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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Nov 1961

Vol. 192 No. 3

Coroners Bill, 1961—Second Stage.

I move: That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

This is a consolidation measure which replaces, with amendments, the existing statute law on coroners. One of the Acts being repealed dates from the reign of Edward I. The office of coroner is therefore one of great antiquity and it is appropriate that, before commencing to deal with the various provisions in the Bill, I should indicate briefly how the coroner's office has become what it is to-day.

The primary task of the mediaeval coroner was to keep a record of the pleas of the Crown, so that royal dues should not be overlooked but, because violent deaths might bring revenue to the Crown in many ways, one of the coroner's most important duties was to inquire into unnatural deaths. Whatever caused a death was forfeit to the Crown, and the chattels of those who were convicted of felony or who committed suicide were likewise forfeit.

It is the usual practice to hand round a memorandum.

I have nothing to say to that.

Is there not a regulation of the House that documents are not to be read?

When a Minister is making an important statement, he is allowed to read his brief.

And when there is a reading from a brief, it is generally the habit to circulate the brief.

I have nothing to say to that. That is a matter for the Department of the Minister.

Treasure trove was then of considerable importance as a source of Crown revenue. Before Magna Carta, the coroner had authority not only to hold an inquest but also to proceed to trial and judgment. The power of proceeding to trial and judgment was taken away by that statute.

Gradually, with changing conditions, the importance of the coroner's fiscal duties declined and the holding of inquests on unnatural deaths became for all practical purposes his only function. During the 19th century, the establishment of regular police forces provided new and efficient machinery for the investigation of suspicious deaths. The present method of prosecuting offenders, that is, investigation by the police followed by the taking of depositions before a magistrate to see if a prima facie case has been made out, dates from the middle of that century. The 1927 Act, which was on the lines of a statute passed in Britain in 1926, recognised the fact that under modern conditions the functions of the coroner are no longer mainly directed to criminal investigation in that it obliged the coroner, in the absence of reason to the contrary, to adjourn an inquest where a person had been charged with murder, manslaughter or infanticide. This provision relieved the coroner of the investigation of most cases of suspected murder or manslaughter. The 1927 Act also gave coroners power to dispense with a formal inquest in certain cases of sudden death where a post-mortem examination revealed the cause of death. A large reduction in the number of inquests followed. The Act also enabled a coroner to hold inquests without a jury, except in certain specified cases.

Accordingly, the scope of a coroner's duties has declined considerably and it is not surprising that there have been suggestions that the office should be abolished altogether. In favour of abolition it can be said that we now have a centralised police force which investigates all suspicious deaths and that there is no need for an inquest except perhaps in the case of some major disaster or in other circumstances in which the public interest would require a detailed inquiry to be held. Such inquiry, however, would be more proper to a formal tribunal of inquiry than to a coroner's inquest. On the other hand, there is a great deal of public confidence in the office of coroner. There can be no doubt of the value of an inquest in ensuring that prompt publicity is given to the circumstances of sudden or suspicious deaths and putting an end to exaggerated or unfounded rumours concerning a death.

Inquests are particularly useful as a means of allaying public disquiet where the police find on investigation that there is no evidence, or insufficient evidence, to justify criminal proceedings. The cost of the office is not considerable. The total salaries do not exceed £13,000 and the saving on abolition would be less than this as the functions of coroners would have to be performed to a greater or lesser extent by other persons. Abolition of the office would involve payment of compensation to existing coroners. The Government have considered the question of abolition but have come to the conclusion that it would be in the public interest to retain the office of coroner.

Another question that may occur to Deputies is whether we should follow the lead given by Northern Ireland in their Act of 1959 and confine future appointments to members of the legal profession. Of our 52 coroners, 19 are members of that profession and the remaining 33 are doctors. Experience has shown, however, that, on the whole, the present arrangement works satisfactorily and I consider that such a change would not be justified, particularly when the Bill proposes—in Section 30—to prohibit the consideration or investigation of questions of civil or criminal liability at an inquest. The Bill provides specifically that every person appointed as coroner, whether he be a solicitor or barrister or doctor, must in future have five years' professional experience.

Turning to the various provisions in the Bill, I do not wish to weary the House with a detailed explanation or justification of all the minor changes being made in the law and I propose to refer merely to a number of the more important provisions. The Bill is, I think, in the nature of a "committee" Bill, but if there are any points on which Deputies require further information I shall endeavour to deal with them when concluding.

The first provision to be noticed is Section 11 which imposes a maximum age limit of 70 years for future appointees to the office of coroner. At present, coroners hold office for life, but coroners have to be fairly active to carry out their duties properly, and it seems only fair that there should be a reasonable age for retirement prescribed for persons who take up duty as coroners in the future. As coroners have no entitlement to pension it would not be right to apply an age limit to coroners now serving.

The next provision of importance is that contained in subsection (4) of Section 18. This imposes a statutory duty on doctors, registrars of deaths, funeral undertakers, occupiers of houses or persons in charge of institutions to notify the coroner immediately in cases where they have reason to believe that a death has taken place by violence or through negligence or from any cause other than natural illness for which the deceased had been seen and treated by a doctor within one month before his death, or in such circumstances as may require investigation. Failure to discharge this statutory duty is being made an offence punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding £20. A provision of this kind was introduced into Northern Ireland law in 1959.

