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to discharge such duties—and every year would add to their capacity and experience. Whenever a death occurred from manifest or supposed violence, or an investigation into the cause of death was necessary, one of the persons so appointed should be summoned without delay, and all the information which an examination made at the earliest opportunity by a person of the requisite capacity could afford, should thus always be in possession of the Coroner.
I dare not, lest time should fail me, go into further detail, but I think all these appointments might be made without any great increase of expense, especially if these duties were combined with others requiring similar qualifications which are now discharged by public officials.
Another great advantage, too, would be gained by the appointment of medical officers as part of the machinery for inquiring into the cause of death. It has not been amongst the least of the scandals which lately have brought discredit upon the office of Coroner, that inquests have been held, causing serious pain and annoyance to the relations of the deceased, where no circumstances existed which justified such a proceeding. And there can be no doubt, I think, that a great number of inquests take place every year throughout the country which are wholly needless, but which involve none the less no small expense. I think all this would be to a great extent obviated if the medical officer attached to the Coroner's Court were required in every case, which suggested the necessity of an inquest, to make at once a report of the circumstances to the Coroner. For such a report, the result of an immediate inquiry by a competent medical man, would in many cases show that there was no sort of reason to doubt that the death arose from natural causes, and that an inquest was quite unnecessary. Of course it would remain, as now, in the discretion of the Coroner, whether he would proceed to hold an inquisition, but he would be in an infinitely better position to judge of its necessity.
I believe the two reforms I have submitted would do much to restore the office of Coroner to its proper place in public esteem. But there is one other change I have to suggest, more startling, and, I frankly admit, more questionable than these ; and that is, the abolition altogether of the Coroner's Jury. Let me point out some of the mischiefs and anomalies which have led me to this conclusion. The Coroner's Court, at present, fulfils a double function. It not only inquires into the cause of death, but in many cases it initiates criminal proceedings. I may remind the unprofessional portion of my audience that a verdict of murder or manslaughter by a Coroner's Jury justifies, and indeed requires, the arrest of the person accused, and his detention either in actual custody or on bail until his trial, which, in course of law, would take place at the next assizes, without any further preliminary proceedings; the verdict of the Coroner's Jury having the same effect as a commitment by a Magistrate and the finding of a true bill by a Grand Jury. But, notwithstanding that proceedings are pending in the Coroner's Court, or even that an incriminating verdict has been found there, the accused person is none the less taken before a magistrate, that the facts may be inquired into and the case dealt with in the ordinary way. There, an entirely independent investigation takes place, resulting either in the commitment for trial or discharge of the accused person. If he be discharged as being entirely free from blame, which not unfrequently happens where a Coroner's Jury have found a verdict of manslaughter, he must all the same remain a prisoner until the next assizes, or under bail to appear then and take his trial, although it is practically speaking, a certainty that, under such circumstances, he never will be tried. If the magistrate commits, and the Grand Jury finds a true bill, it is on this indictment he is tried, and if acquitted, no evidence is offered on the Coroner's inquisition. If, too, though the Magistrate commit, the Grand Jury should find no bill, it has become the regular routine for the prosecution to offer no evidence on the Coroner's inquisition, and, in effect, to accept the counter determination of the Grand Jury as overruling it. It will thus be seen that though, in theory, and, no doubt, in ancient times in practice, the trial of the accused resulted, as a matter of course, from the verdict of a Coroner's Jury, this is no longer the case. It follows now only upon quite independent proceedings, pursuing entirely the same course as criminal proceedings do in cases not coming within the cognizance of the Coroner's Court. Surely you have here both anomaly and practical mischief. You have two separate tribunals for the purpose of determining whether a man is to be put on his trial, fulfilling their functions at the same time, but quite independently of one another, and arriving, it may be, at conflicting conclusions. And more than this, you practically disregard altogether the finding of one of them; and though a Coroner's Jury have found a verdict of wilful murder, you do not, in practice, by reason merely of that finding, put the prisoner in reality on his trial, though you still go through the farce of pretending to do so. Few surely can doubt that either the finding of the Coroner's Jury should cease to be sufficient warrant for putting a man on his trial, or that, if it remains so, the second investigation before the Magistrate and the inquest by the Grand Jury should no longer take place in cases where the Coroner's inquisition has resulted in a verdict of "guilty.” And if this double proceeding is no longer to be permitted, fewer still, I should think, can doubt that the ordinary tribunal which has been constituted for the purpose of determining whether there is sufficient primâ facie evidence of guilt is the better fitted of the two to discharge this duty. To say nothing of the skill and experience of the Magistrates, it must be remembered that, before the Coroner's Court, the accused person is frequently unable to be present, being already in custody under a Magistrate's warrant, and he is thus unable to suggest to his advocate, if he have one, or himself to put to the witnesses, the questions which may be absolutely essential for fairly weighing his acts and judging of the guilt or innocence of his conduct.
