially requisite. The Amendment which the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Fitzroy) meant to propose, would have the effect of substituting some other jurisdiction for that which now existed; in other words, the hon. Member meant to transfer that jurisdiction to the magistrates. To such a course he (Lord Harry Vane) should have the greatest possible objection, for he thought it would be in the highest degree injurious to the public interests involved in this question. At the same time he was desirous of putting an end to the squabbles which frequently occurred between coroners and magistrates, and he thought that that object would be in a great measure attained by remunerating coroners by fixed salaries instead of fees, as contemplated by this Bill. In Cumberland, Staffordshire, and Norfolk, disputes had arisen between coroners and the magistrates, in consequence of the disallowance of the coroners' fees for holding inquests in cases of accidental death; and in the county of Devon the magistrates had come to a resolution, that whenever the verdict of the coroner's jury in that county was "Died by the visitation of God," they should disallow the fees of the coroner. Under these circumstances, therefore, it had become highly necessary for the House to consider whether or not some general principle could not be laid down to meet the evil; and, he repeated, he thought the method of remunerating coroners by fixed salaries would have that effect. Those salaries could be fixed on an average estimate of the foes at present received by the coroners of each particular district. In the report of the Committee which was appointed in 1840 to inquire into the case of the Middlesex coroners, hon. Members would find ample information on this subject; and with that report already before them, he thought it highly inexpedient that the question should be referred to a Select Committee, as was proposed by the hon. Member for Lewes.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

would move, by way of amendment, that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the state of the law and practice as regarded coroners' inquests, and particularly whether it would be of advantage to transfer the whole or any portion of the duties now discharged by the coroners to any other persons. He was of opinion that the mode proposed by the noble Lord (Lord Harry Vane), of remunerating coroners by fixed salaries instead of by foes, would not tend to advance the ends of justice. The very large amount of charge which had been thrown on the ratepayers of Middlesex particularly, in consequence of the immense number of coroners' inquests which were held from time to time within the county, had induced the ratepayers to memorialise the magistrates on the subject. An immense increase had taken place in the charge for holding inquests in the county of Middlesex during the twenty years between 1828 and 1848. In 1828 the sum amounted to 1,284l., and in 1848 it had increased to 7,557l. This increase, he was aware, had been very much caused by an order of the Poor Law Commissioners, issued in 1835, and by the provisions of an Act of Parliament which raised the fees of the coroner from 1l. to 1l. 6s. 8d. In 1828, the number of inquests held in the western division of the county of Middlesex was 469, and in the eastern division, 415; and in 1848 the number in the western division was 1,067, and in the eastern division 1,027, showing a very considerable increase within that period. That increase could not be accounted for by the average increase of the population; for whilst the population in the county had increased at the rate of 30 per cent, the coroners' inquests had increased at the rate of 120 per cent. In Westminster, however, he found matters somewhat different; for there the increase was only from 250, in 1828, to 326, in 1848, being an increase of 30 per cent—an amount somewhat corresponding to the increase in the population, while that which had taken place in Middlesex: went far beyond it. The question before the House lay, as he thought, within a very short compass. After the decision given in the Court of Queen's Bench, in the case. The Queen v. the Justices of Carmarthen, the magistrates took that decision as a definition of their duty, and determined to put some check on the enormous increase in the number of coroners' inquests. He (Mr. Fitzroy) submitted there was something radically wrong in the machinery by which the coroners' inquisition was set to work. If that wrong were remedied, an enormous saving to the ratepayers would be the result. When they came to investigate the cause of the enormous expense to the ratepayers of holding coroners' inquests, they would find it lay in a very small compass. By the direct pecuniary interest which was held out at present to the parish constable to afford information to the coroner of sudden or violent deaths, in the shape of the fees which that functionary received for summoning juries, the number of coroners' inquests was unnecessarily augmented; and he (Mr. Fitzroy) submitted that the parish constable should be duly remunerated for all the services performed in his official capacity, so as to deprive him of all inducement to step out of his proper province to give information to coroners. Another important question arose as to the class of deaths which were made the subjects of the coroners' inquisition. Was there any necessity for inquests in criminal cases, where the police carried on the inquiry before the magistrates, and where the concurrent jurisdiction only tended to greatly impede the course of justice, and to put the county to the expense of three different inquiries? The experience of the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) would not surely lead him to place much stress on the importance of these inquiries before coroners in criminal cases. In the year 1849, out of 2,674 inquests held in the county of Middlesex, there were only thirty-seven criminating verdicts. In cases of suicide an investigation before the coroner might be desirable and important; but the coroners for the county of Middlesex held that in all cases of non-natural death their services were requisite. But that did not appear to be the opinion of some of the best legal authorities. Mr. Cowling had given it as his opinion to the magistrates of Middlesex, that he did not think the circumstance of a death being non-natural, was a safe test for holding an inquest, for it was not easily defined what constituted a non-natural death. Why should not the investigations now conducted by the coroner be carried on as others were, sometimes of much graver import, by magistrates, without the assistance of a jury? He was confirmed in that view by the opinion of Mr. Yardley, the police magistrate, and of Mr. Bedford, one of the coroners for Middlesex; and he believed the feeling of the House would also go along with him. In Scotland there were no coroners' inquests, and no complaints were heard from that country on the subject. He (Mr. Fitzroy) had no objection to see the dignity of the coroners' office upheld as it formerly was, and he would be glad to see the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) holding it in the dignified manner of former days—that is, without salary—but in the meantime, believing that inquiry would be advisable, he would ask the House to agree to his Amendment.

