HC Deb 07 June 1836 vol 34 cc167-9
Mr. Ewart

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the law which admitted the fact of a previous conviction to be given in evidence to the jury in the case before them. It might be proper that the fact of a previous conviction should be urged after conviction in aggravation of punishment, but in his opinion it was most unjust to the accused, that such a fact should be brought before the Jury; for it could not possibly assist them in coming to a right conclusion as to whether he was guilty or not guilty of the crime for which he was now upon trial. He proposed, therefore, in conformity with the opinion of many hon. Members, and other Gentlemen connected with the law, that such a law ought not to be allowed to exist, that this part of our criminal code should be repealed.

Mr. Cutlar

Fergusson said, he was of opinion that the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Liverpool ought to be brought in, for he agreed with him in thinking the present state of the law on this subject most unjust.

Sir T. Fremantle

was in favour of the principle of the Bill proposed to be brought in. He thought the fact of a previous conviction ought to be known to the Judge, that he might appropriate the punishment accordingly; but that it ought not to be known to the Jury, as it had a natural tendency to create a prejudice against the prisoner.

Mr. Roebuck

differed from the hon. Member (Sir T. Fremantle). He (Mr. R.) thought if a man upon trial had been convicted before of a similar offence, the fact ought to go to the Jury. It might, in some cases, assist them in determining upon his innocence or guilt of the offence he was charged with.

The Attorney General

said, he should not object to the bringing in of the Bill. At the same time he did not wish to be understood as pledging himself to agree in every part of it. He thought it unjust, that facts not immediately connected with the offence for which a man was on trial, should be allowed to be given in evidence, when they would naturally create a prejudice against him in the minds of the Jury. At the late trial of Lacenaire, in France, facts had been given in evidence not in the slightest degree connected with the matter of which he was accused, but which had completely poisoned the minds of those who were to decide upon his fate. In some cases it was well known, that the Judge had the power of increasing the punishment for a repetition of the offence; in such cases, therefore, it might be necessary that the fact of a previous conviction should be known to the Judge; but he (The Attorney General) did not think it right that such a fact should be allowed to go to the Jury, tending, as it most certainly did, to prejudice their minds against the prisoner.

Sir Eardley Wilmot

agreed with what had fallen from the Attorney General, and expressed himself in favour of the Bill which the hon. Member for Liverpool asked leave to bring in.

Sir Robert Peel

said, he had rather that the Jury should know the fact of a man's previous conviction than the Judge. A man was allowed to give his former good character in evidence; why should a man's bad character be concealed from the Jury, when it might assist them in coming to a right conclusion upon the case before them. In Scotland a previous conviction was allowed to be proved; why, then, should it be so great an injustice in England? In the English law, in the case of a rogue and vagabond, or one who was incorrigible,—the facts of previous convictions were to be given in evidence, as proving him irreclaimable, and he was to be dealt with accordingly. He (Sir R. Peel) must say, that he admired the French criminal law, except in one respect, that it allowed the Judge to examine witnesses, and the prisoners, for it prevented him from maintaining that coolness and impartiality which were so necessary to the administration of justice. He could not see why so great care should be taken to throw shields around the guilty, as some hon. Members appeared so anxious to do, though he admitted every endeavour should be used to protect the innocent.

Mr. Pryme

agreed in much that had fallen from the right hon. Baronet, but he was of opinion, that the fact of a previous conviction should not be allowed to go before a Jury to prejudice them against the prisoner.

Leave given.