The office of coroner is one of our oldest surviving institutions and, although now of less importance, nevertheless, performs a very useful function in modern society. In the earliest days the main object of the office was to safeguard the profits of the Crown. A coroner was bound to inquire concerning treasure trove, wreck, whales and sturgeons and to secure them for the King's use. As the Crown was entitled to emoluments arising from the forfeiture of the chattels of felons and outlaws, the cornor was brought into contact with the administration of the criminal law at an early stage. He kept the record of outlawries; he had to be present whenever judgment of death was passed in a court of private jurisdiction; appeals of felony were commenced before him; and in all these proceedings his concern was rather to bring the goods and chattels of the felon to the King for his use than to bring the felon himself to justice. At inquests, the coroner's function was to ensure that in cases of sudden death the chattels of any persons who were criminally responsible were surrendered.
At present the coroner's functions are prescribed by the various Coroners Acts of which there are twelve in all. He no longer has the power, or rather a coroner's inquest has not the power, to return an inquisition charging a particular person or persons with murder or manslaughter and the inquest has now become in practice a matter of ascertaining the facts about a death and establishing how, when, and where it occurred. Nonetheless, there is a real need for a tribunal of this kind which enables public disquiet about particular violent deaths to be allayed, and the rumours that inevitably circulate at such times to be quelled, by having the exact facts publicised with the minimum delay.
It was inevitable that in connection with a consolidation Bill of this kind the question of continuing to have an office of coroner at all was specifically considered by the Government before deciding to proceed with the measure. The Government recognised, however, that as the coroner's functions have to be done by some person or body the financial saving would be relatively insignificant, and that the persons or bodies on whom his functions would devolve might not enjoy the same degree of public confidence as coroners now do.
The Bill itself mainly consists of a re-enactment of the existing law which, as Senators will see from a glance at the Repeals Schedule, is spread over a large number of enactments. But there are a number of changes and I should like to invite the attention of the House to the main ones.
In Part II of the Bill an age limit of 70 years is being provided for coroners appointed after the commencement of the Act. Up to now, coroners have held office for life but I think it is desirable in the public interest to have a reasonable age limit for the appointments as there is for all other appointments under a local authority. This change is being made in Section 11. Sections 12 and 13 provide that a coroner or a deputy coroner may reside outside their district with the permission of the Minister. With modern methods of transport the present requirement that coroners and their deputies should live in the district is no longer absolutely necessary; and it may become unreasonable where, say, the coroner may live a few miles outside a county borough boundary while having his main place of business inside it.
As a result of representations in the Dáil, Section 15, which deals with removal from office of a coroner or deputy coroner, has been amended to authorise the Minister, whenever he becomes of opinion that there has been misconduct or neglect of duty or the like, to give the coroner or deputy coroner concerned an opportunity of putting his point of view before the Minister makes a final decision on the question of removing him from office: subsection (2) of that section requires the Minister to specify the reason for the removal from office in every case.
The most important change being made in Part III of the Bill, which deals with inquests, is probably that contained in Sections 30 and 31. These sections prohibit coroners' inquests from considering questions of civil or criminal liability and prohibit juries from adding expressions of censure or exoneration by way of rider to the verdict. Accordingly, the fact-finding aspect of the coroner's inquest will be further emphasised when the Bill becomes law though the new restrictive provisions will not prevent juries from making recommendations of a general character designed to prevent further fatalities.
