office county person inquest fees evidence
CORONER, an ancient officer of the common law, so called, according to Coke, because he had principally to do with pleas of the Crown. The lord chief justice of the Queen's Bench is said to be the principal coroner of the kingdom, and may in any place exercise the jurisdiction of the coroner. The duties of the office are now practically confined to holding inquests in case of violent or sudden death.
The office is and always has been elective, the appointment being made by the freeholders of the county assembled in county court. By the Statute..of Westminster the First it was ordered that none but lawful and discreet knights should be chosen as coroners, and in one instance a person was actually removed from office for insufficiency of estate. Lands to the value of £20 per annum (the qualification for knighthood) were afterwards deemed sufficient to satisfy the requirements as to estate which ought to be insisted on in the case of a coroner. The complaint of Blackstone shows the transition of the office from its original dignified and honorary character to a paid appointment in the public service. " Now, indeed, through the culpable neglect of gentlemen of property, this office has been suffered to fall into disrepute, and get into low and indigent hands ; so that, although formerly no coroners would condescend to be paid for servina° their country, and they were by the afore- said Statute of Westminster expressly forbidden to take a reward, under pain of a great forfeiture to the king ; yet for many years past they have only desired to be chosen for their perquisites ; being allowed fees for their attendance by the statute 3 Henry VII. c. 1, which Sir Edward Coke complains of heavily • though since his time those fees have been much enlarged." The mercenary character of the office, thus deprecated by Coke and Blackstone, is now firmly established, without, however (it need hardly be said), affording the slightest ground for such reflections as the above. The coroner is in fact a public officer, and like other public officers receives payment for his services. The person appointed is almost invariably a qualified legal or medical practitioner, the duties of the office being supposed to require some acquaintance with the learning of both of these professions. The property qualification appears to be virtually dispensed with, the county being liable for any penalties that may be incurred by the coroner. The appointment is held for life, but is vacated by the holder being made sheriff. He may also be removed by the writ de coronatore exoiierando, for sufficient cause assigned, as, for instance, that he is engaged in other business, or incapacitated by old age or sickness, &c. By 23 and 24 Viet. c. 116, the lord chancellor may remove any coroner for " inability or misbehaviour in his office."
The coroner is primarily an officer of the county, elected by the freeholders. In certain liberties and franchises, the appointment is made by the Crown, or lords holding a charter from the Crown. By the Municipal Corporations Act, in any borough having a separate quarter-sessions the council may appoint a coroner ; in other boroughs the coroner for the county has jurisdiction.
The remuneration of the county coroner is now regulated by the Act 23 and 24 Vict. c. 116 above mentioned. The system of payment by fees, established by an earlier Act of the same reign, is abolished, and payment is to be made by salary calculated on the average amount of the fees, mileage, and allowances usually received by the coroner for a period of five years, and the calculation is to be revised every five years. The home secretary is to decide between the coroner and the justices when they cannot agree. Borough coroners under the Municipal Corporations Act are to be paid by fees.
The duties of the office are ascertained by the 4 Edward I. st. 2 : - " A coroner of our lord the king ought to inquire of these things, first, when coroners are commanded by the king's bailiffs or by the honest men of the county, they shall go to the places where any be slain, or suddenly dead or wounded, or where houses are broken, or where treasure is said to be found, and shall forthwith command four of the next towns, or five, or six, to appear before him in such a place ; and when they are come thither, the coroner upon the oath of them shall inquire in this manner, that is, to wit, if it concerns a man slain, if they know when the person was slain, whether it were in any house, field, bed, tavern, or company, and if any, and who, were there, &c. It shall also be inquired if the dead person were known, or else a stranger, and where he lay the night before. And if any person is said to be guilty of the murder, the coroner shall go to their house and inquire what goods they have, Ste." Similar directions are given for cases of persons found drowned or suddenly dead, for attachment of criminals in cases of violence, &c. It is the duty of the township to give notice of violent or sudden death to the coroner ; and the inquisition is held before him and a jury of not less than twelve persons, constituting a court of record. Their charge is to inquire how the party came by his death. The inquisition must be super vivo?' corporis ; if the body be not recovered, the coroner can only sit in virtue of a special commission. By 6 and 7 Vict. c. 12, it was provided (iu remedy of the inconveniences of the common law) that the coroner only within whose jurisdiction the body shall be lying dead, shall hold the inquest, although the cause of death may have happened somewhere out of his jurisdiction. And in the case of any body found dead in the sea, &c., the inquest, in the absence of a deputy coroner for the admiralty, shall be held by the coroner of the place where the body is first brought to land.
At the inquest the evidence is taken on oath, and the Crown or any party suspected may tender evidence. The medical man attending the deceased, if any, may be ordered to attend, and the coroner may order a post mortem examination. If the jury are not satisfied they may name any properly-qualified practitioner, who shall be required to attend and give evidence, or make a post mortem examination. The verdict must be that of twelve at least of the jury. If any person is found guilty of murder or other homicide the coroner shall commit him to prison for trial ; he shall also certify the material evidence to the court, and bind over the proper persons to prosecute or to give evidence at the trial. He may in his discretion accept bail for a person found guilty of manslaughter. Since the abolition of public executions, the coroner is required to hold an inquest on the body of any criminal, on whom sentence of death has been carried into effect. The ques tion of reopening the coroner's inquests after verdict given was discussed in a recent case. The Queen's Bench, on a suggestion on the part of the Crown that there was a probability of fixing the suspected crime by further inquisition, ordered the verdict to be quashed and a new inquest to be held.
There has been of late years nruch discussion on the subject of the coroner'soffice, and legislation at no distant timemay be expected. The points on which reform is generally asked for may be briefly indicated. It is desirable that the qualification for the office should be fixed, and that it should be a legal and not a medical qualification. The duties of the office are mainly judicial ; such medical information as may be necessary can be had from experts ; while of course a knowledge of the technical rules of evidence is essential to the efficient discharge of the coroner's duties. Again, that the election to a judicial office, wholly unpolitical in character, should be by vote of the freeholders of the county is generally felt to be an anomaly. A county coroner recently declared that the expense of contesting the county amounted, in his own case, to several-thousand pounds. Payment, depending directly or indirectly on fees, also produces unfortunate results. It leads occasionally to disputes between the coroners and the justices, and exposes the former to the suspicion of holding unnecessary inquests for the sake of increasing their income. In any circumstances the propriety ofholding an inquest may be a question of great delicacy, and a slight mistake on either side may subject the officer to unmerited obloquy. In some cases the present state of the law involves the great evil of too much inquiry. Besides the coroner's inquest there are, in cases of a criminal character, the public examination before a magistrate, and the private examination by the grand jury. But it may also happen that not merely one but two or more inquests may be held in the same matter. In the case of a railway accident or a collision at sea, the victims may die in different jurisdictions, and if there is a suspicion of criminal negligence, the accused party must practically stand his trial several times over. He may even be acquitted by one jury and condemned by another.
There is no corresponding office in Scotland. (E. R.)