HC Deb 08 April 1811 vol 19 cc743-5
Sir. S. Romilly

moved the third reading of this Bill.

Mr. Secretary Ryder

said, that though he agreed in the general principles staled by his hon. and learned friend, he differed from him in the application of them to the present subject. The certainty of punishment should, be observed, but that certainty would not be facilitated by the Bill. This was not a question of practical, but of speculative humanity, for it did not profess to make the practice conformable to the theory, but the theory to the practice. It was urged, that prosecutions would be increased by lessening, the, punishment: but that he denied, as far, as his experience went; and if prosecutors, juries, judges, and witnesses were affected by such a circumstance, he did not see why it should not be supposed to have an influence upon offenders themselves The, terror of the law operated in the, best way that law could operate, namely, to prevent the commission of crimes, It had been said, that one object of the Bill was, to diminish the discretion of judges. He was sure, that no greater be on could be granted to them than such a step, if it could be done without materially injuring the country at large; but, in his opinion, the loss or limitation of their discretion would be attended with, the worst consequences. He agreed, however, in one thing with his hon. and learned friend. Sentence, he thought, ought not to be passed upon those who were not intended to be executed; and he was also inclined to think that the value for which an offender could be punished capitally, might be raised in proportion to the alteration of the value of money at the present day.

Mr. Wilberforce

could not agree that the Bill would have no practical effect. The law, as it stood at present, was calculated to introduce a sort of gambling into vice, in consequence of the uncertainly of punishment. He defended his hon. and learned friend from the imputation of intending to change the laws of his country; and maintained that his only object was to give the country a practical code. It had been said that laws should be severe; but when they were too much so the sympathies of the people were driven to the side of the criminal, and they were sent away rather shocked than reformed.

Sir J. Newport

thought it was a great practical evil that juries should be exposed to perjury. He instanced several cases in which verdicts had been given contrary to evidence, for the purpose of avoiding the capital-parts of the charges, and hoped his hon. and learned friend would persevere in his intention.

Mr. Lockhart

thought that the legislators of the present day should give some credit to the wisdom of our ancestors, who had made and acted upon the law as it now stood. He doubted whether crimes were numerically increased, but he was certain their depth of dye was not; and this he attributed to the calculations which culprits made between the crimes which were punished capitally, and those which were not. He objected to venturing on an unknown sea, and repealing a law which had the sanction of antiquity. If he did agree to it, it should be only as an experiment for one or two years, but even that he feared would have a tendency to unsettle the minds of the people.

Mr. Whitbread

said he had not hitherto taken any part in these discussions, because he thought other gentlemen more competent to deliver their opinions than he could be; but he could not help now offering a few words to the consideration of the House. He was astonished at the array of lawyers that always opposed his hon. and learned friend; and he was no less astonished at hearing his hon. and learned friend's opinions termed theoretical; and he was as much astonished at the ingenious speech of his hon. friend (Mr. Frankland), who certainly said all that could be-said against the Bill; and though he did not convince, at least succeeded in dazzling in some parts, and puzzling in others. Did the lawyers recollect, that his hon. and learned friend, in following up his great and benevolent plan, had pursued the highest law opinions of antiquity, many of whom concurred in the want of an amendment in our criminal laws? As for what had been said of reconciling theory to practice, it would indeed be a most beneficial thing could they succeed in reconciling the theory and practice of the law. It was imputed to his hon. and learned friend that he had taken up the opinion of Mr. Paley. This was not the case; for on the contrary he had combated successfully the doctrine laid down by that eminent writer on this subject. But his opinions proceeded from the best of sources, and from the wisdom of his own excellent mind, matured by experience, and his attendance on the criminal courts. He was certain, whatever might be the fate of this motion, to-night, that these ameliorations would sooner or later be adopted as the law of the land. As for the doctrine of the hon. and learned gent, opposite, that the perjury of witnesses and juries was humane, and improved the general morals, he could not agree with him; and noticed two cases in which such perjuries occurred; the one, where a person who stole six 10l. notes was found guilty of stealing to the amount of 39s.; and the other, where the criminal was acquitted for stealing money, oh the supposition that it might all be bad! Gentlemen on the other side went always on the presumption that these laws were enacted wisely, and on due consideration; but did they not recollect how little capital punishments were thought of before this age of civilization? If a member of parliament was wronged in any way, it was only to move to have the sledge-hammer of the law laid upon the offence; and he dared say they remembered the story of the Bill, making it a capital felony in a Jew to look down an area; which was amended by the introduction of the words, "or other," after the word Jew, so that any Jew, or other person, might be hanged for that offence. The hon. and learned gentlemen opposite seemed afraid lest any amelioration of the law, even for a few years, should unsettle the minds of criminals, and that they could not return with a good grace to their capital punishments. This reminded him of Pig and Kill Pig, about the beginning of the American war—"Would you be cut and killed a little."—After noticing some other arguments, the hon. gentleman concluded by saying, that the public opinion on the subject of this Bill might be seen from the rise of his hon. and learned friend, even from the high eminence on which he formerly stood, in public estimation. His finding time from his severe avocations to pursue this excellent and beneficent plan, after all the political feuds of this day were forgotten, would transmit his name with honour to posterity as the benefactor of his country. Some men, by their virtuous exertions, acquired fame after their death, but of his hon. and learned friend his country might in his life time say—"Presenti tibi largimur honores."

The Attorney General

thought it very natural that many lawyers should come forward upon a question materially connected with their profession. With respect to the Bill itself, he believed it would have a tendency to increase and not to lessen crimes; for it would remove the terror of death which operated most strongly upon the most hardened offenders. They would always make a distinction between the possibility of escaping death and the certainty that they could not be punished by it. As to passing sentence on those not intended to be executed, an hon. and learned friend of his had described on a former night its effect on a young woman; from whence he (the Attorney General) would infer that it might operate in many cases to deter the individuals from future offences. As to the objection of the unwillingness of prosecutors to come forward, it applied equally to the whole of the criminal law. He thought the opinions of the Recorder and Common Serjeant entitled to considerable weight and was somewhat surprised that his hon. and learned friend did not endeavour to procure the opinion of the Judges on a matter of such importance.

Mr. Marryatt

expressed himself strongly in favour of the measure. The advantage of the milder system of criminal law was evident from the effect which it had produced in a neighbouring country. In the year 1802 he was in Amsterdam, and he learned, that for many years but two instances of capital punishment had occurred there. Imprisonment and hard labour were substituted for capital punishment; and it appeared that the most beneficial consequences had resulted from it. The House had in a recent instance a practical proof of the bad consequences arising from the law as it at present stood. He alluded to the case of the unfortunate man lately executed at Gloucester, in consequence of the reprieve having been mis-directed. This could not have occurred, if the contemplated alteration in the law bad taken place. The opinions of that great moralist Dr. Johnson, as well as of other eminent men, were in favour of the principle of these Bills, which he would most heartily support.

Mr. Wynn

supported the Bill. He expressed himself decidedly hostile to the attaching the punishment of death to offences of a comparatively trifling nature. Much practical ill had arisen from the criminal law, as at present constituted, by occasioning those numerous instances of perjury which every gentleman must be aware of.

The House divided, when there appeared: For the 3d reading, 50; Against it, 39. Majority 11.

The Navigable River Robbery Bill, the Privately Stealing Bill, and the English and Irish Bleaching Ground Robbery Bill, were then read a third time, and also passed.