HC Deb 27 March 1822 vol 6 cc1316-26
Sir Eliab Harvey

rose, to present a petition from the grand jury of Essex, the object of which was so clear and distinct, that it required very few observations in its support. The petitioners called on the House to devise some means by which general gaol deliveries should be rendered more frequent in the county of Essex. At present, it happened that individuals remained in gaol from six to nine months before they were discharged. He held in his hand the calendar of the last Lent assizes, from which it appeared that, from the termination of the summer assizes, early in August, until the 13th of November, 22 prisoners were committed, whose trials could not take place until the following Lent assizes. Six of that number were acquitted, and two were discharged by public proclamation, no prosecutor appearing. It was a great hardship on the individuals who were thus imprisoned for many months; and it was also a heavy expense to the county. The length of time also which elapsed between the commitment and the trial, deterred many persons from prosecuting. He moved, that the petition be brought up.

Mr. Western,

in seconding the motion of his hon. colleague, begged permission to go a little farther into the consideration of the subject. When on former occasions, it was under the consideration of the House, the noble lord opposite had declared, that it was the intention of his majesty's ministers to apply a remedy to the evil of which the petitioners complained. Neither he nor the petitioners doubted that his majesty's ministers would consider the subject, and devise a remedy; but it was most desirable, as the petitioners stated, that the legislature should immediately proceed to pay attention to this important subject. He did not wish unnecessarily to touch on a subject which fell within the province of the learned gentlemen opposite, and of other individuals of high rank and eminence in the law; neither did he want to interfere with the important duties of the learned judges; but the attention of the petitioners, some of whom were magistrates of the county, had been directed to this subject, in consequence of the hardship and inconvenience which the existing system produced. They found, on examining the gaol-calendar, that generally one-half of the persons brought to trial at the Lent assizes were committed in the month of January. It was thus evident, that the county was at the expense of keeping in the gaol from January until the Lent assizes a greater number of prisoners by one-half, than would be the case if a gaol delivery took place in January. Taking the average for a given number of years, it would be seen, that the number of prisoners increased one half, in consequence of the long interval between the summer and the Lent assizes. If gaol-deliveries were more frequent, the county would not have to support more than one-half the prisoners, for whom they were now obliged to provide for a very considerable period. Taking a period of few years, the average number of prisoners tried at the Lent assizes at Chelmsford was 102; of whom 50 were imprisoned in the month of January. If, therefore, a gaol-delivery took place in that month, the county would be freed from the expense of supporting 50 prisoners. In every point of view, both with reference to humanity and economy, the subject was of great importance. Of ail other prisoners, those committed for felony were the most expensive and difficult to provide for. In the first place, ample security must be provided to prevent their escape; and it was also necessary to separate and classify them, in order to prevent contamination. The necessity of more frequent gaol-deliveries was fully exemplified by what was now passing at Maidstone; where the number of prisoners had increased to such an extent, that Mr. Baron Graham was obliged to put off very many Nisi Prius eases of great importance, for the purpose of assisting Mr. Baron Wood in trying criminal offences. This, however, was not sufficient; and Mr. Serjeant Lewes and Mr. Serjeant Taddy were trying cases in an Anabaptist chapel. There was, he conceived, considerable injustice in keeping persons in prison, as the assizes were now regulated. Individuals who had committed trifling offences, and others who ultimately were acquitted, were imprisoned for several months, and that too in winter, before they were tried at the Lent assizes. The consequence was, that the effect which punishment ought to have, was considerably weakened; for imprisonment ceased to be viewed with feelings of pain. From the year 1816 it appeared, that, of the persons committed in the county of Essex, no less than 400 were imprisoned before the 1st of October. Those individuals must, therefore, have remained very little less than six months in gaol, before they were tried at the Lent assizes; and at the present Lent assizes, many of the persons convicted of felony were sentenced to a shorter period of imprisonment than they had previously undergone. The commitments in Essex, for the last ten years, were 4,291; of that number 1,100 persons had been acquitted, and no bill had been found against 274. Yet those persons had been subjected to a very long imprisonment, before their cases were decided. He thought the remedy for this evil—that of a more frequent gaol delivery—could easily be obtained. What he and other individuals wished for, was, that one of the judges should take the criminal cases at the quarter sessions, while the ordinary business of appeals &c, could go on before the magistrates as usual. He, for one, did not think the administration of the criminal law would be perfect, while a prisoner could by any possibility, be kept in gaol for more than three months previous to his trial. The Lent and Summer assizes were extremely well fixed, in point of time; and he thought, if another gaol delivery took place