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.