HC Deb 12 May 1834 vol 23 cc879-84
Colonel Verner

said, in moving for the second reading of this Bill, he begged to assure the House, that he was actuated by no feeling, but a desire to discharge what he held to be a public duty. He should, therefore, as briefly as possible, state to the House the objections attending the present system of swearing witnesses in Court, and the advantages which would, in his humble judgment, be derived from the change which he proposed to make. Formerly it was the practice, in most counties in Ireland—in itself bad and contrary to law—for Grand Juries to find bills of indictment upon the informations previously taken, and which were usually sent up with the bills—and without a vivâ voce examination. To provide against this practice, an Act was passed in the 56th George 3rd, requiring, that bills should only be found upon the production and examination of the witnesses in person before the Grand Jury. This Act directed, that the witnesses should be sworn in Court, and their names indorsed on the back of the bills, to which the Clerk of the Crown was to attach his signature or initials, and left it discretionary with the Court to send up the informations; but provided that they were not to be evidence in support of the Bill. The object of sending the informations so before the Grand Jury, was to enable the Jurors to compare the evidence of the witness with what he had previously sworn, in order that, should it appear that he was swearing falsely, proceedings might be instituted against him for perjury. The proposed Act would not interfere with the very useful provisions of the Act to which he had alluded. It was merely intended to obviate certain inconveniences, and to bring the obligation, under which the witness deposed, more immediately before his mind. At present the administration of the Oath took place under circumstances disadvantageous to solemnity, and to the furtherance of the ends of justice. The Clerk of the Crown, upon the first day of the Assizes, calls over the names of all prosecutors. In some counties these amount to several hundreds, and many hours are consumed in calling the names. As the Assizes advance, the witnesses are from time to time called, and sworn in batches of five, six, or seven, as the case may be, amidst the noise and confusion consequent upon such a proceeding; the Oath pronounced as rapidly as possible, and the witness understanding imperfectly, if at all, the nature of the obligation he has just taken. The witnesses are then ordered to attend before the Grand Jury; and it often happens, that two or three, and in large counties such as Cork, eight or ten, days elapse between the administration of the Oath, and the evidence given under its sanction. It must be obvious to every person in the habit of attending Assizes in Ireland, either as a Magistrate or a Grand Juror, how great must be the difficulty to impress upon the mind of the witness, that the evidence he is giving before the Jury is under the solemn sanction of the Oath administered to him eight or ten days before in the Court. But there were other considerations of equal, if not greater, importance to the ends of justice. In the interval between swearing the witnesses in Court, and giving their evidence before the Grand Jury, the friends of the prisoners, having ascertained, from their appearing in Court to be sworn, who the persons are who are to give evidence upon the trial, resort to all kinds of threats, intimidation, and bribery, to induce the witnesses not to give direct evidence, and not seldom with effect. Unable to resist, the witness either swears before the Grand Jury in opposition to what he has previously sworn before the Magistrate; or, when he comes upon the table, finds himself unable to identify the person, of whose identity, until that moment, he had never entertained a doubt; and it sometimes happens, that when all their efforts have failed, the witnesses are by force carried off, and the prisoner discharged for want of a prosecution. This Bill may properly be considered as forming a part of the Bill of the right hon. Secretary for Ireland, which was now about to come into operation. The fiscal duties being now separated from the other duties which Grand Juries have to discharge, no reasonable complaint can be made of the additional labour imposed upon them. The right hon. Secretary had informed the House, that he had been instructed by the Law Officers of the Crown to oppose this Bill, and that they have assigned as a reason the difficulty which would attend the being able to identify the witnesses in case it should be necessary to proceed against them for perjury. Now, with every respect for the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown in Ireland (he presumed the right hon. Gentleman meant the Attorney and Solicitor-General), he could not help saying, that without going out of that House, he thought the right hon. Gentleman could have found better authority, because, until appointed to the offices which they now held, neither of these Gentlemen were in the habit of going circuit or attending Assizes. He regretted the absence of the hon. and learned Serjeant, and the member for Monaghan; he regretted it doubly, because it proceeded from indisposition. Were that hon. Member present, he would have explained much more fully and satisfactorily than he (Colonel Verner) was capable of doing, the advantages which would be derived from the change he proposed; being so convinced of its necessity, that he told him (Colonel Verner), he had intended proposing, during the last Session, a clause to be added to the Grand Jury Bill to this effect; and he believed it would be admitted, that that hon. Member's experience on this subject was fully as good, if not better, than that of the Law Officers of the Crown. In reply to the opinions of those Gentlemen, as stated by the right hon. Secretary, with regard to the greater difficulty of proving the identity of the witnesses in case of perjury, he should beg permission to read a few words from a Letter he received within these few days, from as high legal authority as any in Ireland; they were thus:—"Your Bill will greatly facilitate prosecutions for perjury; indeed, under the present system, I know not how such a prosecution can be maintained against a witness who has gone back of, as the phrase is, or, when before the Grand Jury, contradicts his sworn informations. Who is there that can prove that the witness has been sworn to give evidence before the Grand Jury? Is it the Judge? It is not pretended that he can take notice of the individuals who are sworn. Is it the Clerk of the Crown? Quite impossible under the present system when they are sworn in groups, and amidst such confusion, whereas in the method which you propose, it is much more than probable, that the foreman or other Grand Juror, who calmly in the Jury-room administers the Oath to the witnesses one by one, would be able to prove, that he had been sworn." He could assure the House, that he had not undertaken the bringing in of this Bill without consulting those whose knowledge and experience enabled them to form an accurate judgment upon it, and he was happy to say, he had the approbation of every individual to whom he had spoken, from the Bench down. Upon the present occasion, he looked upon Magistrates and Grand Jurors as no incompetent judges, and he believed it would be found, that they were unusually favourable to the adoption of the plan he had recommended. In reply to the observation of the hon. and learned Member (the Solicitor-General), he had only to say, that he did not for a moment doubt that hon. and learned Member's judgment with regard to the best system to be adopted in this country; but with regard to the practice best calculated for Ireland, he could not yield the opinions of those, under whose direction he proposed this Bill, even to those of that hon. and learned Gentleman. When he brought the measure before the House, he did not calculate upon the possibility of its meeting with any opposition; however, after the declaration of the right hon. Secretary, he should not put the House to the inconvenience of a division, but beg leave to withdraw it.

