HC Deb 24 February 1825 vol 12 cc648-51
Colonel Wodehouse

rose to submit to the House a motion respecting the removal of the Spring Assizes for Norfolk from Thetford to the city of Norwich. The grounds upon which this motion was made were already before the House in a petition which had been presented from the county. The main grievance complained of was, that the petitioners were under the necessity of carrying the prisoners a distance of SO miles from the gaol to the place at which they were to be tried, and if they happened to be convicted, the same distance back again to the gaol. This evil had existed for a length of time, and representations of it had frequently been made, but without procuring any alteration. There was, however, no time at which the desired alteration could be more properly made than the present. A large and commodious gaol had lately been erected in Norwich, at an expense of 50,000l. It was arranged in such a manner as to carry the provisions of the Gaol act into complete operation, and to combine all the advantages which were supposed to result from the classification and inspection of prisoners. Upon former occasions it had been objected to the removal of the assizes, that to do so would be to interfere with a branch of the prerogative. He denied, however, that the prerogative was concerned in the measure he proposed. The places at which the assizes for counties were held, had been in all instances fixed by acts of parliament. That by which Thetford was appointed for Norfolk, was passed six centuries ago. There was at that period a reason for such an arrangement which did not now exist. One assize was then held for the two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk; and Thetford, being upon the extreme border of the latter, was well situated for the purpose. Applications had been made to the chancellor, and to the judges, who had declined to change the assizes. It was, in consequence, imputed to them, that they were induced by merely selfish motives; but he could not bring himself to believe, that persons holding the high offices which they were intrusted with, could prefer their own convenience to that of the public. The hon. member concluded by moving, "that the petition of certain magistrates and others of the county of Norfolk, praying that the Spring Assizes should be removed from Thetford to Norwich, be referred to a select committee; and that the counter-petition of the mayor and burgesses of Thetford be referred to the same committee."

Sir J. Sebright

supported the motion. He bore testimony to the insufficient state of the gaol at Thetford, and thought that the circumstance of the prisoners being carried a distance of SO miles to take their trial, was in itself enough to induce the House to grant the prayer of the petition. The due administration of justice was immediately concerned in this affair. The question, in fact, was, the borough of Thetford against the county of Norfolk; or borough interests against the principles of morality and public convenience.

Mr. N. R. Colborne

opposed the motion. The same application had been, he said, repeatedly made, and had always failed. The assizes for Norfolk had been held at Thetford for more than six centuries. Unless a very strong case could be made out, no alteration should be attempted. He thought there could not be a more direct attack upon the prerogative, than was meditated by this measure. It would be no less so, than it would be to interfere with the appointment of lord-lieutenants or the sheriffs of counties. He should content himself with having called the attention of the Secretary of state for the Home Department to this point, and here leave it. The petition which he had presented, prayed that the House would not permit any interference in the ancient practice which had prevailed. That petition was signed by 48 magistrates of the county, eight of whom had served the office of high sheriff; snd it was impossible to collect names entitled to more weight on such a topic.

Mr. F. Buxton

said, that as the petition in favour of the proposed removal of the assizes proceeded from the lord-lieutenant, the sheriffs, and a large body of the magistracy, it might reasonably be supposed to convey the sentiments of those who were best qualified to pronounce on the expediency of the proposed measure. The important question for the House to consider was, however, whether the administration of justice was impeded by the assizes being held at Thetford? The general convenience of the county would be, as it ought to be, more considered than that of the judges; and the interests of justice more than those of the borough of Thetford. The fact of the prisoners being carried in an open waggon, a distance of 30 miles, thus making them a spectacle for the whole county, was in itself sufficient to induce the House to put a stop to such a practice. But, the evil did not end here. When the prisoners arrived at Thetford, they were placed in a prison, which, if he were to describe, would shock and offend the House. If a prisoner had to bring up witnesses from the remote parts of the county, they would have to travel 50 miles, the difficulty of doing which, it might be believed, not unfrequently prevented their attempting the journey. If the man was convicted, he was then conveyed back again, exposed to the curiosity and unfeeling remarks of the people of the country through which he might have to pass. He spoke not from hearsay, but of what he had actually seen. Let the House suppose, that Fauntleroy had been placed in this situation, would it not have been highly improper that he should have been so exposed? [An hon. member said, "It would have served him right."] He (Mr. B.) denied that it would have served him right: the law had fixed for his, and for every other criminal's offence, a certain punishment, beyond which it was not just to extend a prisoner's sufferings. For these reasons, and not for any private interest he had in the question, he should support the motion.

Mr. Baring

objected to the motion, because if it were adopted in this instance, it must also be applied to a great many other counties.

Mr. Secretary Peel

objected to the motion, on the ground, that the House had no proper jurisdiction in the case. The question had been referred to the chancellor and the judges, who had decided against it. He was of opinion that the consideration of questions such as the present, with which local interests were mixed up, could not be left in better hands.

Dr. Lushington

complained, that the right hon. Secretary had not stated the grounds upon which the decision of the judges was founded. It appeared to him, that there was no just reason for holding the assizes at Thetford. The present plan was calculated to promote the interests of the few to the disadvantage of the many. The assizes were originally held at Thet- ford, because it was the most convenient place; but now, when that reason no longer existed, why should they not be removed? The most serious inconvenience existed from the practice of trying prisoners fifty miles from the points at which the offences were committed.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that the House of Commons was not the place for appeals of this description. The law had vested the necessary power in the hands of the lord chancellor and the judges. As for the distance of Thetford, as an assize town, almost every. county in England stood in the same situation. Prisoners were brought much further to York, and to Lancaster, than they could be from any part of the county of Norfolk to Thetford.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the only argument which had been urged against the measure was, that the same inconveniences existed in other parts of the kingdom. Now this was, in his opinion, one of the strongest reasons for inquiring into the subject.

The House divided: Ayes 21. Noes 72.