HC Deb 07 June 1832 vol 13 cc497-500
Mr. Paget

presented a Petition from the inhabitants of Hinckley, for commuting the punishment of Death for offences against property, unattended with personal violence. The petitioners expressed their opinion, that the punishment of death, while it is opposed to every feeling of humanity, and to every principle of religion, is, at the same time, inefficient in preventing the commission of the crime in others. He was desired to say, that these parties had not signed the petition without having first given the subject every consideration in their power, and that many of them had suffered cases to go unpunished from the knowledge of the severity of the law, and the uncertainty in respect to its infliction in many cases. This feeling had greatly increased in the country, and it was quite clear that the existing law required considerable modification. It was to be lamented that persons guilty of forgery frequently received the sentence of death, while the penalty was not always exacted, thereby rendering the punishment more uncertain than it would be if the law were milder than at present. These petitioners adverted to the discretionary power vested in the Crown, which occasionally led to the decision of cases upon evidence, not of that nature upon which a Court of Review, such as the Privy Council, ought to decide. Men might be frequently executed for any other crime than that for which they suffered, by the whisper of a wife or a mistress. If punishment was intended to have its due effect, it must be in public, and certain. While speaking upon the sub- ject, he could not forbear expressing his heart-felt gratitude to the Legislature for what little had been already done to remedy the evil of which these petitioners complained; and more particularly to certain individuals, whose efforts every one must applaud. In presenting a petition of this kind, he might, perhaps, be allowed the opportunity of expressing his deep sense of the very great loss which the nation, and mankind at large, had just experienced in the death of that great man, Mr. Jeremy Bentham, whose labours on this subject were unremitting, and whose fame in the science of jurisprudence stood second to no man. He could not help expressing his high regard and great admiration of this most excellent gentleman, especially when he looked to his long life, which was free from all ambitious views, while his efforts were at all times directed to the improvement of his country.

Mr. John Campbell

must tell the hon. Member opposite, that, up to the present moment, he never heard the discretionary power of the Crown, and of those in its service, in the cases which had been alluded to, called in question as to the beneficial manner in which it had operated, and continued to operate. On the part of the Court of Review, as the hon. Member had termed it, there was always the utmost anxiety and the most unremitting exertions made to arrive at the truth of the evidence; while there was always a disposition, if possible, to permit even the most trifling circumstance to operate in favour of the parties who had been condemned. He had thought it his duty to say thus much, because he was most anxious that the power vested in the Crown should not be misinterpreted as to its character and effect.

Sir Charles Wetherell

considered the statement which had been made by the hon. Member most improper. Perhaps he did not know, that both Sir James Mackintosh and Sir Samuel Romilly (and no men were ever more staunch reformers of the law than they were) were strongly in favour of the discretion vested in the Crown. He would tell the hon. Member, that he had most unfairly cast a censure upon the past and existing advisers of the Crown, which, up to the present moment, he (Sir Charles Wetherell) had never heard attempted. The hon. Member did not, probably, know, that what he called a Court of Review was not to be so designated. A certain prerogative was, given to the Crown, in the exercise of which it was assisted by the Judges, who laboured to find something which should lead to a relaxation of the punishment to be inflicted on the offender; and in full open Privy Council—instead of the principle of discretion being acted upon severely—a feeling was always shown to exercise it mercifully. The hon. Member was ignorant of the matter, and had evidently never bestowed one moment's reflection upon the subject. The principle had never been viewed as an abstract one, it having been a matter of complaint frequently, that instead of endeavouring to enforce the law, the object always, was to open the door of discretion wide. He was, therefore, very glad that his hon. and learned friend had made his statement to the House. He was most anxious to repel the charge which had been attempted to be made against the advisers of the Crown, past and present; and he must say, that the tone of those petitions was not likely to conciliate the feelings of those Gentlemen who were anxious to enter into the subject calmly and dispassionately. He hoped the hon. Member would be satisfied that he had made an erroneous charge upon the past and present advisers of the Crown; for, since the present Government came into power, they had not entered into the adoption of the abstract principle with reference to the discretionary power. He should maintain, that the statement which had been made was altogether untenable.

Mr. Paget

said, in moving that this petition be printed, he assured the House that his observations did not go to inculpate any individuals who might have assisted in the exercise of the discretionary power vested in the Crown. He had called it a Court of Review, because it took under its consideration the decisions of the law, as pronounced elsewhere; and he did not think that anything which the hon. and learned Members had said, had tended to show the impropriety of the expression. He had a right to complain of the uncandid and sophistical statement which the hon. and learned Member below him had made, in referring to an observation of his (Mr. Paget's) as being a part of the contents of the petition. Now, in the expression of his opinion he did not mean to say, that when means were taken to exculpate certain persons from the infliction of death, who might be of the lower station of life those means did not operate. There was no instance in the higher walks of life, where great efforts were not made with the Crown and the law advisers to save the individual's life; and some hon. Members might remember instances in which those efforts had been successful; but was it not the fact, that the existence of a person in the lowest station of society, whose crimes had been slight, compared to those of the person in high life, was often sacrificed without any effort being made with the King in Council. He blamed no persons, but he deprecated the constitution of that which he should again call a Court of Review. There was a great difference of opinion among the people of this country on the subject of our criminal law; and he hoped that they would never cease to petition the Legislature upon it until a great modification of the law had taken place.

Mr. Briscoe

gave his cordial support to this petition, and thanks to the hon. Member, who had put the matter on fair grounds.

Petition to be printed.

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