§ LORD MORRIS rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the increasing tendency among coroners to moralise and lecture at the inquests over which they preside; to inquire whether 949 steps can be taken to curb this undesirable disposition by legislation; further and alternatively to ask His Majesty's Government if they would be prepared to consider the abolition of the ancient office of coroner.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will be within the recollection of your Lordships that about two years ago—in February, 1935, to be precise—the then Home Secretary, not of his own volition but in response to popular clamour, appointed a Departmental Committee to inquire into the law and practice relating to coroners. After a year's delay that Committee duly reported. I do not think that the Report will rank amongst the classics of its kind, but it did say this:
The tendency of some coroners to anim-advert upon the conduct of persons who have, perhaps quite incidentally, come under their notice has frequently been the subject of public comment. … We consider that the practice should be brought to an end. We do not, however, propose any amendment of the law at present on this point. We believe that the body of our recommendations, taken as a whole, will tend to put a stop to this practice.
That pious hope unfortunately has never been fulfilled. A day or two before I put my Question on the Order Paper a somewhat similar question was put in another place, and in reply the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary expressed a similar pious hope that coroners would have some regard to the recommendations of that Committee.
I hope to show your Lordships, as shortly as I possibly can, by means of two or three examples, that on the contrary coroners have paid no attention whatever to those recommendations but are getting worse and worse. We had, for example, a month or two ago the coroner for Greenwich publicly rebuking a minister of religion and lecturing him upon his supposed duty. That seems to me to be somewhat far removed from the proper ambit of a coroner's duty, which is solely to inquire into the cause of death. As recently as March 23 we have the coroner for Tunbridge Wells inquiring into the death of a six-week-old child and telling the mother of that child coram populo this:
This child was starved to death, but I am prepared to believe that you thought you were doing the right thing. I am prepared to put your complete failure down to ignorance. You and your husband are both young,
and I hope you make a better job of it next time.
I suggest that that is a piece of intolerable impertinence. He added:
Motherhood is a job which has to be learnt just the same as dress-making or bricklaying, and you cannot have a child and become an experienced mother at the same time.''
The learned coroner did not go on to explain how it was possible to be an experienced mother without having a child. I suggest to your Lordships that it is time that a stop was put to this kind of thing and that steps were taken, if necessary by legislation, to check this frightful desire on the part of coroners to apportion moral responsibility, an act which has nothing whatever to do with their proper function, which is solely to inquire into the cause of death.
The last instance of this sort of thing with which I will weary your Lordships occurred in Harrogate a short time ago, where the local coroner, Colonel Ware, was inquiring into the death of a man named Pearson. According to the Yorkshire Post the son of the dead man said this:
I would like to make it perfectly clear that my father was living a mode of life which he was not accustomed to.
As soon as the son of the dead man, who was giving evidence, said that, the coroner, according to the Yorkshire Post, turned to him and said:
I know all about that. You have the gentlemen of the Press here, and certain papers will thoroughly enjoy spreading your family troubles all over the country. If you will take my advice you will say nothing more.
Now I have something to say on that, and it is this. No doubt the unfortunate reporters who were so gratuitously insulted in that coroner's court could say nothing about it, because, if they did, a writ for libel would be immediately issued against the newspaper in question; but I am fortunately immune from such terrors in what I say to-day. What I have to say is this: that a man who can so abuse his position as to make remarks of that kind is quite unfit to occupy the post he does and the sooner he is removed the better.
§ But we have here a much larger question than that. In the short time that has elapsed since I put this Motion on the Paper, only a matter of ten days, we have had the Vosper case, which has been 951 ventilated ad nauseam in the newspapers. That, I am sure your Lordships will agree, would appear to be a case which might with advantage have been inquired into by the police or by the shipowners concerned, the owners of the French line, or by both in conjunction. But was it? Not a bit of it. The proper tribunal, according to our way of looking at things in this country, to inquire into that unfortunate affair is a body of Sussex yokels presided over by a coroner.