Mr. Shaw

thought it would be a very ungracious course to pursue, if the Government should throw out the Bill in its present stage. If it were read a second time, the House would have another opportunity of taking the discussion, which it was then too late an hour to enter upon, and of distinctly understanding the nature of its provisions. As at present advised, he was inclined to think that an oath would be administered under circumstances of greater sanctity and solemnity, under the provisions of the Bill, than by the present practice; but still he should be unwilling to make any hasty change in a matter of this important nature against the opinions of those authorities to which the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary for Ireland, had alluded. He hoped, however, that he would consent to let the question stand over.

Mr. Godson

was opposed to the introduction of a principle into Ireland, for which there was no precedent in England.

Mr. O'Reilly

said, he entertained a very strong objection to the present system, because it gave Grand Juries in Ireland an opportunity of finding just what bills they pleased. That it had that tendency he must repeat; and if it were not then so late, he would undertake to prove the assertion.

Colonel Perceval

said, that, the observations of the hon. Member who had just sat down, as well as the tone and manner in which they were uttered, could not be permitted to pass unnoticed. He presumed that these observations came from a gentleman who had been used to sit on Grand Juries. If so, he could only say, that the hon. Member must have belonged to Grand Juries of a description such as he never had the honour of meeting with. He most solemnly declared, in the presence of the House, that he never knew a Grand Jury find bills as their fancy might dictate; nor did he believe, that any Grand Jury in Ireland pursued any but a conscientious, and honourable, and straightforward course. He did not agree in the objection taken by the hon. Member below him, because, in the event of a prosecution for perjury, Grand Jurors are authorized to give evidence in a court of justice of what occurred in a Grand Jury-room, and thus the oath of secrecy which a Grand Juror takes, does not disqualify him from being a witness. There could not be much regard paid to the sanctity of an oath, administered as it was under the present system. A man was sworn in an angle of the court by the Crier, amidst the noise of the Court, when not a single word could be heard. By the Bill of his hon. friend, the Foreman and twelve members of the Grand Jury would, in every case, necessarily be present, one of whom, being a magistrate, would be qualified to swear the witnesses; and he confessed, under these circumstances, he thought the Bill would be an improvement on the present system.

The Solicitor General

objected to the principle of the measure, and said, he should oppose its further progress. Much business was done by Grand Juries in England, but it was never impeded by the form of their oath. This measure would introduce another discrepancy into the laws of the two countries, while the object generally contemplated was to assimilate them.

Bill to be read a second time that day six months.