I should mention also that in Part III a statutory obligation is being imposed on medical practitioners, registrars of deaths, funeral undertakers and on every occupier of a house or person in charge of an institution in which a deceased person was residing at the time of his death, to notify the coroner or a member of the Garda not below the rank of Inspector, in any case in which he has reason to believe that the death was caused by violence or misadventure or by unfair means, or from any cause other than natural illness or disease for which he had been seen and treated by a doctor within one month before his death or in any other circumstances as may require investigation. This provision has a twofold object. It is, of course, intended mainly to ensure that all suspicious deaths are notified to the proper authorities but it has the secondary object of improving registration of deaths and of the proportion of those registered deaths which are medically certified. At present, it is known that there are many deaths which are not registered at all. In the nature of things there are no statistics of them and their existence only comes to light, usually many years afterwards, when their statistical value has disappeared say, when it is necessary to take out a grant of administration to secure title to land or property. The percentage of registered deaths which are medically certified is also unduly low by comparison with Northern Ireland and European countries and I hope that the present provision, though it may cause some inconvenience until people have got accustomed to its working, will have the effect ultimately of ensuring that medical assistance is summoned in the final stages of fatal illnesses.
Section 24 authorises the Attorney General to direct a coroner to hold an inquest whenever he has reason to believe that a person has died in circumstances which in the opinion of the Attorney General made the holding of an inquest advisable. This new provision is in line with the Attorney General's statutory functions as the assertor of the public's rights and I think it is a useful provision to have. It is only right to say that coroners have as a rule not been slow to hold inquests in all proper cases and I am sure that the section will have to be invoked only on rare occasions.
The only new provision requiring mention in Part IV of the Bill, which deals with juries at inquests, is perhaps the modification being made in the existing law relating to the failure of a coroner's jury to agree. Section 44 provides that if the majority of the jury—a simple majority—agree on a verdict, then that verdict must be accepted by the coroner. At the moment, a majority verdict can only be accepted if the minority does not exceed two. Therefore, if the jury consists of twelve persons, the views of seven of them will now prevail whereas under the present law a majority of ten persons would be required. In the case of a jury of six, however, the law will still be that the views of four members may determine the issue. In considering this matter, Senators will remember that no questions of civil or criminal liability have to be determined by a coroner's jury and that the investigation at an inquest is being confined to ascertaining who the deceased was and how, when and where he came by his death.
Finally, as regards Part V, which contains the miscellaneous provisions, I am sure that Senators will welcome the provision in Section 46 which replaces the existing obligation imposed on publicans to receive dead bodies. For many years there has been a great deal of agitation to have the obligation removed and I am sure there will be general satisfaction that this is now being done. In its place, it is being provided that the coroner will have discretion to direct that the body be removed into a convenient mortuary or a morgue or "other suitable place". What is a suitable place is a matter which is being left to the good sense of the coroner to determine but I do not think that a publichouse could by any stretch of the imagination be described as a suitable place for the reception of a dead body. In remote areas there may be some inconvenience in particular cases at first but any difficulties should be minimised with the provision of proper transport facilities and the cooperation of all concerned.
Before concluding, I should like to thank publicly all the coroners who communicated observations on the Bill when I invited them to. All of their suggestions have been carefully considered and some of them have been implemented during the passage of the Bill through the other House. I have also had the advantage of having discussed the Bill with representatives of the Coroners' Association a few days ago. The Association welcomed the Bill and made some suggestions on certain minor aspects which I am considering at present.
As I have said the office of coroner is still essential, even in modern conditions, in the interests of allaying public disquiet and scotching rumours. Its everyday functioning is associated with a time of severe personal distress to the relatives of deceased persons. To carry out their duties properly, coroners require qualities of prudence, common sense and independence to ensure that additional distress is avoided so far as is consistent with ensuring that the cause of death is satisfactorily established. I think I can say that our coroners have shown that they possess these qualities and discharge the duties of the office in a manner which combines efficiency with full regard for the feelings of the next-of-kin—a difficult task sometimes because people's judgments and attitudes are liable to be very much upset by the sudden death of someone close to them.
I have drawn attention to some of the main changes which the Bill proposes to make in the present law and I have not dealt either with the minor changes or with the body of law which the Bill merely re-enacts. There will be an opportunity on Committee to go into details of the various provisions but if there are any points on which Senators require clarification or amplification at this stage, I shall endeavour to meet their wishes when replying. I hope that the Bill, as presented, will commend itself to the House.