Amendment proposed—

"To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'a Select Committee be appointed to consider the state of the Law and Practice as regards the taking of Inquisitions in cases of Deaths, and the appointment and remuneration of the officers employed therein, and whether it is expedient that any and what alterations should be made in any of such matters,' instead thereof."

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

seconded the Motion. He considered it desirable that coroners and all other public servants should be paid by salary instead of by fees, as the latter practice tended to swell unnecessarily the county expenditure. He supported the Amendment, considering the subject required further investigation before they legislated upon it.

said, nothing could be more desirable than to inquire into all the points the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Fitzroy) had referred to, but he objected to found so wide a superstructure upon so narrow a basis. The hon. Gentleman ought to have done cither of two things. He should have made a substantive proposition to refer all these matters to the consideration of a Select Committee, or he should have introduced a Bill of his own, instead of moving that this Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. The Bill was not got up for the benefit of coroners, but he thought that the payment of those functionaries by salaries would render them more independent in the discharge of very important duties. Looking at the gradual mode in which the fees allowed to coroners were increased, he considered, in point of money, the coroners would be losers by the adoption of payment by salaries. As guardians of the public purse, then, he was in favour of the proposed Bill; and it would be a far better plan for the House to assent to it, and also to assent to the appointment of a Select Committee.

said, that a similar Bill to this was read a second time last year on the distinct understanding that it should not proceed further during that Session, especially after the very strong arguments which had been urged against its practical operation. Now, he was much in favour of the principle of payment by salaries, which he considered a sound principle; but the House should consider whether they had sufficient securities that those salaries would be in proportion to the duties discharged; and they should also take due care that they had sufficient securities for the due performance of those duties. The Bill before them did not provide for either of these objects. Under the existing law the magistrates had the power of deciding what inquests were duly held, and different rules were laid down in different counties. In some, the coroners had been deprived of fair and adequate remuneration, and in other cases coroners had received very large fees for performing very little duty. Now the present Bill proposed to stereotype that injustice by declaring that the present emoluments should be convert- ed into salaries. It would be unwise to affirm the principle of this Bill without inquiry into the mode of remuneration to coroners, and also into the mode of their appointment. He did not think, however, that the inquiry ought to extend to the transfer of their duties to any other officer, nor could he agree in the opinion that the office of coroner should be abolished altogether. Upon these grounds he felt called on to support the Amendment.

said, that the country was indebted to coroners for preventing many dreadful outrages which had been committed from passing without inquiry. It was very desirable that the office of coroner should be preserved nearly as much as possible in its present shape. He was opposed to the Amendment, because he thought a Select Committee was entirely unnecessary. The subject had been investigated over and over again. In 1840 it had been referred to a Select Committee, and then received an ample and a full consideration. He was opposed to the present passionate feeling which had evinced itself against trial by jury, which he considered one of the dearest privileges of this nation. The appointment of a Select Committee now, would only have the effect of deferring and swamping the Bill; and, if the Committee was to make a sweeping inquiry into the whole institution of coroners, it would certainly put off the measure for many a Session to come.