The object of the section is to ensure that, so far as is possible, all questionable deaths are brought to the notice of the coroner but it will have the incidental advantage of securing an improvement in the number of deaths registered and in the proportion of these deaths which are medically certified. At present there is a very high proportion of uncertified deaths, particularly in the age group 70 and over. In 1959, the percentage of uncertified deaths was as high as 6.1%, whereas the corresponding figure for Northern Ireland was less than 1%. In Leitrim, for example, there were in that year 120 uncertified deaths out of a total of 610 deaths registered. In the adjoining county of Fermanagh, only 9 deaths were uncertified out of a total of 649. When a death has been reported to the coroner under the provisions of Section 18 Subsection (4) it will be a matter for him to decide what action he should take. He may decide that no inquest is necessary or he may direct that a post-mortem examination be made, on the result of which he will decide whether or not to hold an inquest.

The next new provision is contained in Section 24, and authorises the Attorney General to direct that an inquest be held in any case where he has reason to believe that a person has died in circumstances which make the holding of an inquest advisable. The Attorney General stands in a special relationship to the general public and has a statutory duty of asserting and protecting public rights. For this reason it is considered that it is in the public interest that he should have the power proposed to be conferred on him by this section. A similar provision was introduced into Northern Ireland Law in 1959.

A change in the law is being made in Section 27, which provides that a coroner need not view the body where it has been viewed by a member of the Garda Síochána who gives evidence to that effect at the inquest or where it has previously been viewed by a coroner or deputy coroner. The necessity for a view of the body is one of the curiosities of coroner's law and can be explained only in terms of the historical evolution of the duties of coroners. An inquest without a view is wholly void. A British Departmental Committee on Coroners, which reported in 1936, recommended that the coroner should have a discretion to dispense with a view of the body and this change was introduced into Northern Ireland law in 1959. The provision in Section 27 does not go quite as far as this and follows the procedure adopted during the Emergency and which appears to have worked satisfactorily.

Sections 30 and 31 are aimed at confining the investigation at an inquest to ascertaining who the deceased was and how, when and where he came by his death. Section 30 prohibits consideration or investigation of civil and criminal liability at an inquest. Section 31 prohibits verdicts or riders of censure and exoneration but there is a saver for recommendations of a general character designed to prevent further fatalities, for instance, a rider recommending the removal of a dangerous bend from a road, with a view to reducing deaths in road accidents.

I think it will be generally agreed that questions of civil or criminal liability should be left to be decided by the appropriate tribunals, that is to say, the courts established by the Constitution. Any consideration of these questions at a coroner's inquest is unlikely to be as properly done as it would be in the ordinary courts, with the result that the proceedings at the inquest may constitute an embarrassment in any subsequent civil or criminal proceedings. So far as questions of criminal liability are concerned, the provision in Section 25 obliging a coroner to adjourn an inquest where he is informed by the police that criminal proceedings are being considered, should, in any event, substantially reduce the possibility of overlapping between proceedings at inquests and those in the criminal courts.

Section 35 subsection (2) introduces a fresh disqualification on a coroner who is a member of the legal profession. It disqualifies him from holding an inquest or inquiring into a death where he has drawn up, or assisted in drawing up, the deceased's will and also benefits under it. There has been a provision in the law since 1881 prohibiting a medical coroner from holding an inquest where he has attended the deceased professionally within one month before the death, and it seems equally reasonable to avoid the conflict between duty and interest that might appear to arise where a "legal" coroner had drawn up the deceased's will and was a beneficiary under it. Another disqualification on a "legal" coroner is contained in Section 53 which prohibits him from acting in proceedings arising out of any matter which may have come before him as coroner. It is not the intention that this provision should debar a solicitor from taking out probate or letters of administration, but it would prevent him from taking part in other civil or criminal proceedings. Both of these disqualifications are already law in Northern Ireland.

Another provision that should be noticed is Section 44, which deals with the situation where a jury fails to agree. I am sure that the case will be made that there should be a unanimous verdict by a coroner's jury, as there has to be in Northern Ireland, but since 1927 the law has been that the verdict of the majority must be accepted provided the minority does not exceed two. The Bill is going a little further than this in providing that the verdict of a simple majority will be sufficient. The law will still be, therefore, that where there are six jurors the view of four jurors will prevail; but where there are twelve, the view of seven of the twelve—not ten, as at present—will decide the issue. Now that the coroner's inquest is primarily a fact-finding investigation, it seems reasonable to modify the provisions about majority verdicts in the way proposed.

Another of the curious provisions in coroner's law, as it may appear to many Deputies, is that authorising a coroner to direct that a body may be deposited in a publichouse pending inquest. My predecessors and I have received, over the years, strong representations from members of the licensed trade who regard this provision as objectionable and indefensible in present-day conditions. The Intoxicating Liquor Commission of 1957 were also opposed to it. Section 46 proposes to replace the provision with one authorising the coroner to direct that the body be removed into a convenient mortuary or morgue or other suitable place. I have no hesitation in saying that I do not regard a publichouse as a "suitable place" and I have no doubt that no coroner will regard it as suitable or, if he does, that the publican concerned will not agree with him. Although some inconvenience may be caused, especially in remote areas, I have no doubt that it will be the lesser of two evils.

