HC Deb 19 February 1824 vol 10 cc247-52
Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he had next to address the House on a subject of considerable importance; namely, the consolidating, and in some degree amending, the various acts relative to the summoning and challenging of juries. It was wholly unnecessary, in this period of our history, or in that House, to pass any eulogium on that great barrier of public security. Neither would it be supposed that any measure he was about to introduce was intended to weaken, in the slightest degree, the efficiency of that admirable system. His object was, to consolidate all the various statutes now in existence, and in some particulars to amend the jury enactments. When he assured the House that there existed no less than fifty different statutes applicable to the summoning, the qualifications, and the challenging of jurors, the very existence of such a fact would shew the propriety of consolidating all those various enactments into one act. There were also many of those enactments which had been partially repealed, or whose provisions had, in the progress of time, been made a dead letter. Looking at the titles of some of these statutes, it would be difficult to ascertain that they bore the slightest reference to the impanelling of juries, so mixed up were they with the most incongruous subjects. They would find the title of one of those acts to express itself a provision for the recovery of small fines, and also for the summoning of jurors. Another they would find to express itself an act for the regulation of vagrants, the exporting of leather, and the ease of jurors. Another went to provide for the payment of seamen's wages, the prevention of clandestine traffic in silk mixed with stuff, and the summoning of persons from juries. Then came a fourth, for the exemption of apothecaries from filling the office of scavengers, and certain exemptions also from serving on juries—so vague and incongruous were the acts of parliament which regulated the qualifications and the duties of that most important duty. It must, therefore, be an object of general satisfaction to extract from these various statutes, which amounted to twenty at least, all that was valuable and necessary. So far as to the acts which regulated the summoning of jurors. He did not believe that those which referred to the challenging of jurors amounted to so many, but still they were numerous. With the permission of the House, however, he would bring in the bill, and when printed, an opportunity would be afforded for examining those amendments which it was impossible for him at present accurately to describe. He trusted that there would not be found in it a single provision, the effect of which would not be an amendment of the present system. But, the chief amendment would relate to an extension of the qualification of jurors. The bill would also contain some enactments, having in view more effectually to compel the attendance of jurors, and thus to equalize the burthen of the duty on the community. It would likewise provide the means of taking from subordinate officers, such as constables and tithing-men, the naming of jurors. Magistrates would have the power of checking the returns of such subordinate officers, of inserting the names of all persons qualified to be jurors, and of punishing the omission of such names. He would defer any further remarks until the measure should be before the House, in a printed form; and would now move for leave to bring in a bill "to consolidate and amend the laws relating to the impanelling of Juries."

Sir J. Newport

expressed his earnest hope, that some similar measure would be extended to Ireland, where the abuses on the subject were such as almost to amount to a surrender of the administration of justice into hands wholly unfit to hold it. When the measure should be brought before the House, he would take an opportunity of staling which of its provisions might be advantageously applied to Ireland. He did not believe that the same bill could be made to embrace Ireland. For many reasons, the measure must be separate. But with the local knowledge which he possessed of the great evil of the law, as it now existed in Ireland, and of the gross oppression which was the result of the lax administration even of that law, in consequence of the subordinate hands into which the administration of justice fell, and of the prejudices and local jealousies which operated to its perversion, he should not be doing his duty were he not to claim for Ireland the benefit of some similar measure.

Mr. Wodehouse

highly approved of the measure, and dwelt on the expediency of introducing a bill to enforce the attendance of special jurymen, who, in many counties, were very negligent of their duty. He was desirous also that returns should be regularly made of the persons summoned to serve as special jurymen, especially in the courts of Middlesex. Disclaiming the slightest intention of casting any reflection on the learned persons presiding in those courts, he could not help thinking, that in some of them, especially in the court of Exchequer, there was a considerable laxity of proceeding on this subject: He repeated his entire approbation of the proposed measure. By a steady and quiet attention to such subjects, though no noisy fame might be attached to it—the right hon. secretary would confer the greatest benefit on the country, and one which the great body of the people would duly appreciate.