said, it was the peculiar habit of the remarkably strong Government which existed at present to aid its friends whenever it had an opportunity. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had expressed his approval of the principle of the Bill last year; and now, because a constant, faithful, and determined opponent of the Government to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged, brought forward a Motion opposed to that principle, the right hon. Gentleman, consistently with the practice of the Whig Administration, yielded to the views of his enemy, and forsook his own principle in order to do injustice to his friends. The right hon. Gentleman was the Minister of Justice, and the coroners had a right to expect support from him in the discharge of their functions. The functions of coroners were important; and if they could not be allowed to act independently, the sooner the office was abolished the better, as a public nuisance, which one of the county magistrates, a particular friend of the hon. Member who moved the Amendment, had declared it to be. The coroners did not shun inquiry; on the contrary they courted it. They could not inquire too much to satisfy them. They wished to dispel the cloud of ignorance and misapprehension which surrounded them. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewes (Mr. Fitzroy) was anxious that he (Mr. Wakley) should have no salary as coroner. Now, the hon. Member himself was scarcely competent to speak on that point, for he once had had a salary for doing nothing; and he (Mr. Wakley) very much doubted if the hon. Gentleman, when he was appointed a Lord of the Admiralty, knew the main topmast from the bowsprit. He was, however, fully persuaded that if they made the coroner independent, he would exercise his functions more beneficially for the public. Coroners were often brought into collision with magistrates. So late as the year 1822, prisoners could not die in gaols without the summoning of the coroner; and the persons who served upon the juries consisted of the prisoners of the gaol, because their forefathers considered that such an institution would have the effect of giving protection to the inmates against tyranny or oppression. He know that there was an impression that he was holding a much larger number of inquests in his district than Mr. Bedford was doing in the city. Now, that was not the fact; Mr. Bedford was holding one inquest to every 566 persons in the population, while he was only holding one to every 800. Mr. Bedford was absolutely beating him by 20 per cent; but he did not think that gentleman was holding too many inquests; on the contrary, he believed that he held too few. In many instances magistrates had decided that inquests held in cases of suicide were unnecessary, as also in cases of accidents in mines and deaths by burning. Under the present system wherever there was a disagreeable verdict there was always difficulty in getting payment of the necessary expenses allowed. The House would hardly credit the variety of cases where the magistrates disallowed expenses, and this merely at their own pleasure and choice, without acting upon any fixed rule or principle. In one case, where a child that had been left in a a room by itself and had caught fire, to extinguish which the child had been plunged into water, although the coroner was summoned sixteen miles out of London to hold an inquest, the magistrates disallowed the expenses. His (Mr. Wakley's) expenses were less than those of his predecessor, Mr. Stirling. That gentleman was allowed to charge full mileage, hut it had been intimated to him that lie was to discontinue the practice. Anticipating the opposition that he would meet, lie took Mr. Stirling's clerk into his office) and desired him to make no change in the practice from what it was in Mr. Stirling's time; but notwithstanding these efforts he could give no satisfaction. The magistrates had what was called a finance committee—it was an open committee— the coroner was called before it, questioned as to the items, and all further information given as to the nature of particular cases. When he retired, the expenses were disallowed in the most arbitrary manner, without any guide or rule being laid down for the decision. The next day four or five or six members more, who were not in attendance the day before, and were ignorant of the reasons which actuated the decisions of the day before, attended, and the consequence was the utmost variety of decisions. If any persons were hostile to the coroner, it was perfectly easy to disallow a large portion of his expenses. He declared that if he had been aware of the ordeal through which he would have had to pass, he would never have undertaken the office of coroner; nor would he advise any relative of his, or any one in whom be had an interest, to accept it. The constable who gave information to the coroner was allowed his fee, while the coroner was disallowed it. He would mention a case to the House, instances of which frequently happened. At Chelsea, a man was found insensible in his bed; information was brought to him of the fact. As there were no circumstances to justify suspicion that he died of a violent death, he refused to hold an inquest. Subsequently he received a requisition from two ratepayers stating that there wore circumstances to justify suspicion. He went down, and after a post mortem examination, it was discovered that the gentleman had died by poison. Cases of this description constantly occurred. He trusted, notwithstanding the course adopted by the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department, that the House would adopt the principle of the Bill by a large majority.

said, that everything which the hon. Member (Mr. Wakley) had urged, convinced him of the necessity of referring the Bill to the con- sideration of a Select Committee. He thought the present system faulty. The initiative in an inquest was taken by the parish beadle or constable, who was responsible to no one, and was paid by mileage. It therefore was his interest to get up as many inquests as he could. He could not subscribe to the doctrine that coroners were the best and ought to be the sole judges of the propriety of holding inquests; for he remembered that the hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House once wished to hold an inquest on all still-born children. That would have been an indelicate investigation. Instances had come under his notice where coroners held inquests in cases of fire, and their bills and expenses had been disallowed by the magistrates, and the Judges had expressed their disapproval of them. From his own experience, which was considerable, of coroners' accounts, and of the whole working of the system, he was strongly in favour of sending the whole subject before a Select Committee to examine and report upon it.