Because of the repeal of the statute of Edward I, it became necessary to consider whether the jurisdiction coroners now have to enquire into treasure trove should be preserved. Treasure trove may be defined as any gold or silver coin, plate or bullion found concealed in a house, or in the earth, or in a private place, and it belongs to the State. In olden times it was a considerable source of revenue but nowadays it is only of importance from an historical, antiquarian or archaelogical point of view.

In that regard, I should like to explain to Deputies that the State is anxious that anything found which may be of antiquarian value should be immediately handed up for examination and possible preservation. To achieve that object, the State is always prepared to pay to a finder the full value of any treasure trove which an individual may come across. It is important that that should be known because it is desirable that people who find things which may have an antiquarian value should immediately hand them over to the authorities.

So far as I have been able to ascertain, no coroner has had an inquest on treasure trove for very many years, but if the necessity arose, a determination by a coroner's jury would be less expensive than a determination by a court. The jurisdiction has been preserved in Britain and in Northern Ireland and it has been decided that, on balance, it would be desirable not to discontinue this particular jurisdiction.

Finally, I come to Sections 57 and 58, which have an important practical significance. These sections empower the Minister for Justice, after consultation with the Minister for Local Government, to prescribe certain fees and expenses, notably the fees payable to doctors for performing post-mortem examinations. These fees are at present regulated by the 1927 Act and a revision is long overdue. A change is also being made in the procedure for payment of these fees and expenses. At present, they are paid to the witnesses concerned by the coroner, who is recouped by the local authority. Section 58 proposes that in future the coroner should certify the amount of the prescribed fee or expenses and that the certificate should subsequently be presented to the local authority for payment direct to the person concerned.

I need not, I think, say anything about the Repeals Schedule, which is quite lengthy, and repeals eleven Coroners Acts completely. I hope the Bill will commend itself to the House as a measure which sets out in up to date form all the existing law on coroners and which makes amendments designed to bring the practice and procedure of the office of coroner into line with present-day requirements and present-day thinking on the role of the coroner and the coroner's inquest. The coroner has still a significant part to play in modern society. Although the emphasis has shifted from the inquest to the post-mortem examination and inquests have become far fewer, their importance is still considerable. A properly conducted inquest has advantages in speed and cheapness which a more elaborate inquiry does not possess. It enables public disquiet and rumours to be set at rest. I have no doubt that the office of coroner has a long period of useful life ahead of it.

May I add that copies of the Bill have been circulated to every coroner and that observations have been received from many of them? These observations and any suggestions that may be made by Deputies in the course of the debate will be carefully considered and any necessary amendments moved on Committee Stage.

This has been described as a consolidation measure to a great extent and as a consolidation measure, it is worth while considering. The Minister told us that the Government took two decisions regarding it. One was to retain the office of coroner. Personally, I was not aware that there was any real body of opinion in favour of abolishing the office of coroner. Quite a number of people objected to the powers coroners' juries took to themselves, by way of adding riders, and that is being abolished here. The second decision, which we are told was a Government decision, was that there was some enthusiasm on the part of some people to have the office confined to members of the legal profession. That view, if is was ever a view strongly held, has not been accepted and, I think, quite properly, particularly as when this Bill becomes law, the findings are to be confined to certain matters of fact. Any question of placing responsibility, or taking responsibility, or anything in the nature of a rider which might seem to take responsibility away from anyone is being removed from the coroner.

I agree that this should be so. I certainly agree that the coroner's office should be maintained and have no particular view at all as to whether it should be confined to members of one profession or another. The Minister said, and here he drops into the old error, that for the future coroners will have experience. That does not arise. The phrase in Section 14 is that people must have a practice of so many years' standing. That is the phrase that has often been considered and criticised. It does not necessarily mean that a person has had a case either as a barrister or as a solicitor. It simply means one takes the date of one's qualification and when five years have elapsed one has five years' standing. Merely to put in the word "practising" adds nothing. If you said the person had to be a barrister or solicitor having practised for five years, certain difficulties could arise.

In any case, I just want to counter the idea that because we have certain old stereotyped phrases, it necessarily means that the person has any practice whatever. It is well known that this same phrase was used with regard to qualifications for the district court and that a person is now sitting as a district justice of whom it can be said he did not handle a case in his whole period. In fact, he was a journalist for the necessary qualifying period.

There are many sections in this Bill which call for Committee discussion. There is one which I want to query right away, that is, Section 18, subsection (4). This means it will be an offence for any person who has reason to believe certain things, with regard to a death, if he does not report them or that death to the coroner. I do not mind if the matter is about any difficult circumstances—circumstances, say, of violence, misadventure or other unfair means, misconduct or negligence. That is all right. But in the case of a person who has reason to believe that somebody has died from natural illness, even where that person has not been attended by a doctor for a month before the death, it is made an offence not to reveal the matter of such death to the coroner.