in January, it would be a very beneficial measure. He could see no objection to leaving the capital offences to one of the judges, at the time of the quarter sessions, while the other business proceeded in the ordinary course. When the quarter sessions were held, both the grand and the petty jury were in attendance. The magistrates were also assembled, and the gentry, or what might be termed the public of the county, were present at that time. Perhaps it might be said, that the judges would be incompetent to perform this additional duty. He thought, however, that six of them might be spared for the purpose; and that three additional judges should be appointed to assist then. He did not think that the expense which such an appointment would occasion, could fairly be urged as a reason for not rendering the administration of the criminal law as perfect as possible. The object was no less than the prevention of absolute injustice.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that any one who had read the petition, or had heard the speech of the hon. member for Essex, could not fail to be impressed with the importance of the subject of which it treated. He conceived that nothing could be more proper to petition that House upon, and that hon. members conversant, from their situations in the country, with these matters, should express their opinion, as to the best mode of improving the administration of justice; and he thought the least return that could be made for the manner in which the duties of the Magistrates were performed, was to attend to the representations made by them, involving subjects connected with the duties of their situations. He assured the House, that this subject had not escaped the serious attention of his majesty's government, and he hoped the communication he had to make on the subject would convince the House, that they were by no means disposed to undervalue the importance of the question. At the same time, the hon. gentleman opposite, must in candour admit, that they ought to approach a change in the established made of administering justice in the country without due caution; and with out taking especial care not to disturb that opinion as to the impartial administration of justice, which it was so desirable should be entertained by the country at large. The fact, that the system of this country was the most perfect system of jurisprudence in the world, imposed upon them the necessity of observing great caution in approaching it for the purpose of making any change. With regard to the remedies proposed by the hon. member for Essex, upon first sight, he could perceive many difficulties in the way of the adoption of the plan laid down by him. That plan was, that one or two judges should attend at the quarter sessions to preside over a criminal court, and make the grand and petty juries in attendance cooperate with him. In the first place, it was impossible to carry that plan into effect without increasing the number of the judges; and to that, all men who had turned their attention to the subject, entertained very great objections. That difficulty, therefore, must in the first instance, be surmounted, and then there would remain other difficulties of still greater magnitude. Any one who had witnessed the administration of the law at the quarter sessions, could not fail to have remarked the vast difference there was, betwixt the grand and petty juries on that occasion, and those assembled at the assizes. This being the case, the House would see to what it would tend; and nothing was more to be avoided in the establishment of a new gaol delivery, than the impression that criminal cases were disposed of with less care and attention than at the assizes. If there were an impression on the country that they were attended with less solemnity, it would greatly deteriorate the cause of justice. Another difficulty attending the quarter sessions was, that by law they were required to be held within a week after a certain period, which would disable the judge and the counsel, from returning to their duty in the courts in London, in term time. He would take, for instance, the October quarter sessions, to be held within a week of the 11th October. Supposing that day to fall on a Sunday, the session might not begin before the 19th, and the term beginning on the 6th November, how was it possible that the judge and counsel could return to their duties in the Court of King's Bench, and other courts, in sufficient time. The same would be the case in January. These, he knew, were but the details, and might be overcome; but the objection as to the number of the Judges, and other objections, were insuperable to any thing being done without the maturest deliberation. The best way was, to apply the means within their power to remedy the evil; and he had to state, that after full consideration, government had determined next winter, to make the experiment of a third gaol delivery in all the counties of the home circuit. Thus, in Essex, Sussex, Kent, Hertfordshire, and Surrey, a judge would go the circuit, and have the usual assistance of a grand and a petty jury. These counties were selected for the experiment, on account of their proximity to the metropolis, not being so open to the inconvenience in point of time to which those more distant were subject; and also in consideration of the greater number of crimes, in proportion to the larger population. The county of Middlesex had eight gaol deliveries, on account of its vicinity to the metropolis, and he saw no reason why the principle upon which those increased deliveries were founded, should not be applied to other counties. But he must say, that thought the present proposition an exception to the principle, on the ground of its impracticability, and, therefore, he must oppose it, at least until the experiment was tried to which he had already referred.

