Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Written Evidence


Evidence submitted by the City of London Corporation, City Remembrancer's Office

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The City Coroner is appointed by the Common Council of the City of London to inquire into deaths reported to him and into cases of treasure that is found. The City Coroner's district is coterminous with the City's boundaries notwithstanding the City's responsibility for the whole of the tidal Thames from Teddington to the Kent and Essex coasts as Port Health Authority. The City Coroner has consequently only a very small number of deaths to deal with (between 125 and 150 per annum), compared to the other London coroners, and his is the only part time coronership in London. The present holder, appointed in 2002, is a practising City solicitor and a part-time law professor at King's College London.

APPOINTMENT, SUPERVISION, PERSONNEL

  2.  Every coroner must be either a lawyer or a medical practitioner of at least five years' standing. While coroners are appointed and financed by local authorities, they are judicial officers holding an independent office under The Crown, rather than employees. Although local authorities have some control in financial matters, they have none over coroners' actual decisions. In practice, coroners are responsible to the High Court in respect of their decisions, and to the Lord Chancellor in respect of their behaviour. The local authority is obliged to indemnify the coroner in respect of his legal costs (and any costs he might be ordered to pay to another party) in any legal proceedings brought arising out of his acts or omissions as coroner. The last judicial review of a decision of the City Coroner dates back to the 1980s. There is no known instance of the Lord Chancellor disciplining the City Coroner.

  3.  Every coroner must appoint a Deputy, and may appoint an Assistant Deputy. Like the coroner, each of them must also be either a lawyer or a medical practitioner of at least five years' standing, and each has the same powers to hold inquests. The present Deputy is the (fulltime) coroner from another London district. His is principally a medical qualification. The present Assistant Deputy is another practising City solicitor, although from a different from than the Coroner. As the law requires, at least one of them is available at all times, day or night, 365 days a year.

  4.  Every coroner is aided by one or more "coroner's officers" who are, in effect, caseworkers. Until well after the Second World War, the City of London Mortuary Superintendent acted as coroner's officer. Nowadays, the City Coroner has one full time officer, and two part-time officers. They are all serving members of the City of London Police, but attached to the Court, and under the direction of the Coroner in relation to their duties as his officers. The coroner's office is staffed and open to the public every weekday other than bank holidays. There is a rota providing a 24-hour, seven days a week, out of office service for urgent matters, accessible through the City of London Police.

  5.  The caseload of the City Coroner is small, but extremely varied. There are deaths from road accidents, industrial accidents, domestic accidents, drug overdoses, hospital deaths after surgical operations and other treatment, river drownings, suicides, prison deaths, deaths in police custody, terrorist action, "ordinary" homicides, and so on.

TREASURE INQUESTS

  6.  In addition to holding inquests into certain kinds of deaths, a coroner holds inquests into treasure that is found in his or her district. Medieval law held treasure trove to be gold or silver that had been hidden with a view to retrieval later. The Treasure Act 1996 widened this to include other categories such as coins and other objects. All treasure found in the City, including the Thames foreshore, or in (the historic borough of) Southwark belongs by law to the City of London as a franchisee of the Crown (Charter of Edward IV, dated 9 November 1462), rather than to the Crown itself. Compared to other coronial jurisdictions, the City has more treasure inquests than its size would indicate (there were three in 2005). This fact is due to the rich history of the City, the thriving archaeological services here, and above all the constant need to redevelop the existing buildings once they become uneconomic.

HISTORY

  7.  Originally coroners were elected in each county to look after local matters in which the King has a financial interest. They also had certain ministerial functions, such as to act for the sheriffs, where the latter were disqualified through interest for acting. In cities like London, which were outside the control of the counties, special arrangements prevailed. Because the City of London was especially important to the King, the office of Coroner in the City of London was until the late 15th century held by a royal officer called the King's Butler or the King's Chamberlain (not to be confused with the City Chamberlain, or Chamberlain of the Guildhall). Sometimes, particularly in periods when the City was weak in power, this person was also appointed the City's Mayor as well.

  8.  However, by charter dated 20 June 1478, King Edward IV granted to the Mayor and Commonalty of the City (in consideration of £7,000, a large sum of money for those days) the right to appoint the City Coroner. By charter dated 23 April 1550, King Edward VI granted them a similar right to appoint two Coroners for (the historic borough of) Southwark, whose administration was also granted to the City, even though it was physically on the other side of the river. Being appointed by an independent corporation rather than being elected by the county, these coroners were known as "franchise" coroners.

  9.  For many years it was usual to appoint the same person to be both Coroner of the City and Coroner for Southwark. The last person to hold both offices ceased to do so in 1932, after the right to appoint the Southwark Coroner was transferred by an Act of 1926 to the London County Council. The Inner South London Coroner, whose district includes what is now the London Borough of Southwark, is now appointed the council of that borough, in succession to the Greater London Council.

  10.  The City Coroner is still appointed by the City of London, although now under the general law (the Coroners Act 1988) rather than by Royal Charter. Now no longer a "franchise" coroner, he has the same duties and powers as any other coroner. From 1888 to 1977, though, he had jurisdiction, under a special Act of Parliament, to hold inquests into non-fatal fires in the City.

  11.  Because of the way prison legislation was drafted, he also had jurisdiction over deaths in Holloway Prison from when it was built in 1852 to 1965. Even today the coroner for Inner North London (in whose district Holloway Prison lies) invariably offers to transfer jurisdiction in relation to Holloway deaths to the City Coroner, and the offer is always accepted. There are however only one or two such deaths a year.

  12.  The City of London Mortuary and Coroner's Court was formerly on the eastern side of Golden Lane, dating from the late nineteenth century. The buildings were damaged in the Second World War, and the court was for some years held in the Cripplegate Institute, on the western side of Golden Lane.

  13.  The current purpose built mortuary, offices and court date from the late 1960s, and form a part of the oldest part of the modern Barbican complex, in the public services building known as Milton Court (where the City Fire Station was also housed). The City mortuary ceased to be used as such in 2002, when the City contracted with the London Borough of Camden to use its public mortuary instead of maintaining its own. The old mortuary is now used as a storeroom for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The City Coroner's Court and offices are expected to move to new accommodation provided by the City at Walbrook Wharf in 2006 or early 2007, after which the Milton Court site will be redeveloped.

City of London Corporation

City Remembrancer's Office

March 2006





 
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