I suggest that is wholly unnecessary. There is no atmosphere here of criminality, negligence or anything like that. If a person has reason to believe that a person has died without being attended to for a month—even though that person has had attention for years for some natural illness—if death ensues, by reason of the fact that the deceased person has not been visited for a month by a medical practitioner, anybody who knows that fact must report it to the coroner or he will be held guilty of an offence and may be fined £20. I do not know what the reason for that is. I should imagine there are a very big number of people who die here without having had a medical attendant within the month before their death. I do not suppose it is regarded that there is any necessity for a coroner's inquest in such cases. In fact, there need not be a coroner's inquest even under such circumstances. If a person evades the commission of an offence by giving a report, the coroner may decide right away there is no question of an inquest and he need not necessarily decide on a post-mortem examination.

I think this is taking precaution far too far. I do not know whether medical officers could give us statistics. I should like to find out if any coroners have adverted to this subsection and if they have made any comment on it. I should imagine that in great parts of this country, certainly along the western seaboard, it would not be anything unusual to have many people dying who have not seen a medical attendant in the month before their death. It seems to me to be taking precaution to the verge of the ludicrous. If it were not then necessary in every case that there should be either a post-mortem examination or an inquest, we would be leading somewhere, but we are not now putting all questions of suspicion aside. I am asking for rectification of that. I am told this system is operating in the North of Ireland. I had not known that. I should like to know how much is involved in the way of time wasted, money expended through phoning and all the rest, which might have to be done in connection with this.

There are quite a number of provisions here described as new. They do not amount to much. I welcome the provisions in Sections 30 and 31 that no question of civil or criminal liability is to be brought under the notice of a coroner's jury or the coroner himself. They are limited to the matters of the identity of the person and how, when and where death occurred—simply matters of fact. It is, I think, a good thing to prevent coroners' juries adding riders so long as the saving clause is operated liberally that they may still make observations to give warning to prevent further fatalities near particular places. Coroners' juries have often given very useful warning by calling attention to bad lighting, to bad corners, to hidden bends and all the rest. They have often called the attention of local authorities to improvements they considered should be made in order to ensure safety on the roads.

In this legislation there is power given to the Minister to remove from his office a coroner or a deputy coroner. This is couched in the very well-known terms:

Whenever the Minister is satisfied that any coroner or deputy coroner has been guilty of misconduct or neglect of duty or is unfit for office or incapable of the due discharge of his duties by reason of physical or mental infirmity, the Minister may by order remove such coroner or deputy coroner from office.

That order is to specify the reason for the removal. I presume it is an order that will have to come before the House.

I want to call attention to the phrase is "satisfied". That phrase that was very definitely analysed by the late Mr. Gavan Duffy in a famous case which, in the end, led to the repeal of certain parts of the Offences Against the State Act and the production of a new piece of legislation by way of amendment to that. His analysis of what is imported by the use of the word "satisfied" has never been contradicted. I think it is still good law. It certainly has the appearance of the High Court behind it. According to the late Judge, the use of this phrase means that the person is acting judicially or has acted judicially in the administration of justice. In that case it was the administration of criminal justice. For that reason the judge considered it was contrary to the Constitution, which allows only criminal matters to come before regularly-appointed judges and regularly-appointed courts.

It may be said here that this is not the administration of justice. I do not know what it is then. It is certainly asking a person to become, so to speak, a judge, having to get evidence on which he acts and having to do a variety of things imported by the term. If this is found by the courts afterwards to be anything in the nature of administration of justice, it may also fall as being unconstitutional. If it is the administration of policy, as the late Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy distinguished, it might be all right. But I do not imagine this expression means it is merely the administration of policy. The examination affects a person's livelihood to a certain extent. That would bring the use of this phrase rather inside the area of examination that was imposed by the courts on the solicitor's legislation which led that legislation to be declared in part unconstitutional and requiring amendment.

I am not suggesting that the phrase should be weakened. It has come to the notice of people, who had not observed it before, that certain disciplinary matters, like, say, those concerning the Civic Guard, depend upon what an official considers to be something, so long as he can get the consent of the Minister. The fact that a person considers somebody to be in a particular position, added to a Ministerial consent, certainly affects the livelihood and liberties of certain people.

I do not at all urge that this phrase "satisfied" should be weakened down to where a Minister "is of opinion," which is the phrase used in the amendment, because that would certainly give complete control and I do not suppose that is desired. How to get a phrase in between is a matter that would have to be considered. The word "satisfied" has been given a particular meaning. That meaning has been carried forward again in the consideration of the solicitors' matter. On the whole, these phrases have been considered as importing judicial determination and, as such, are matters that cannot be done by the Minister alone.

It is clear that the position here under the Constitution is that judges can be removed, but that is because the Constitution says so. That is because there is a position accepted with regard to judges which gives the two Houses power over the Judiciary arising out of misconduct or misbehaviour.

Most of the other matters with which I am concerned are matters for Committee Stage and I shall have amendments for these. I suppose it is the accepted habit that there should be an age limit because of the nature of this office. For that reason, I presume, the age of 70 was imported here. It is generally being accepted that there should be some age limit put upon people holding offices of this kind.

There is a provision with regard to qualifications. The White Paper says this is not the old position. The old position was that the Local Appointments Commissioners established the qualifications after consultation with the Minister. That is now being changed and the Minister is being given power to declare the qualifications for appointments after consultation with the Local Appointments Commission. I read in the memorandum that this change is to get in line with the Local Government Act, 1941.