§ The coroner's court is admittedly very old in origin; it goes back, I believe, to the thirteenth century; but that seems to me hardly a reason why it should survive to-day. I suppose it originated in the days when a man was found dead in a ditch and it was necessary to find out how he got there. To-day we have an efficient police force and the coroner serves no useful purpose whatever. He is merely a nuisance and an expense: he costs the country, on an average, not less than £220,000 per annum. I suggest that that money might well be put to a better use. The only possible case, in my submission to your Lordships, where inquiry of any kind is called for is the case of suspected foul play, and such cases could, I think, well be left in the hands of the police. I understand that there is objection in some quarters to that being done, on the ground that the police might he corrupt or negligent. To that I think there are two answers. In the first place I do not think that fear is well-founded; I do not think it is well-founded now and I do not think that it would be in the future. Secondly, I think that, whether it be well-founded or not, a coroner's inquest is certainly a very indifferent safeguard against that danger, if it be a real one.
§ Now, leaving out cases of suspected foul play, there remain cases of obvious suicide, accidents due to motor vehicles and so forth. I suggest that deaths due to road accidents could very easily be inquired into by the Ministry of Transport, and that railway accidents could be inquired into—as, indeed, they are at present—by the concerns in question. In almost all cases of fatal accident to employed persons—take the mining industry, for example—these inquiries are now carried out by experts, and, as I have endeavoured to suggest to your 952 Lordships, the coroners' inquests do not throw any real light on the matter at all. If your Lordships have ever attended these inquests, as I have, for my sins, for the last ten years, you will realise that there is nobody in the world so ill-fitted to inquire into these highly technical matters—as they very often are—as a coroner's jury instructed by such a person a!, the average coroner. The thing is perfectly ludicrous and brings this country into contempt, just as do our divorce and licensing laws.
§ As I have said, I think the time has come when an end should be put to this business of coroners' inquests. He is nothing but a paid public Paul Pry. The whole thing is extremely un-English. It is absolutely and entirely unnecessary. The arguments in favour of the abolition of the coroner are manifest and manifold, and for the life of me I cannot think of a solitary reason for his retention. I have already referred to the Departmental Committee's Report. No one has come down here and told us what action, if any the Government intend to take upon it. I do not wish your Lordships to imagine that I claim any originality raising this matter this afternoon. I do not. It has been raised before many times. It was first raised in 1908, it was raised again in 1910, and we had this Commission of Inquiry as recently as 1935. To what end is all this expenditure of public money unless something is going to be done to do away with this complete anachronism? Some of your Lordships, myself included, took part in that very expensive but undoubtedly interesting travesty here last year when one of your Lordships was tried on a charge of manslaughter. Such a thing I do not suppose w ill ever happen again in our lifetime; but that, of course, was due entirely to the fact that the noble Lord in question was committed for trial here on a coroner's warrant, and I think it is only it to say that no magistrate would have committed the noble Lord for trial at all, since there was not a title of real evidence against him.
§ I think I have said enough to show your Lordships that there are at any rate innumerable reasons why coroners and coroners' inquests should be abolished, and that a further inquiry is called for. I do hope that this afternoon the Government spokesman will not give us the soft 953 words that the Home Secretary offered in another place some time ago, but will give us some real assurance that this matter is going to be looked into. It is long overdue, and I am convinced that there is a growing and considerable volume of opinion in. this country which favours the complete abolition of the coroner and his inquest.
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, I ought perhaps to say a word from this side on this matter. I confess I am encouraged by the remarks of the noble Lord opposite in regard to my future conduct, for I should hesitate to apply my revolutionary zeal to an ancient institution with the spirit that he has displayed this afternoon, but I would just like to say this word. The issue which he has raised is not an unimportant one. We expect public officials in this country to do their duty according to their obligations to the State. It is true that very few of us can resist the temptation to advise another person when he is in trouble, but we do not appoint public coroners for that purpose. They have certain specific legal duties to perform. When those duties have been performed the coroners have earned their wages, and they have done all that the nation expects from them. They are not expected to advise the court or jury, or the persons who appear before them as witnesses, in matters of religion and morals. The very worst moralist in the world is the amateur moralist, who knows practically nothing about it, and I think the noble Lord has made the point that coroners should stick to the job for which they are appointed, and leave these matters to the discretion of people whose knowledge upon them is superior to their Own.
THE MARQUESS OF DUFFERIN AND AVA.