Mr. Hume

observed, that he had last session moved for returns respecting this subject. He had long been perfectly satisfied, that the composition of juries ought to be left to chance; that was, that the members of them ought to be drawn by lot or ballot: for if the honestest man that ever lived were entrusted with the selection of a jury, it would be impossible that strict justice could be done. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that he heard of the modification of the existing law, which the right hon. gentleman proposed; and he trusted that he would introduce into it a provision for appointing juries by ballot. If ever there were grounds for any legislative proceeding, the right hon. gentleman had laid those grounds. Nor did they stop there; they extended to the necessity of subjecting the whole statute law to the same simplification. It was well known that a noble lord, now no more, had proceeded a great way in the simplification and consolidation of the statute law. With the disposition which his majesty's government seemed now to entertain, he could see no difficulty in carrying so desirable an object into effect, and of reducing the five-and-twenty massy volumes, in which the statute-law was now spread out, into a space which would enable every man to ascertain how far, in any particular proceeding, he was or was not violating that law. In making some inquiries recently respecting the prerogative courts (a subject which it was his intention shortly to bring under the consideration of the House, in consequence of the exorbitant fees which he found charged on the recovery of property in those courts), he found that, in an act of parliament passed so late as 1813, which had been introduced by lord Stowell and sir John Nicholl, and which had for its object the regulation of tithes, clauses were introduced wholly unconnected with the subject, and relating to the employment, and to the exceptions to the employment, of proctors in those courts. This afforded an additional proof of the necessity of revising, simplifying, and consolidating our Statute-book.

Mr. George Lamb

did not mean to oppose the right hon. gentleman's motion, nor would he have risen at all, had it not been for what had just fallen from the hon. member for Aberdeen. He must say, that he regarded with some jealousy these consolidation acts. They were seldom purely such. There was always some new provision which appeared so desirable, that flesh and blood could not resist introducing it. For instance, the right hon. gentleman no sooner proposed a consolidation of the jury laws, than the hon. member for Aberdeen branched out into a proposition for consolidating the whole of the statute-laws of England. As far as he could judge of the amendments proposed by the right hon. gentleman, he did not dissent from them; but he must say, that every new act of this nature seemed only to create, instead of to remove doubts. What had been the case that very evening? Scarcely two sessions had elapsed since a general Prison law bill had been passed, by which it was said that that subject was set at rest; yet now parliament was applied to to agree to a bill to amend the provisions of the former act. He admitted that there was much confusion in the Statute-book, owing, in a great measure, to carelessness in the formation of many of the statutes, and especially of the old ones; but this was a subject which ought to be treated with considerable caution. As to the evils of the jury system, he certainly should not object to their being remedied by a separate bill; but really that system seemed to him to work so well, that it might be safely left in its ancient form. It was impossible to know where these consolidation acts were to end. One observation had always struck him; namely, that whenever the legislature passed one of these consolidated acts, it had always the effect of reviving some absurd and oppressive, but until that period, obsolete statute.

Dr. Lushington

said, he was very unwilling to engage in the present discussion, but he could not allow the observations which had just been made to pass without remark. His hon. friend who spoke last thought that parliament ought to be satisfied with the existing statutes, in the confusion in which they were; and conceived that there was danger in consolidating them, because in the operation some error might creep in, which it might be afterwards necessary to rectify. The answer to this was, that here was a great existing evil; so great, indeed, that it was almost impossible, on any given subject, to ascertain what the statute-law was. He would venture to assert, that there was no lawyer in the land, however learned—not even the noble lord at the head of the law in this country—who could say, with reference to any subject, that there might not be some statute respecting it, of which he had no knowledge. The multiplicity and confusion of our statutes constituted one of the greatest grievances conceivable. And if so, why should not a remedy be applied? Was the apprehension, that something might creep in of which it would be afterwards desirable to get rid, to operate, in deterring parliament from such an undertaking? It was contended, that if a consolidation of the statutes were to be effected, the country would lose the benefit of the decisions which had taken place on the law as it stood. But he would appeal to any lawyer, whether, in suits of law, cases were not cited by the counsel on both sides without end; and with equal earnestness and confidence, until the unfortunate judge was overwhelmed with contradictory decisions on the point before him? Was not that a great grievance? There was another. Not only was the law in many respects unknown to those whose duty it was to study it, but the community at large were wholly ignorant of it. Many were the persons who had been executed for acts which, before the commission of them, they did not know were capital offences. As to the bill for amending the gaol act, leave to bring in which had that night been granted; it was not wonderful that a measure which had occupied the legislature for two sessions, and which was of so difficult and complicated a nature, should be found to have some defects requiring correction. It would be highly advantageous for the magistracy of the country if the statutes were simplified and consolidated. At present they were obliged, what with statutes and reports, to have almost a lawyer's library, the value of which was about a thousand guineas. He was convinced that the more the subject was considered, the more apparent would be the necessity of consolidating the existing statutes.

Sir E. Knatchbull

was much in favour of a consolidation of the laws relating to the impanelling of juries; although he was not at present prepared to admit the necessity of extending the qualifications of jurors.

Leave was granted to bring in the bill.