For the time being, I would prefer if the Local Appointments Commissioners made the qualifications after consultation with the Minister or if the Minister made the qualifications with the consent of the Local Appointments Commissioners.

We have now heard the legal interpretation of the Bill and I should like to give a layman's opinion of it. It was a good idea to introduce this Bill because there were a number of points which needed to be straightened out. There is a typical one in Part II, Section 6, which deals with coroners' districts. In fact, the Bill will now make legal what has been the practice for quite some time. It is right that these matters should be cleared up.

Section 10 deals with the question of salaries. That is a matter which should get a lot of attention because the present system is that a coroner is paid something around £250 per year, out of which he is required to pay his deputy a sum of around £20, his travelling expenses, telephone charges, etc. That means that the position of coroner is almost an honorary position. He gets very little for it except the honour— the doubtful honour, in some cases— of being coroner for the district. That matter should be looked into and there should be proper remuneration for the position. If there is not, there is the danger that a solicitor who is a coroner will find himself in the position of being unable to act for people who are affected by, say, a road accident. If a road accident occurs, he may wish to act for one of the parties and because of the fact that he is coroner, he cannot do so, with the result that for the miserly sum he receives as coroner, he may have to throw away the substantial sum he would get by acting for one of the parties. For that reason, he may decline the position of coroner and we may find people less well qualified being appointed because the better qualified people are not available. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that point.

On the question of reporting deaths to the coroner, I think it would be a better idea to have them reported to the local Garda station. After all, not everyone knows who the coroner is or where he lives, but everyone knows where the local Garda station is. There is the other point that one Garda can view the body, and that the coroner need not view the body where it has been viewed by a Garda, as was previously the case. That is a good idea but I suggest that more than one Garda should view the body because it has happened that a member of the Garda has been transferred and has not been available when the coroner's inquest was due to be held. That holds up the proceedings.

On the question of juries adding riders, I think that a jury should be confined strictly to saying what they are in fact appointed to say, and that they should not make comments. The tendency has been for some juries to get the idea that they are some type of court of inquiry and that they should make all sorts of suggestions, recommendations and condemnations. I also think coroners should be advised that it is not their business to make comments on the cause of accidents.

I have in mind a case where a man was killed at work and the coroner said it was his opinion that the man caused his own death by negligence. That had a very adverse effect on the subsequent court case and the widow and family of the unfortunate man received a miserly sum, although everyone except the coroner knew that his death was attributable to a different reason. He was killed because the machinery he was using was defective. Coroners should be prevented from making such comments at an inquest. That would make the position much easier for those who have to deal with the case after the inquest.

The section which allows an inquest to be held without exhumation is a good section. There was far too much red tape and bodies were exhumed, even though it did not make any difference so far as the inquest was concerned, but the law said it should be done and therefore it was done. Anything which modernises the law is a good idea and should be done.

On the question of where the body is to be placed, I think it was excellent that the Minister did not say that a public house was the proper place to bring the body. After all, the unfortunate person will not get get much joy in a public house. The trouble was that it was preferable to take the body to a public house rather than to a private house or to a shed. Originally, that was the reason why a public house was laid down as the place to which the body should be taken. Unfortunately, there are very few mortuaries in the country—there are just the odd ones attached to hospitals or churches—and the fact that there are so few may present a problem.

There is the second problem that when an ambulance goes to the scene of an accident, under Local Government regulations, it is not allowed to take away a dead person. If there is a spark of life, the ambulance can take the person away, but if the person is dead, it cannot. I think the ambulance should take the body to the hospital to which it will be returning from the scene of the accident. Perhaps the Minister would have a word with his colleague, the Minister for Local Government, to see if something could be done—or perhaps the Minister for Health has something to do with it—to remove that restriction. It is unnecessary and, in fact, it is not nice to go to the scene of an accident, take away two people who are injured, and leave the third person who is dead lying on the side of the road for many hours, which happened as recently as last year. The proper thing is that the body should be taken to the mortuary in the ambulance which goes to the scene of the accident.

I do not propose to hold up the House for very long. I agree that this is mainly a measure for consideration on Committee Stage. I do not at all agree with the viewpoint of Deputy Tully regarding the operation of the section which declares that a solicitor may not act in certain cases in which he is involved as coroner. There is clearly a conflict of interest and it is an essential principle, an ethical principle, that a solicitor should not act for two sides where there is a conflict of interest.

I did not say he should. I said he should be paid enough so that he would not have to.

I am glad to have that clarified because it may have the effect, and I believe it has had the effect, of keeping out of the application list a number of solicitors who would otherwise apply. The functions of the coroner are limited and, even when this Bill becomes law, the position will remain the same. I am always pleased to see this type of legislation introduced and a particular debt of gratitude is due to the Department of Justice for the measures it has introduced here over the past few years.

There is no question of vote catching involved, no case of a large measure of public pressure. These are measures designed to bring our law up to date, to consolidate it and improve it, and all have shown great scholarship and very hard work on the part of the officials involved. I can only say I hope the work will continue and that we shall bring our law up to date, not merely in regard to matters of this kind but in all other respects as well. I shall have, on Committee Stage, quite a number of suggestions to make to the House. I agree with one or two of the points raised by Deputy McGilligan, but I think it more suitable to leave them over until then because no controversy is involved. I believe the Minister will be quite prepared to meet any reasonable suggestion that will be forthcoming from either side of the House since his hope, and the hope of the House, is to produce a Bill that will not have to be amended in the foreseeable future.