Mr. Leycesler

said, he had heard with great pleasure the statement of the right hon. gentleman. There could scarcely be a more serious evil in society, than long imprisonment before trial, inasmuch as it subjected the innocent to punishment, and sometimes to heavier punishment than the guilty. More frequent gaol-deliveries would also furnish opportunities for the improvement of prison discipline. He had himself no doubt of a respectable attendance at the bar on these new commissions, and that the supply of professional men would be always adequate to the demand. During term, when four judges were sitting in each court of Westminster-hall, one might, he thought, be well spared for the additional circuit. There was, in his opinion, nothing impracticable in such an arrangement. It was not necessary for them now to refer to all the details and technicalities which might afterwards require consideration; let them only make up their minds as to the leading question—let them but once pronounce the emphatic fiat, and he doubted not that the point would be accomplished.

Mr. Peel

rose, merely to supply an omission in his previous statement with respect to the new circumstances in which it would occasionally place some of the judges. Nothing could be more remote from the intentions of government than to subject them to any additional expense; and he felt confident that if additional expense should arise from the proposed system, that House would most readily make it good.

Mr. Dickinson

was sorry to express his disappointment at finding that the measure of his hon. friends, the members for Essex, was not likely to be adopted, and that one so contracted in its circumference, and so narrow in its view with regard to its real object, was intended to supply its place. He had known many instances of the grievance complained of, one of which occurred now; a boy of twelve years old was accused by another boy of a felony; he was committed in the month of August; he was all the winter in gaol; and in the month of April he was discharged, for the grand jury found no bill. What good sense was there in saying that this remedy should be applied to Hertfordshire, a county purely agricultural, and where the criminals were notoriously few; and that it should not be extended to Somerset-shire, where, from the population, crimes were committed in the largest number, and chiefly by criminals who came from towns of such dimensions as Frome and Bath. He was glad to hear that it was not intended to increase the labours of the judges: they were already oppressed with business; he hoped, also, it was not intended to add to the burthens of county magistrates; four actual weeks' sitting in a year, independent of travelling and other magisterial duties, he thought though enough for them. He approved of the measure of the member for Essex, because it intended to give to the subject one of its best rights, celerem et plenam justitiam, which the other did not; he approved of it also, because in these times of agricultural distress, it would lessen the burthens on land, by rendering the building extensive gaols less necessary, and it Would also promote the object of classification by lessening the inmates.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that this subject was of the highest important to the country, and he had heard with pleasure that a scheme was in contemplation, by which a great portion of the inconvenience would be removed. Even at the last assizes for Kent, it was found impossible to get through the business which had accumulated. One judge could not perform the whole; and so numerous were the criminal cases, that 13 out of 28 nisi prius caused were left untried.

Mr. Chetwynd

said, that there years had elapsed since his hon. friend the member for Essex first called the attention of this House and the public to this important subject; and although the original proposition was not acceded to, it was generally understood, that some plan by way of experiment was contemplated by his majesty's government to remedy the evils complained of; otherwise, petitions to a similar effect would ere this have emanated from other counties. If it be a maxim of our law, as stated in a book of the highest authority, that "dilatio justitiæ est quædam negatio"—if there be any truth in the saying of a wise king of old, that, "because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is set in them to do evil;" and if it be for the advancement of the commonwealth that justice should be speedily and promptly executed, there cannot be two opinions as to the expediency and necessity of a more frequent delivery of our gaols, and that measures should be adopted to prevent the possibility of an innocent individual being im- prisoned six, seven, eight, or nine months previously to his case being submitted to a grand jury. He (Mr. C.) said, that in the course of his experience as a magistrate, acting for many years in a large and populous county, instances had come within his knowledge of persons being imprisoned a much longer period before trial than after conviction—of others who, after haying suffered six or seven months' imprisonment, the grand jury have decided that the evidence was insufficient to justify their being put upon trial—of others who, after long periods of confinement, had been discharged by proclamation, or acquitted upon the merits. Confinement itself, even in the most improved state of our gaols, was a very great evil, whether we consider the individual himself or the public, who were burthened with the expenses of providing accommodation for an accumulated number of untried prisoners, and also with the expenses of maintaining them. The evil being admitted, the next question was, as to the remedy, and this he thought could not be confided to better hands than those of the secretary of state for the home department. But he implored his majesty's ministers not to increase either the jurisdiction of the quarter sessions, nor add to the burthens of the Magistracy, who were already so overloaded that independent country gentlemen were unwilling to take upon themselves that irksome office, and thus the administration of justice might eventually devolve into inferior hands. The hon. member observed, that magistrates were treated very leniently on the other side of Westminster-hall, but were very roughly handled in that House. Lord Mansfield had said, if their judgments be wrong but the heart pure, God forbid that he should punish them! Mr. C. said, he thought their motives were not so favourably interpreted in that House as they ought to be. With respect to the present judges, he thought that their labours should not, and indeed could not be increased. He rejoiced that they were not to incur any expenses with reference to the present experiment; their salaries were already very inadequate; and if no other member would bring the subject before the House, he, bumble and insignificant as he might be certainly would do so.