dissented from the reflections cast by the hon. Member for Finsbury on the Government and magistracy of the country. The question was simply this—whether the House would now decide upon the principle of the Bill, or would they adopt the recommendation of referring the whole question to a Select Committee. He contended that no possible advantage could arise from referring it to a Committee; and that the House was quite as competent now to decide the question of fees or salaries as any Committee could possibly be. Nobody doubted the fact that there might have been cases in which unnecessary inquests were held; but then occasionally coroners had not held inquests which were necessary. He thought the objection to the payment of coroners by fees invalid. If they were paid by salaries they would become idle, whereas if they were paid by fees their vigilance would be manifested.

said, that the hon. Member for Finsbury treated the subject as if he supposed a desire prevailed to get rid of the office of coroner. On that point, however, he was entirely mistaken. The coroner's was an ancient office—more ancient than that of justice of the peace. It was, likewise, a most useful office, and the magistrates were anxious that it should be made efficient for the public service, as well as remunerative to the individual discharging its duties. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) said he regretted very muck he had accepted the office. Well, the hon. Gentleman had his remedy. The fact was, that resignations, though often talked of by gentlemen in office, very seldom occurred. The question was, were the public satisfied with the present state of the office of coroner, and were the coroners themselves satisfied with it? The public were not satisfied. They were dissatisfied with the amount of money that was paid, not on account of the sum that was actually given; but they were not satisfied that the money was always fairly earned. If they could satisfy the public that the money was fairly earned, and that the inquests had been fairly held, and that cause existed for such inquiries, the public were entirely satisfied with the coroner; but when they heard the remarks made by magistrates, and found that they occasionally, in discharge of their duty, struck out the allowances to coroners, the public got an impression on their minds that inquests were often held unnecessarily. When they saw the jury's verdict of "accidental death," or "died by the visitation of God," it was natural for them to think that many of these inquests ought not to have been held. He (Mr. E. B. Denison) was now trying merely to describe the impressions that had been made on the public mind, and to show that an opinion prevailed that many inquests were unnecessarily held. When coroners' accounts had been presented before him, as a magistrate, he confessed he frequently had not the means of ascertaining whether the inquests were property held or not. The magistrates in such cases had a very painful duty to perform. It was impossible for them to go into all those inquests, and they were unwilling in many instances to strike out the allowance sought to be obtained, because they put confidence in the coroner. It was proposed by this Bill that they should pay the coroners by salaries; but there were other more important matters that should in the first place be taken into consideration; and if they did not go into an investigation of all those matters, but satisfied themselves with adopting the proposition for payment by salary, they would at once come to a conclusion on the point that should be reserved for the very last. They should first see what business was to be performed, and then decide whether or not the coroner was to be paid by salary. If they did pay them by salary, they must have a graduated scale in proportion to the number of inquests held, for that was the only security they could have for the due performance of the duty. It would be difficult to decide, according to the plan proposed by this Bill, whether the coroner had performed his duty or not. Who were to be the jury and judge to decide it? [Mr. AGLIONBY: The county courts.] If they raised that question before those tribunals, they would have to go through the inquest over again. He was of opinion that the whole subject ought to be investigated by a Select Committee. He admitted the importance of it, and that inquiry ought to be immediately made in consequence of the dissatisfaction existing on the part of coroners, of magistrates, and of the public.

stated that his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. Wakley) informed him that out of 7,000 inquests he had held, only thirty had been disallowed. He (Mr. Williams) had heard that the highest compliments were paid the hon. Member by the magistrates, not only with regard to the charges, but also with regard to the necessity of holding inquests. He ventured to say that the office of coroner was held in as much veneration as any of the ancient offices, and, elected as they were generally by the votes of the county freeholders, he did not see any necessity for sending before a Select Committee the question of withdrawing and transferring the duties of coroners to some other persons. He hoped the House would not sanction such an alteration, for a proposition more unpopular to the people out of doors could not be submitted. The only question was, whether coroners should be paid by salary, or continue to be paid by fees. He believed the payment by salary was the best mode —that great improvement in the working of the system would be thereby effected, and therefore he should support the second reading of the Bill.