I cannot see where scholarship comes into this measure. As far as I can see all it really proposes to do is one really good thing—to abolish the old custom, which was a great imposition upon the public houses throughout the country, that they were liable to have a corpse thrust upon them at any time. All of us who are familiar with licensed premises are fairly familiar too with the fact that very often people who are sinners enough to use licensed premises could be embarrassed by certain provisions in the old Act in this respect.

This business of using licensed premises as a sort of morgue stems, of course, as the Minister suggested, from the time when the obvious place for dealing with any occurrence which might necessitate the attention of the coroner was the licensed premises. A coroner, no doubt, in those days lived in the local manor. It was a privileged office under the Crown and the last thing thought of would be to bring so unpleasant a thing as a corpse to his premises, so the local inn was the place selected. I think this Bill does at least that much. There is nothing else significant in it. I welcome it on that score alone. The licensed vintners have been campaigning for years to the various Ministers to have this done. It is being done now and it is very welcome.

I merely rise to reiterate what Deputy Tully has said about the removal of remains from the scene of an accident. The fact that remains are allowed to stay at the scene of an accident while the local authority and the coroner quibbled about the means of removal has been the cause of a lot of public concern for years. I understand the main objection by the local authorities is the necessity to remove a decayed body and it is most objectionable to have it done in a public ambulance. I would suggest that the Minister considers the possibility of providing some sort of sealed container for the removal of the bodies. I feel that would get over a lot of the objections from the point of view of the local authority. I should like the Minister to include something of that sort because it is most unchristian in a supposedly Christian country to allow this state of affairs to continue.

As the Minister has suggested, and Deputies have agreed with him, this is essentially a Committee Stage Bill. I do not think anybody will take any exception to the major changes proposed in this legislation. I should like to raise one local matter at this stage. The Minister provides in one of the sections for a change in certain coroners' districts— Kilkenny, Clonmel, Drogheda, Sligo. Would he have a further look at the division of the coroners' districts? He may have had some intention of doing this. At least in County Wexford there seems to be an unnatural division of the county for the purpose of coroners' districts. There are two coroners in the county, but one of the districts is the region which you might say is east of the Slaney River and the other is to the West of the Slaney. If there is to be any natural division in County Wexford, the division which would be most acceptable to the people would be North Wexford and South Wexford. I think the Minister should consider that because we have the peculiar situation where the coroner for North Wexford comes down as far as Wexford town, which is definitely in the South. I do not want to weary the Minister with the geography of County Wexford.

That would not be wearisome to me.

I feel sure it would not but I should like him to examine the Wexford district to see whether he could divide the county into North and South districts. I have reason to believe as well that as far as the two coroners there are concerned, there would be no difficulty at all in regard to travelling.

Deputy S. Dunne congratulated the Minister on the proposal in the Bill which discontinues the practice of having bodies removed to licensed premises. I assume that that means also that inquests may not in future be held in licensed premises. I do not know whether that is made abundantly clear in the Bill. I would be very pleased if that were a very definite proposal in this measure because I think everybody knows the objections to the removal of remains to licensed premises and certainly to the holding of inquests in them.

There is the question of the removal of bodies to mortuaries and morgues. I do not know how effective that can be or what it means. The only mortuaries I know in this country are those attached to churches. Does this mean that a dead person who has been the victim of an accident can in future be removed to a mortuary? What is a mortuary, for the purpose of this Bill? Does is mean a mortuary attached to a church? Perhaps the Minister would tell us how many morgues there are in the country? Nobody is anxious to see a great number of them, but I do not know that there are any morgues at all in County Wexford. Would the Minister tell us what responsibility, if any, there is on local authorities to provide morgues in their functional areas? I do not know that there is any.

The Minister should make clear now what exactly is to happen if a dead person is found? Where is the corpse to be brought? Where is the inquest to be held? There is no statutory obligation that I know of. There is no regulation either in the Department of Health or the Department of Justice which says that a body must be received into a hospital for the purpose of holding an inquest. I am informed that bodies are received in county or district hospitals only with the permission of the county surgeon or the matron. It is with their permission that inquests are held. I applaud Deputy Tully's suggestion that the Minister should consult with the Minister for Health to ensure some firm arrangement with regard to the removal of bodies to local authority hospitals and the holding of inquests in these hospitals.

Nearly every year local authorities have discussions—one might almost describe them as rows—about the purposes for which ambulances can be used in relation to sudden deaths or accidents. It is well known that county managers and county council officials protest they are precluded from using ambulances for the transportation of corpses. In the case of an accident, or a sudden death in a public place, I do not think it is unreasonable that some sort of transportation should be provided by the local authority. I do not agree it ought to be an ambulance. There are reasons why I think it should not be an ambulance. But some form of transportation should be provided.

