The Coroner System in the 21st Century

Howard League for Penal Reform – Parmoor Lecture

It is a real honour and a pleasure to be invited to speak today. The Howard League for Penal Reform is one of the great reforming charities of our time. As the oldest penal reform organization in the world, its work, since its inception in 1866 (as the Howard Association), has been outstanding, challenging government after government to make humanitarian changes. Some of its recent work, on children in prison, women in prison, suicide and self-harm and restraint, has been truly inspirational, thanks, no doubt, to the indefatigable and formidable talents of its director Frances Crook and her team.

John Howard (1726-1790), the penal reformer, was drawn into the world of prisons in his 50s in 1773 in his year of office as Sheriff of Bedford. He discovered that prisoners who had been acquitted at the Assize courts were taken back to prison and kept there, simply because they could not afford the fees of the gaoler and the tipstaff who had held them in custody in the first place. Howard requested that this injustice should be avoided by paying the gaoler a salary, but the counties resisted the extra expense. John Howard spent the next 17 years, as he said, ‘looking into the prisons [where] I beheld scenes of calamity, which I grew daily more and more anxious to alleviate’. He survived the plague, gaol fever and much more on his prison visits, he claimed, because he was a vegetarian and a teetotaller.

I was proud to be a trustee of the Howard League until recently when the Board decided that I should go, so that they had the opportunity, if necessary, to challenge my work as Chief Coroner. I look forward to some robust criticism, to keep me on my toes. I still have the pleasure of chairing the Howard League Lawyers’ Network Group.

I only met Lord Parmoor once, in a canteen in Holloway Prison, as one does. We were on a Howard League visit and we had a chat over a sandwich. He was delightful. I still have my Holloway Prison mug, made by prisoners through a charity. Sadly, Lord Parmoor has passed on his mug, and the tea towel no doubt too. But I am very much aware of his huge enthusiasm and generous support for the work of the League.

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