When we look to the origin of the Coroner's Jury, we certainly do not find any reason for its retention. It was originally summoned, and, indeed, in strictness I believe still should be, from the immediate neighbourhood of the place where the death occurred. And this was done for the purpose of obtaining from the Jury, as neighbours who were likely to be acquainted with them, the facts relating to the death. Indeed, it is still laid down in Sir John Jervis's work on Coroners, that, “after each witness has been examined, the Coroner inquires of the Jury whether they wish any other questions to be put.” “This," he says, “is essential to the due administration of justice, because the Jury, living in the neighbourhood, are most probably acquainted partially with the circumstances of each case, whereas the Coroner must in most cases know nothing except from the evidence.” However this may have been in olden times, in the present day the chances are enormous, certainly in towns, probably even in country districts, that the Jury will know nothing of the matter at all. But, even if they did, I should think we have all come to the conclusion, now-a-days, that such partial acquaintance with the circumstances as may be picked up from the tittle-tattle of the neighbourhood is more likely to mislead than to assist in the investigation of facts, and is about the worst possible preparation to fit a Juryman for the proper exercise of his functions in the jury-box.
I own, then, I am led to the conclusion that the time has come when we may well dispense wlth the services of a Coroner's Jury altogether. If the death be a natural one, or be innocently caused, this could as well be determined by a stipendiary Magistrate as by a Jury; and it is to such a person, as I have said, that you ought to entrust the office of Coroner. And if on investigation it turned out that there was ground for criminal proceedings, he should conduct the investigation in the ordinary way, and at its close once for all commit the accused person for trial. You would thus get rid of all the evils of a double investigation, and there would be this incidental advantage, that throughout the counties you would have a Coroner, with the qualifications and powers of a stipendiary Magistrate, conducting the preliminary investigation in all cases where death has resulted from a crime.
It may be objected to this scheme, that the abolition of the Jury would render the investigation less public, and that the inquiry into the cause of death might thus either be burked altogether, or be less thorough than it would otherwise have been. Certainly, if well founded, this objection would be a formidable one. And, I fully admit that there was a time when the Coroner's Jury afforded to the public a much-needed protection. But, in the present day, I cannot think the objection has any substantial foundation. The press is now our real protection against such an abuse. So long as our Courts are open, reporters as assiduous and eager, and newspaper editors as ready to open their columns to complaints as they are at present, I do not think there is anything to fear on this score. Indeed, I may well appeal to the fact that the experience of the Magistrates' Courts goes far to disprove the validity of such an objection.
Since I prepared this portion of my address, I have read in the Times two interesting articles on Coroners and Coroners' Juries, in which I am glad to find that the writer has, in several respects, and especially as regards the abolition of the Coroner's Jury, arrived at the same conclusions as myself.
I have been able only to sketch in outline the changes I desire to see, but I dare not linger longer on this part of my subject.
I pass now, by no abrupt transition, to another subject which appears to me of the highest importance. We have