W. Smith

said, that not one, but experiments, ought to be made, rather than leave the prevailing system without a remedy. A case had lately occurred, in which a man who had inflicted every thing short of murder on a boy in his employment, who had died in consequence of his sufferings, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. Now, he had known an instance in Norfolk, in which an individual, after being confined many months, was discharged without any punishment at all. The hardship of long imprisonment was not in general duly appreciated. He earnestly hoped that a prompt and effectual remedy would be applied to this monstrous evil.

The Attorney General

said, he was fully aware of the inconvenience suffered under the existing state of the law; but, in proportion as it was important, they ought not to adopt any scheme to amend it without adequate deliberation. The difficulty of dealing with the evil in question might be judged of, from the circumstance or there being such various opinions as to the mode of remedying it. An experiment was to be tried upon the home counties; and he was sure that it could not be extended farther without new modelling the courts, and increasing the number of judges. In all they did, they must, above all, take care that justice was administered satisfactorily to the people. Justice must be done without hurry; and the people must feel that they had the best talents of the judges. The situation of a judge should be an inducement to gentlemen of the highest talents at the bar. The judges had little enough leisure at present; and if they increased their burthens, no gentleman sufficiently qualified would accept the situation. After the experiment had been tried, the House would be better able to judge whether it should be continued or extended.

Dr. Lushington

agreed, that no alteration ought to be made in the number of the judges, except upon the most mature consideration; but, if after the experiment should be tried, the judges were found incapable of bearing farther burthens, then he hoped the House would consent to increase their number. There had been periods in our history when the number of judges was greater. In the century before the last, there had been five judges in each court, and at one period six. When it was considered that the judges returned in October from the circuits, and that the next session began in November, it could not be supposed that they could bear additional labour at that period. No mind was capable of perpetual tension. If business pressed too heavily, it destroyed the fitness for performing it. The additional expense was not to be set in competition with the expense in point of morality, occasioned by the long imprisonment of persons, who were young and perhaps innocent, in the society of felons. The case of Maidstone showed the necessity of a more frequent gaol-delivery. When three courts proceeded at once with criminal trials, the rapidity of decision must prove injurious to the character of the administration of justice. He would, however, be the first to oppose the appointment of judges for criminal cases only. With regard to the salaries of the judges, he had always been of opinion that they were not sufficient to support the dignity of the office. It was not only an injury to the judges themselves, but an injury to the country; because there were many instances in which persons the best qualified to fill the situation had declined it, on the express ground that they could not afford to accept it.

Mr. Sykes

thought that the experiment which had been so successfully tried in the four northern counties, might be advantageously extended to the other parts of the kingdom.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, that the plan suggested by his right hon. friend was sufficiently confined to insure all the advantages of local convenience, without hazarding its ultimate success by too extensive a scale of operation. The experiment on the northern circuit afforded an illustration of his argument; for in that instance a cautious, but not less accelerative system had been adopted; and the plan was not extended at first to all the counties included in that circuit. A still greater degree of caution was necessary in the present instance; and it would be dangerous to rush at once into so extensive an experiment as that of extending a third assize to all the counties in England. The country with which he was connected, looked with much anxiety to the result of this experiment; for there were many counties in Ireland where the calendars pressed as heavily upon the judges as they did in this country. His right hon. friend could not have given a stronger pledge to the House of the sincerity with which the government had entered on this measure than by beginning upon such a scale as would enable him to place it upon the most advantageous practical principle, and to carry it most speedily into effect.

Ordered to lie old table, and to be printed.