HC Deb 23 March 1814 vol 27 cc342-6
Sir S. Romilly

rose, in pursuance of notice, to move for leave to bring in a Bill to take away the corruption of blood, in cases of attainder for high treason and felony. He expressed a hope, that in again bringing forward this subject, which had been so fully discussed in that House during the last session, he should not be accused of improper perseverance. He was apprehensive that the real object of the Bill which he had introduced on a former occasion had not been correctly understood—a circumstance which was perhaps attributable to the imperfect manner in which he had explained himself on moving for leave to bring it in. The Bill, the introduction of which he had now in view, was precisely similar to that presented to the House before. The House would call to their recollection, that, by the law as it at present stood, a man convicted of high treason forfeited all his lands, all his goods and chattels, and all his personal property. With regard to persons attainted of felony, they only forfeited their lands for one year, and all their goods and chattels, and personal effects. The Bill which he should bring in would not at all vary this law; for it should pass into an Act, persons attainted of the crime of high treason would, as heretofore, forfeit all their lands and property of every description. Whether this was a wise or just law, or not, or whether it was expedient, when the law had removed a man from society, that his property should be confiscated, and a punishment thereby fall on the innocent individuals whom he had left behind, or not, was a matter which had nothing to do with the present Bill. That law would remain as it was, and would not be affected in any way by his Bill. The alteration which he had in contemplation was confined to a part of the ancient law which was peculiar to England, and which did not apply to the other part of this island. He meant that which in cases of attainder was known among lawyers by the term, corruption of blood; the effect of which was, that where a man was attainted of a capital offence, he could not transmit a descent—that was to say, such a person could not form a link by which the chain of a pedigree could be traced: and if an attainted person stood in the way of a pedigree, his descendants, however far removed, would be deprived of the means of establishing their right to lands, to which he, if he were alive, would have had a prior right; and such land would escheat to the lord of the manor of whom the land might be holden. As for instance, if a man had a son and a grandson, and his son should be capitally convicted, if he should die intestate, his grandson would be deprived of the benefit of any real estate of which he might have been possessed; as, in consequence of the attainder of his son, the chain would be broken, and the land would escheat to the lord of the manor; whereby a punishment would be inflicted where punishment was not intended. This law rested upon feudal principles, which were by no means conformable to modern ideas of justice. The punishment rested solely upon accident; for the grandfather might devise his land to his grandson, if he thought proper—and only in case of his neglecting so to do, would his grandson be punished by the confiscation of his property, and its transmission to the lord of the manor. But if this case were considered severe, how much more severe were those cases where the connection was not so immediate, and the relationship more remote? In the case of a twentieth cousin, for instance: there, in tracing a pedigree, if it should be found that one of the direct heirs, however far back, had been convicted of felony, the land would in like manner escheat. And what was apparently still more unjust was, that corruption of blood only extended to personal estate, and did not at all apply to leasehold property. It was of this evil of which he complained; and he was most anxious that such a relick of barbarism should not be found among our laws. It was said, in the course of the discussions which took place on this Bill in the course of the last session, that instances, against the recurrence of which he was desirous of guarding, were not likely to happen. It so happened, however, that at the very moment these assertions were made, an instance had occurred of that very sort; and in a few weeks afterwards it happened to be his fortune, in a professional way, to have that case, which was precisely in point, intrusted to his care. In this case, a woman had been convicted of a murder in Oxfordshire fifty years ago; and the estate to which she would have been entitled had she lived, had passed from one possessor to another, and a valuable consideration had been given for it; yet, notwithstanding the person in possession had paid the full value of the property, information having been given that the property had escheated to the crown, by reason of corruption of blood, an inquisition was instituted, and it was found that the land did in truth belong to the crown, and it was in consequence duly claimed.—An application had, however, been made to the court of Chancery to traverse the inquisition, for the purpose of establishing that the land had not been held of the crown, but of a mesne lord—and this motion having been acceded to, the question would shortly be brought to issue. Having now, he trusted, fully explained his object, he begged to move for leave to bring in a Bill "to take away corruption of blood in cases of attainder for felony and high treason."

The question having been put,

Mr. Yorke

declared that he must object even to the introduction of such a Bill into parliament. He did perfect justice to the motives of the hon. and learned gentleman in again proposing the measure; and he hoped equal justice would be done to his (Mr. Yorke's) motives in resisting it. He regretted this the more, because he must always be disposed to doubt his own judgment when put in competition with that of the hon. and learned gentleman. He was however, one of those who thought that a trifling inconvenience was no ground for an innovation on the ancient law of the land. He was sorry to understand that the Bill was the same as that which the House so properly rejected last session; for he had hoped that what had been urged on that occasion would have inclined the hon. and learned gentleman to omit at least that part of the Bill which related to at- tainder of treason. On that part of the Bill the House had expressed a most decided opinion, and he regretted that the hon. and learned gentleman had not been influenced by it. The law in question was one of the most ancient of the English laws. The law of England was a kind of stock in trade, and parliament ought not to allow it to be deteriorated. Some of our most valuable privileges were of a description, which he would not wish to see altered on the reasoning and on the principles of the hon. and learned gentleman. He begged leave to say, that at the present time the corruption of blood in cases of treason (in whatever times it might have originated, feudal or other) was of the utmost importance to the general discipline and welfare of the state. Lord Hale (an authority which he knew the hon. and learned gentleman deeply venerated) had declared, that treason was the worst crime that could be committed, and that the punishment could not be too severe and dreadful in order to deter from the commission of it. If the law was severe, it was severe because in England, as in all free countries, the temptation to commit treason was comparatively great. It would be too much to take from the state the security afforded by severity of punishment for a crime which involved in it all other crimes. On those grounds he felt it to be his duty not to acquiesce in the motion. The hon. and learned gentleman, of whom he wished to speak with the greatest respect, had from time to time employed his high faculties in the formation of what he considered to be improvements in the criminal code. It was to be regretted, that the hon. and learned gentleman did not at once bring his whole plan before the House, that the whole nature and extent of his views might be clearly exhibited and defined. He did not say this as including matter of accusation against the hon. and learned gentleman; he merely intimated that in his opinion it would be the most convenient mode of proceeding. After quoting several authorities in support of this argument the right hon. gentleman again declared, that he must decidedly oppose the introduction of the Bill. If it related to attainder for felony alone (except in cases of murder), he confessed that his objections to it would not be so insurmountable; but he would never consent to the first step of a measure which had for its object the destruction of one of the strongest defences of the constitution.

Leave was given to bring in the Bill.

Sir Samuel Romilly afterwards moved for leave to bring in a Bill to alter the punishment of high treason.—Leave given.