MARY McHUGH was a legend among coroners. The first woman to be a full-time coroner, she was appointed to the Southern District of London and, from Sutton to Bexley, stamped her authority on its swathe of suburbia. She designed her own purpose-built court in Croydon with limited seats in the jury-box to ensure that it could not be annexed by the Crown Court, which shared the same building.
She evoked intense loyalty from her Coroner's Officers - all serving policemen upon whom she relied, not only for their normal duties, but for transport. In turn, she showed great generosity and resisted senior police officers who attempted to dictate their duties.
McHugh could be idiosyncratic and authoritarian. The coroner's court was her court. She was kind to bereaved relatives but could be dismissive of counsel and solicitors. On one occasion when Michael Mansfield, now an eminent QC, appeared before her in a controversial case, he ended up by collecting his papers and leaving the court in uproar. McHugh carried on as if nothing had happened. Sometimes her inquests were completed with the speed of a turbocharged sports car. And she did not flinch from making unpopular decisions - she insisted on holding inquests into cot deaths, despite the desire, in 1974, of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths and the British Guild for Sudden Infant Death Study to abolish the need for an inquest as it upset parents.
In many ways McHugh was unique. Her fiery temperament combined the Irish and Gaelic of her parents and she was an accomplished linguist in French and German. She qualified in medicine in 1942 and became a house physician and anaesthetist in Birmingham. She took over her father's general practice in the earthy environment of Elephant & Castle, south London. The patient's chair was nailed to the floor as it was not unknown for dissatisfied customers to use it as a weapon when taking out their frustration on the doctor.
She became a Deputy Coroner at Southwark before her appointment in 1965 as Coroner for the Southern District of Greater London, a post which she held for two decades. She was a member of the British Academy of Forensic Science and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1959. She was also a founder member of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Her medico-legal credentials were impeccable.
This was reflected in her Ph D thesis on the 800-year history of the Coroner's Office. It contains invaluable source material. The original coroner's function in filling the King's coffers is still reflected in the coroner's jurisdiction in relation to treasure trove. This was the subject of an article she wrote in Medicine, Science and Law in 1977. And she contributed the section on coroners in Butterworth's Court Forms and Precedence. Not long before her death she completed the draft of an unpublished book on unusual inquests.
McHugh's inability to compromise when she believed she was right made enemies. She was for a time Chairman of the Association of Whole Time Coroners, but her opinion of some of her colleagues was such that she left. When confronted with a less than scrupulous transplant surgeon her insistence on correct procedures drew scurrilous accusations. She countered with a report to the British Medical Association rather than resort to a libel action. She could terrify senior police officers, lock horns with local authority leaders and yet beneath this exterior public image she could be shy and vulnerable.
Her encounters with the High Court were more frequent than is the case with less original coroners. The verdict of 'experimentation' on a 15-year-old boy who hanged himself was so unusual that it was quashed and a fresh inquest by another coroner was ordered by Mr Justice Henry. Two years earlier Mr Justice Saville directed her to consent to the making of arrangements for a second post-mortem examination after she had refused to permit one. Her reaction summed up the courage and defiance which she displayed even when wrong - 'Since I have to give consent for a second post-mortem, can I direct who the pathologist is? It might be somebody outside my jurisdiction.'
She enjoyed a good joke and the language she learned from her Elephant & Castle days could be as rich as her French and German. She graded people according to their favourite card game. Hers was poker. On only one occasion did she overplay her hand. It was to have tragic consequences.
At the height of the Cold War, Dennis Skinner, awarded an MBE for his services to government, was found dead beneath the window of his high-rise Moscow apartment block. Ostensibly a banker, he was a computer expert married to a Russian. He had links with both the KGB and the British Embassy. McHugh decided to hold the inquest in private for reasons of national security. The Observer obtained an injunction to stay the inquest, arguing that she was overstepping her duties. She then decided to hold it in public. She filed her affidavit consenting to the lifting of the injunction, and was told she need not attend the hearing, unknown to Lord Justice Watkins, who called her 'a mistress of discourtesy'.
Her summing up in that case is as good a read as a chapter from John Le Carre. Once the inquest commenced she pursued the truth to the embarrassment of the Home and Foreign Offices, who denied any connection between the death and matters of security. The Establishment closed ranks and not long after McHugh's 20 years of service came to an end.
She recognised only one duty and that was to the ancient office of coroner and the independence of that office. Who killed Skinner and whether he was dead before being thrown from a window may one day be revealed. The fierce independence, determination and obstinacy of Mary McHugh still flashed in her eyes until her death.
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