believed that no one wished to disparage the office of coroner, for those who were acquainted with the manufacturing districts where burial societies existed were convinced that the number of inquests were not too many. A circumstance was related to him by an hon. Friend not then in the House, the Chairman of the Manchester Quarter Sessions, of a person, by means of a coroner's inquest, having subsequently been tried and executed for the murder of her son; and it turned out she had committed three or four murders before, in which cases no inquest was held. That showed to his (Mr. Evans's mind that there were not inquests enough held. There was a mutual check now existing between the coroners and the magistrates. The magistrates were anxious to preserve the public money from useless expenditure, and the coroners naturally wished to get as much as they could, by which the public were protected. The principle of payment by salary was bad. It had been tried in the Court of Chancery. The Masters were formerly induced to use diligence by the payment of expedition money; but since the alteration they would attend only during office hours, and business was neglected. In every case payment by salary had failed to obtain greater diligence on the part of the officers. On the grounds of the importance of the office of coroner, and the dangerous character of the suggestions made by the Bill, he thought it ought to be referred to a Select Committee.

thought it his duty to vote for the second reading of the Bill; but, as far as he was able to follow the debate, it did not appear that the two parties who were about to divide were really at issue. The question was, would the House allow the Bill to go to a second reading? The answer of his hon. Friend near him (Mr. Fitzroy) was, "No; he did not like to have the Bill read a second time; he would rather have a Committee on the whole subject." If a Committee on the whole subject was necessary, by all means have it. But his impression was, that if they passed this Bill, the existence of complaints would soon cease, and general inquiries would not be necessary. It was now a subject of general complaint throughout the country that coroners' inquests were increasing, and unnecessary inquests were held. He meant no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Wakley) and those who acted as coroners in England; but he believed that unnecessary inquests were held, and that a very great temptation to holding unnecessary inquests was the payment by fees. He was glad to see the principle of payment by salary adopted. Adopting that principle, only two points remained to be guarded against. One was met by the second clause, as to the proper regulation of the salary; and he submitted that that clause might be improved. The other, as to compelling coroners to hold inquests where inquests were necessary, was met by the sixth clause, which might also be amended. But with regard to those points, he saw no insuperable difficulties. The hon. Member for the West Riding (Mr. E. B. Denison) said, there was much more to be investigated as to the conduct of these officers. He (Sir John Pakington) confessed that he had heard no complaint against these officers, except the general complaint, that they had a direct pecuniary interest in holding unnecessary inquests. As to any apprehension that by payment by salary necessary inquests would not be held, he entertained no fear. It was well known in a locality when a person died from violence or otherwise; and there could be no reasonable doubt that inquests, when necessary, would be held; but by all means have an enactment to guard against that danger; and with that proviso he believed great practical improvement would be effected by passing that Bill. If inquiry were necessary, by all means have it, but do not refuse to adopt the principle of paying by salary, by which he was convinced public economy would be promoted, and existing abuses removed.

said, he and his hon. Friend (Mr. Fitzroy) were perfectly ready to admit of any alterations which should best meet the objection, that the Bill would encourage negligence on the part of coroners. As to another point, it had been stated by the right hon. the Secretary of State for the Home Department on a former occasion, that great injustice would accrue to certain coroners by commuting their fees to an average of five years. He and his hon. Friend had endeavoured to meet that by introducing words giving magistrates a certain discretion, and not absolutely binding them down to that average; but, as a matter of detail, they would be happy to admit of any alteration which should place all the coroners in the United Kingdom on a more equal footing. At present he proposed to postpone the second reading to a future day, that the hon. Mover of the Amendment (Mr. Fitzroy) might name his Committee.

would not pledge himself either to the principle of salary or that of fees, until he saw the report of the Committee.

admitted that the law as to coroners required considerable revi- sion and correction. In Ireland, he feared it was no exaggeration to say that the number of deaths from want of food within the walls of the workhouses exceeded 1,000 per week. No inquests were held, because those who had the government of the workhouse did not wish, as they sometimes stated, to put the union to the expense, and they did not wish to expose the malpractices that occurred, lest they should be censured by the public. He hoped the Select Committee would never assent to giving a fixed salary to coroners, but would retain the present system of payment up to a certain maximum. At all events, it ought to be imperative on the governors of all gaols, workhouses, and establishments where human life was destroyed for want of the common necessaries of life, to give notice to the coroner to attend, and if he did not attend, that he should not be entitled to any fees whatever. He did not like to arm the magistrates with the power of dealing with the salary of the coroner at all, as it would be opening an avenue to favouritism, corruption, and malpractices, which would produce more evils than were produced by the present law, even with all its defects.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Select Committee appointed.