My Lords, I find some little difficulty in replying to my noble friend who raised this matter, inasmuch as he made so many accusations that it was difficult for me with my pencil to keep track of them. For instance, he said that the coroner's court was un-English. Well of course we never call any habit or practice of this land English until it has been sanctified by custom for many years, but this does go back to 1276, and I think he will agree with me that this un-English custom has some small roots in our land. Further, I notice that he complained of the inquest in the Vosper case, and then 954 went on to say that only cases where some criminal act was suspected were suitable for inquiry, which seemed really to be a direct contradiction in argument.
I do not want to quibble, but I must say on behalf of the Home Office that the words of this Question as they stand are extremely misleading. They call the attention of His Majesty's Government to "the increasing tendency among coroners to moralise and lecture at the inquests over which they preside." So far as the Home Office are aware there is no increasing tendency on the part of coroners to act in that way. As your Lordships know, the Press and the public of this country are very vigilant at the moment with regard to the way in which coroners exercise their responsibility, and the Home Office would certainly have been aware if coroners had in fact tended to spread themselves more in the last few months than they had clone in the past. I would further say that the noble Lord really only argued from the cases which have come to his notice in the public Press, and of course the only cases which have come to his notice are cases where coroners have exceeded their responsibilities. He has given no credit at all for the number of inquests, tens of thousands of them, that are held in this country, in which the coroner has acted properly and rightly. There are 3,500 inquests held in London alone every year.
THE MARQUESS OF DUFFERIN AND AVA
It may be a waste of time and money, but so far as I know during the last year no complaint of any coroner's conduct at any of these inquests has been made. At the same time it is not for me to stand here and deny that on occasion the privilege of the Coroner's Court of Record may be abused. As the noble Lord opposite pointed out, it is a very common moral frailty to moralise over temptations to which we do not feel that we shall ever be subjected. I do not suppose my noble friend will ever be a coroner, and he therefore feels himself fully qualified to moralise over the failings of that class of man. There is, of course, a grave danger, and it is all the graver because sometimes these lectures and these moralisations are directed at people, or at institutions, who are not 955 able to answer back and may not even be present in the court, or who are not represented by people qualified to deal with the intricacies of the law. I need hardly say to my noble friend that the Home Office take the very gravest view of that sort of attack on people who are not represented, or on institutions which have not a counsel to represent them.
He has already referred to my right honourable friend's answer in another place, and he called that, I think, "soft words." They seemed to me rather hard words. They made it quite clear that in the view of the Government spitting on the grave of the departed does very little good. The grave can take care of its own, but the living must be considered. In our view, and in the view, of course, of Lord Wright's Committee, a living man has just as much right to have his reputation protected as his liberty, and in our view it is just as wrong to take away a man's reputation without due process of law as it is to take away his liberty. Of course, that point, as my noble friend is aware, was the occasion of a circular issued by the Home Office in 1927 to all coroners, in which the Secretary of State made it clear that, as he had been pressed to make a rule on the subject,he may say that where it is possible to secure the attendance of a person whose conduct appears to be in question, it is desirable that his presence should be secured before censure is passed, and that he should be afforded a reasonable opportunity of making any relevant explanation.It need hardly be added that there is special need for care, before publicly making adverse comments, if the person concerned is likely to suffer thereby in his profession or calling.956 That circular was followed by the recommendations of Lord Wright's Committee to which my noble friend has referred. The recommendations of that Committee were naturally brought to the notice of all coroners, and I firmly believe that the mere publication of that Report has done much to curb the habit to which my noble friend objects.
So far as legislation is concerned—my noble friend asked for legislation—I I think we must take a rather broader view than he does. As he says, Lord Wright's Committee expressly said that on this particular point no legislation was required. They expected that the legislation that might follow from their Report in regard to the Disciplinary Committee and the Rules Committee would be sufficient to attain their object, and I can assure my noble friend that, although the programme of legislation is very full and I cannot possibly offer him any concrete promise, at the same time when opportunity offers the suggestions of that Committee will probably be the subject of future legislation. When that happens I feel perfectly certain that all the evils of which he complains will be done away with. I do not think there is any need for me to say anything more on this matter. The Government agree with my noble friend in so far as they deprecate coroners going outside their proper function. At the same time they cannot possibly contemplate, with the Wright Committee, which was very definite on this point, the abolition of this ancient office.
§ House adjourned at seventeen minutes before five o'clock.