HC Deb 19 June 1823 vol 9 cc1103-6
Mr. Western

said, that he rose to submit to the House a motion which involved in its consequences, matters of very great importance. The object of it, as his notice indicated, went to an alteration in the Constitution of Juries, in so far at least as related to the qualification (by possession of property) of those who may be called upon to perform the important functions of a juror.

The hon. member said, he hoped the House would not be alarmed at the idea of touching the frame and constitution of juries. He was fully of opinion, that the measure he contemplated demanded their most deliberate attention; but still it was such as, he felt confident they would sanction; and which he thought, indeed, had only failed of adoption ere then from pure inadvertence to the great alteration of circumstances which time had induced. His object was, in fact, simply to render persons possessed of personal property to a given amount, as well as real, eligible, that was to say, qualified, and liable to serve as jurors. And when he reflected upon the vast amount and proportion of personal property in this kingdom which had grown up in latter times, and the character and situations in life of the multitude possessing that species of property, and that alone, he thought the House would feel with him that it was surprising that they had not yet been called out to the service of their country as jurors. From the earliest period of history, it would be found that a juror was required to possess a certain amount of property as proof of some respectability and station in life and a consequent security to the party to be tried. The accused person had accordingly a right to challenge a juror, if he did not so possess an adequate amount. It was, indeed, one if not the chief ground of direct challenge; Blackstone, after reciting the four principal grounds of challenge to the jury given by Sir Edward Coke, propter honoris respectum, defectum, affectum, and delictum, says," but the principal is, deficiency of estate sufficient to qualify him to be a juror." A variety of statutes consequently at various periods of our history are to be found, under which the requisite qualifications have been described. By the 13th of Edward the 1st, jurors must be persons that can dispend. 20s. by the year at the least; which was increased to 40s. by the 21st of Edward the 1st, and 2nd of-Henry the 5th. The 27th of Elizabeth enacts, that every juror shall have an estate of freehold to the annual value of 4l. at least. But the value of money decreasing, this qualification was raised, by the 16th and 17th of Charles 2nd to 20l. per annum. This was a temporary act, and suffered to expire. The 4th and 5th Of William and Mary fixed it at 10l. per annum in England, and 6l. in Wales, of freehold or copyhold lands; which is the first time copyholders, as such, were admitted to serve on juries in any of the king's courts of Westminster; and then by the 3rd Geo. 2nd any leaseholder of 500 years absolute, or on life or lives of the clear yearly value of 20l. above the rent reserved, is qualified to serve on juries.

This attention shown by the legislature to the qualification of a juror, is a proof of the importance which has been felt at all times to their possession of some property; and it was as distant as possible from his (Mr. W's.) intention, to derogate in the least degree from the wisdom of our ancestors; on this point, he contended on the contrary that in calling out jurors from the extensive class now excluded, we should more effectually accomplish the real object—that of having responsible and intelligent persons to serve the office. Neither was it any impeachment of the expediency of formerly confining the qualifications to the possession of real property. In former times, every body who had any rank above the lowest class, was an owner of land of some amount, and the possession of land was therefore an indispensable voucher for his responsibility. The case was won derously different now, in this country where the possessors of public securities had an income Collectively amounting nearly to the landed rental of the kingdom, exclusive of joint-stock companies, stocks in trade &c. to an amount beyond all calculation: To Continue these persons under the interdict of antient laws however wise at the time, was now as unwise as could well be conceived. The practical effect was in counties such as might be expected. Not one third of the persons who were, for all real objects, adequately qualified, were ever summoned to the execution of these most important duties. He would not say that the jurors who were summoned were inefficient or incompetent persons; but he would assert that, in the possessors of personal property, there were three times as many not summoned as those who were, that are quite as competent, in every respect, and often much more so. Three fourths of the occupiers of land, many of the most opulent were not possessors of land to the amount of 10l. a year, and consequently not qualified, whilst their very labourers, possessing copyhold tenements to that amount, were known, in some instances, to have been called to the performance of what they must have felt a most expensive and onerous service.

But the absurdity of the present system was still more apparent, when we consider that in the city of London and in all cities and towns having a separate jurisdiction, personal property did constitute a qualification. By the 3rd Geo. 2nd, in the city of London, jurors shall be householders possessed of an estate real or personal of the value of 100l., and 40l. is sufficient in other corporate jurisdictions. Upon what possible ground, then, could any body advocate the continued exclusion of the possessors of personal property from this important service of their country in counties. He should propose that the persons who shall be considered qualified by this species of property, shall also be householders and assessed to government or parochial taxes to a given amount which would serve as another test of their responsibility and a prima facie evidence of their possessing the requisite amount of personal property—Mr. W said, he perceived the House was impatient to proceed in the other important business before them, and he believed, he had said fully enough to induce them to acquiesce in the motion, for leave to bring in a bill "to render eligible end qualified persons possessed of a given amount of personal property to serve as jurors."

Mr. Lester

seconded the motion.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, the question was of such vital importance, that he certainly should not oppose the bringing in of the bill, though he hoped the hon. member would allow ample time for its consideration. The House would recollect that last year an experiment had been made of the benefit likely to accrue from the establishment of a third assize, This had been found completely successful in the home counties, and it was most desirable that it should be extended to all. It was, however so closely bound up with the measure which the hon. member for Essex had in had that they ought to watch with caution how far the one was likely to impede the other.

Leave was then given to bring in the bill. It was afterwards brought in, com- mitted, and the blanks filled up. The amount of personal property proposed was 400l. and the occupation of house assessed to house-duty or poor-rates in Middlesex 30l. per annum: in other counties 20l. and where assessed for land occupied 80l. Notice to be left at the house of persons summoned to serve, a printed schedule for constables to make returns, specifying particulars of residence and property. Nobody to be summoned turned of sixty-five years of age; and one or two other minor regulations.