I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill continues for the rest of this year two war-time enactments which otherwise would lapse to-morrow, namely, (1) the Coroners (Emergency Powers) Bill, 1917, which temporarily reduced the maximum number of jurors to be summoned from 23 to 12, and the minimum from 12 to 7; (2) Section 7 of the Juries Act, 1918, which enabled coroners to hold inquests without juries in certain cases. The whole question of coroners' juries was considered in 1910 by a Departmental Committee, but during the War it was impossible to put their recommendations, or such of them as were accepted, into statutory form, and the whole question is now being considered with a view to permanent legislation. In the meantime, these emergency provisions will save a considerable amount of money, and will also save a great amount of inconvenience. The powers of the present Act cease as from to-morrow, and therefore it is necessary that they should be renewed temporarily while the whole question of permanent legislation is being considered. All this Bill does is to extend from to-morrow until the 31st day of December this year those temporary provisions. They are provisions which have worked very well, and they have, as i have already stated, saved a considerable amount of money and obviated much inconvenience, and, so far as one is able to tell, they have not been the cause of miscarriages of justice of any sort. The whole question is now under revision, and we are considering permanent legislation dealing with the whole subject of coroners' work. For these reasons I ask the House to give a Second Beading to this Measure.
There can be no objection to this Bill and its passage into law with all necessary speed. I think, however, that we are entitled to complain that it has not been put down before. We are told it is required by to-morrow because that is the time when the present Act expires. I suggest that it would have been quite easy to have put this Bill down some day last week, and by this time we might have taken the Committee stage and the Third Beading, and the thing would have been complete before the present Act expires. This kind of thing has often been done since this Parliament began, and the old War habits are still with us. It is not right to introduce a Bill to-day in order to continue an Act which expires tomorrow when we ought to have had more time. I desire, as I am sure we all do, to see that no undue delay is occasioned. I am glad to hear that these new arrangements have operated so successfully, and more especially have operated more economically. As far as I am concerned, I shall certainly support the provisions of these two Acts that are now continued after to-morrow in a permanent form. I do not recollect the findings of the Committee to which the Home Secretary has referred, but I should imagine that they cover some recommendations to avoid overlapping between the magistrate's inquiry and that of the coroner. There can be, nothing more difficult for professional and civilian witnesses than to have their time fooled about between a magistrate's inquiry which is sometimes going on the very same day as the coroner's jury has been summoned. That, I suppose, is a matter which is within the ambit of the recommendations of the Committee to which my right hon. Friend has referred, and I hope those recommendations will be put into legislative, form as speedily as possible, so that those of them that are practicable can be passed into law at the earliest moment.
There can be no question that the war-time provisions contained in the two Acts referred to in this Bill can very well be carried forward into the days of peace, with very great advantage to the public. It will be observed that the provisions in this Bill continue only to the 31st December. The Home Secretary has informed the House that he proposes to bring in a more comprehensive Bill before the end of the Session, but suppose, by way of argument, that anything untoward should occur, say the very remote possibility of a General Election, to prevent the right hon. Gentleman from bringing in such a Bill? Can we be assured that these provisions will be continued in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, which will be brought in, I presume, before the end of this Parliament?
Major C. LOWTHER:
I venture, with great humility, to reinforce the remarks of the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) in so far as he mentioned the question of a number of very necessary Amendments that must be made in the law with regard to coroners' and magistrates' inquiries? The Home Office must have been well aware that this Bill was expiring to-morrow, and must have known that for some time there has been a feeling in legal circles that there has been duplication of business by magisterial and coroners' inquiries, and I feel they have acted in rather a slipshod manner in allowing the Act to get so near its expiry that we are left with only one day in which to take action. We have been accustomed in this Parliament to promises which have or have not been fulfilled, and the Home Secretary, in saying he hopes to give legislative effect to what everybody must urgently desire, is not going quite far enough. The other day I asked the right hon. Gentleman when he intended to bring in a Bill to deal with this matter, and he gave a reply which is not uncommon on those benches, that the matter was receiving consideration, but that he could not give any sort of a date. He could have come to us with a great deal more force and strength in his observations if he had been -able to say to-day: "Before such and such a date we intend to bring in a Bill for the amendment of the law in that particular respect." I hope the right hon. Gentleman will make himself acquainted with the very real desire, not only in this House but in the country, for the simplification and amendment of the law, and I trust that when he gets Second Reading to-day he will, if I may humbly venture to request him to do so, bear in mind that if he can pass into law that which is in everybody's mind, he will have done one good service for which we shall all be grateful to him.
I have only one or two words to say so far as our party are concerned. We are supporting the Bill, but we do not agree with the suggestion put forward from the other side, that the Government are not responsible for the lapse of time. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows perfectly well that this Bill could have been introduced at the opening of this Session.
That makes it worse, because my right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that the Government decided to introduce it first in another place. Then what answer is that? It is absurd to say, after they had decided they would introduce it in a particular way, that that is a reason why they could not introduce it here. The fact of the matter is, it was either forgotten, and the fact that the existing procedure was expiring has only just been discovered, or that internal differences were so occupying you that you had not time to take the matter into consideration. It is one of the two. So far as the permanent amending Bill is concerned, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will keep in mind that there is a real desire in the country for the reorganisation entirely of coroners' courts. It is true that a recent case has brought prominently to the public notice some of the anomalies, but he will understand there are many others existing, and that the time has arrived to review the whole of the situation. Generally, we believe that this Bill gives effect to something which has proved to be an advantage, and we are prepared to facilitate the passage of the Bill.
Mr. T. THOMSON:
Apprehension has been expressed to mo in certain quarters 'as to whether the position of poor people who meet with accidents is prejudiced in any way by the abolition of juries. I know that coroners are most estimable people and see justice done, but the fear has been expressed, as claims for compensation are dependent, to a certain extent, upon the findings at the Coroners' Court, that the absence of a jury may prejudice the full inquiry which should take place at an inquest. I do not believe that is a well-founded apprehension, but I should like to have the assurance that this point will be considered, especially so as what is done to-day will no doubt determine the more permanent legislation which is to follow. It is feared that the poor may possibly be sacrificing some protection which the jury afforded them, and I wish to be assured that the position of such people, who are unable to protect themselves, will not be prejudiced. They feel there is some special safeguard, and although the decision on which compensation rests is based upon the finding of another court, the original inquiry must have an effect on the ultimate finding.
Just in reply to that last point. The interest of any such persons cannot be affected in any way whatever. The decision of the coroners' jury has absolutely no effect upon compensation, none whatever.