As far as I can see, the only function of a coroner now, and his jury, is to determine the cause of death. I was interested in Deputy Tully's and Deputy S. Flanagan's comments with regard to the position of a barrister or solicitor who also happens to be a coroner. If the coroner's only function is to determine the cause of death, I do not see why that should preclude him, if he is a barrister or a solicitor, from acting subsequently on behalf of one of the parties involved. At first glance, I certainly cannot see any objection to a coroner acting on behalf of relatives of an injured person. I have an open mind on the matter. There may be snags. There may be a conflict of interest. If, however, we intend to preclude country solicitors from engaging in court actions, after having sat as coroners, I do not think we will get many who will come forward to apply for positions as coroners.

The coroner's function—let me emphasise it again—is merely to determine the cause of death. Hitherto, he could return a verdict. Now all he has to say is that the man is dead and the cause of death. I quite agree coroners should be curbed in the wild statements some of them make, attributing blame to unfortunate members or officials of county councils. In that respect, they are no different from many district justices, who take a very wide licence in summing up, lambasting all and sundry, especially public representatives. Perhaps the Minister would tell us what latitude coroners have in their comments at inquests because their comments can be very hurtful and very damaging. At first glance, I can see no reason why coroners should be prohibited from appearing in subsequent court actions, since their only function is saying what the cause of death is.

I have little to add to what has been said but I suggest to the Minister that in rural areas the proper place to take a body is the Garda station. We have enough of those in the country to warrant an arrangement on these lines and the Garda authorities are the people mainly concerned.

The Dublin Health Authority is proposing to muster the entire ambulance fleet in their own premises. Remembering the number of accidents that occur in the city, the provision of a particular type of transport for the removal of corpses should be considered. Of course, there are enough means now at the disposal of authorities to make sure that ambulances used for the removal of corpses are properly disinfected subsequently. All of us who have been unfortunate enough to witness serious accidents can appreciate the need for that. Deputy Tully referred to the ridiculous practice of ambulances proceeding to the scene of an accident and returning empty because the injured person was already dead. There would seem to be no economy in that procedure.

Reference was made to mortuaries. I doubt if the ecclesiastical authorities would welcome the suggestion that bodies should be brought to mortuaries for the holding of inquests. It is reprehensible enough in the local inn, but it is going from bad to worse to suggest that mortuaries should be used. The Minister might consider the possibility of utilising Garda stations for the reception of corpses.

I accept that this is mainly a Committee Stage Bill but I should like to add a few words to what Deputy Carroll has said with regard to the removal of bodies to the nearest Garda station or the mortuary attached to a church or hospital. I can understand how people would react if a body were brought into their home or place of business. I have had cases where people wanted to transfer from homes because dead bodies had been in them, when people fell or were killed on the premises. Others believe a place is haunted once a dead body has been or is found on the premises. It is probable that at one time there was competition for dead bodies by public houses because it probably brought business. Now, when the public houses are becoming "posh", they do not want dead bodies because they might frighten people away. Perhaps some public houses still want them because my experience is that where there is anything like that, there is a huge crowd. Even where victims of accidents are dying, they cannot get air, so they certainly attract an audience.

On the question of whether the coroner should have an interest in the victim or the next-of-kin of the victim, I disagree that he should. It would be as if a judge in the courts had an interest in the prosecution or the defence and I am not so sure that there would be a fair judgment. As regards the question of salary, it boils down to how much work the coroner does and what he gets out of it. Other people, such as members of a county council, are not paid, but it pays some of them because by reason of membership, they are well known and perhaps get good business.

I should like, at the outset, to express to the House my appreciation for the helpful manner in which it has received and discussed this Bill and indeed for the agreement on all sides that, in essence, it is a Committee Bill and that we can discuss it more freely and advantageously in Committee. However, a number of points have been raised and I should like to mention them very briefly in replying.

Deputy McGilligan indicated that as far as he knew there was no volume of opinion in favour of the abolition of the office of coroner. I do not think he is quite right in that. There was certainly some opinion to the effect that the office was an archaic relic and should be done away with. Indeed, one very influential, well-informed English newspaper led a campaign to have the office abolished, but apart from that, I think it is something that should have been examined. In any event, the fact that you have an office of this sort there for a long time with historical origins, an office that came into being when circumstances were infinitely different from what they are to-day— all that justifies an examination as to whether or not the office should be abolished. There was a considerable amount of expert opinion to the effect that the work could be done more expeditiously otherwise. However, the decision to retain the office has been taken and as far as I can gauge the opinion of the House, the House agrees that the office should continue and that it can perform a very useful function.

Deputy McGilligan also mentioned the matter of notification. I should like to reiterate what I said in my opening speech. The object is to ensure that all suspicious deaths are notified. I think the provision in the Bill is reasonable, that if a person dies who has not been attended by a practitioner within a month before his death, then it is reasonable that such death should be reported. Apart altogether from the coroner aspect of this, we are anxious to increase the registration of deaths, to get more knowledge of deaths that occur. It is a matter socially undesirable that the figure I have given—6.1 per cent. of deaths uncertified—should be correct and I think the provision in the Bill will help to remedy that situation, as well as ensuring as far as possible that suspicious deaths are notified to the coroner. The coroner can then decide whether or not he will hold an inquest.

There is also another aspect. When the provisions of this Bill become known to people generally, I think it will encourage people to call in a doctor possibly more frequently than they might otherwise do, where it appears a person may be in danger of death, and so obviate trouble to themselves later on of having to notify the coroner. That would be a good thing.

Deputy McGilligan drew attention to the phrase we use: "whenever the Minister is satisfied." I had been thinking of that phrase myself and I was considering an amendment on Committee Stage to change it to the wording that Deputy McGilligan mentioned, that is, "where the Minister is of opinion."

A number of Deputies mentioned the matter of the removal of bodies. In that regard the position in Dublin city is that the local authority has an arrangement whereby a firm of undertakers is under contract to remove bodies and take them to the morgue. That practice may or may not be followed throughout the country. The suggestion has been made that ambulances should be used for this purpose. The House will readily understand that this is a matter for the Minister for Health and one can immediately see that the Minister or health authorities would have certain objections. Whether they could be overcome along the lines suggested by Deputy Coogan or not is a matter that could be investigated.

However, from my point of view and that of the Bill, the important thing is that the Bill does prescribe that all expenses in connection with the removal of bodies can be authorised. If a local authority wants to make any such arrangement, the expenses can be authorised and paid. It is entirely a matter for the local authority whether they decide to follow the lead of Dublin Corporation and make an arrangement of that nature or make some alternative arrangement. The Bill enables expenses of any such arrangement to be authorised and paid.

Deputy Tully, in what I regard as a particularly valuable and informed contribution, mentioned a number of points which I shall certainly consider. One which he and other Deputies mentioned was coroners' salaries. The salaries were reviewed in 1947 and since that time, coroners, of course, have participated in percentage increases which all local authorities' officers have got since then. I am not aware that the salaries would be regarded as inadequate in any way. Deputy Sherwin quite rightly pointed out that there are two aspects of this, one, the amount of work the coroner has to do and the second, the factor he mentioned, that the office or the fact of being coroner brings certain prestige and standing to the office holder which could not readily be related to any emoluments.

I do not think there is any danger that we are not likely to get fully qualified applicants for these positions. I have no indication that that is so and I do not think the House need be unduly worried in that regard.

Most Deputies welcomed the provision about riders and statements exonerating from blame and so on that have become the practice in recent years. Some Deputy asked what my view was about these and about statements by coroners. My view is quite clear and definite. The function of the coroner is clearly defined and the function of the inquest is to ascertain who the deceased was, how, where and when he died, and no more than that. Statements of any sort are to be deprecated. The usual type of condolences offered to the deceased's relatives are, of course, in a different category. Nobody would object to that sort of statement by a coroner but anything outside of that is completely unnecessary and unwanted by all of us.

We are preserving in this Bill the valuable provision that general recommendations may be made. Those recommendations should be, as I see it, confined to endeavouring to ensure that further fatalities would not arise in a similar set of circumstances. They should be of a general nature. There should be no question, as Deputy Corish very rightly says, of coroners or juries attacking officials or other people concerned in these matters.

A number of Deputies mentioned the question of morgues and mortuaries. Let me say immediately I do not contemplate that the mortuaries attached to churches should ever be used for this purpose. I admit this is not specifically prohibited in the Bill, but I want to make it clear we would not regard a mortuary attached to a church as a suitable place.

Mortuary, therefore, in this is a funeral parlour.

By a mortuary, I mean a mortuary attached to a hospital. In that regard, the responsibility is solely on the local authorities to provide suitable places. I do not think great difficulty will arise. Throughout the country there are, I think, an adequate number of hospitals with mortuaries attached.

The distances would be very great, 40 or 50 miles.

I appreciate that may arise in certain circumstances. Anyway the Deputy will realise the Bill does say "a suitable place". That will be a matter for the coroner himself to decide and there is an onus on the local authority, where the coroner complains, to do something about the situation. It is not a matter we should try to deal with by legislation. We must leave it to the good sense of the coroner and local authority to deal with the matter.

Who is responsible for removing the body from the scene?

The coroner must direct the removal of the body.

Whom will he direct?

He must make suitable arrangements. The local authority will be the responsible body. Deputy Corish mentioned the case of Wexford and representations have been made to us about the reorganisation of the coroners' districts in Wexford.

Among other things.

That will receive sympathetic and kind consideration. I am not guaranteeing we will be able to do anything because the arrangement has existed for a long time and this is the first time we have had any indication there is any cause for complaint.

Deputy Haughey is a new Minister and he should not be afraid of these old things.

The fact that it is requested by the responsible leader of the Labour Party is sufficient to ensure that the request will receive earnest attention. However, there is no question of inquests being held in public houses. Deputy Corish might be under a slight misapprehension there. The inquest must be held where the body is and the fact that bodies will not be in the public house any longer should certainly obviate any necessity to hold an inquest there. I hope that will not happen and I cannot imagine that it would.

Those are the main points Deputies raised. As we shall be going over the whole Bill in more detail on Committee Stage I shall confine myself again to thanking Deputies who have contributed to the debate for the very reasonable manner in which they have approached the Bill and for their very sound and sensible suggestions.

The Minister has mentioned that the coroner will direct that the body be removed. If the coroner is 30 or 40 miles away, is it the responsibility of the local Garda to do so? Do we have to wait until that coroner comes to the scene which may be a couple of hours later so that there is a continuation of the same scandalous state of affairs that the body is left there? Something will have to be done. It should be provided in the Bill who is to be responsible.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 30th November, 1961.