HC Deb 12 December 1837 vol 39 cc983-8
Mr. Harvey

rose and said, that whatever might be the opinion of the House with respect to the presentation of petitions not having a material bearing upon subjects under its consideration, that which had reference to the instant trial or liberation of persons under confinement called for the ready sanction of the House. The petition which he had now the honour to present was from Glasgow, and was signed by twenty thousand persons; and its object was to bring under the consideration of the House the case of five poor citizens of that place, who were placed in confinement by direction of the law officers of the Crown. In bringing this petition forward, he desired it to be understood that he expressed no opinion whatever as to the character of the charges brought against these persons, or whether the parties implicated were guilty or innocent. It was enough for him to bring the matter before the House to enable the law officers of the Crown to give an explanation as to the course which they intended to pursue. It appeared that in June last, eighteen persons, engaged in the weaving of linen, were apprehended, charged with conspiracy, for the purpose of unduly raising the price of wages. They were also charged with combining to administer illegal oaths, and with being implicated in the perpetration of a murder which took place in Glasgow. After undergoing a long examination, five of those persons were sent to prison under this very serious and complicated charge. The remaining thirteen were let out on bail. These five individuals had been imprisoned from June up to that moment. On the 24th of October, they received notice that they would be tried on an indictment—an indictment, be it remembered, which occupied forty-nine long folio pages, containing almost countless counts, and spreading over a long-protracted period of time. Of this complicated expensive indictment they had to take a copy, which had on the back of it the names of ninety witnesses. These parties had to prepare for their trial and defence, which they received notice on the 24th of October was to take place on the 10th of November following. Conscious, as they said, of their innocence, though poor in circumstances, ignorant of the law, and overwhelmed by these complicated proceedings, they determined at once to throw aside the means of protection by delay, which the law of that country afforded them, and to challenge instant trial. Having no funds of their own, and but few friends, they made an appeal to their own order, the working classes. These classes did not instantly respond to their call, but referred the circumstances of the case to a committee, in order to be satisfied that they were not only legally but morally innocent. Being so in their minds, they felt it their duty to call upon the working classes of every description throughout the country to come forward and throw their shield over their oppressed fellow-workmen; and thus in these times, when it was well known that labour was not overpaid, such was the interest taken by all classes of this description, that the sum of 500l, greatly to their credit, was remitted to Edinburgh. That money was barely sufficient to pay the expenses of their defence against the complicated proceedings, in retaining counsel, in preparing evidence, and conveying their numerous witnesses to Edinburgh, at which place the trial was to be. He was told that, in addition to the necessary inquiry into what ninety witnesses, whose names were recorded upon the indictment, might have to say in support of their charge—no small labour for those who were professionally engaged —no small cost to those who had to pay it—these parties had to take to Edinburgh fifty witnesses for their exculpation, perfectly prepared to repudiate the charge and sustain their innocence. On the 10th of November the trial was to take place, when they received some intimation from the prosecutor that it would stand adjourned till the 4th of December. This was the power which he understood the law officers of the Crown had in that country, and in this instance had exercised. This knocked down the courage of the men and exhausted all their means, and they had been again obliged, but not with similar success, to make another appeal to their fellow-citizens to meet the trial, which was to come on on the 4th of December; yet to a certain extent they did so, and were prepared for their trial on the 4th of December; but a short time previously they received another communication from the law officer of the Crown, that this indictment was not then to be tried, but that another indictment would be prepared, and that such indictment was to be tried on the 3rd of Ja- nuary next. Now these were the simple circumstances of the case. These helpless individuals, who had been incarcerated in a dark and dreary dungeon from the month of June last, scarcely with any food; and their families without support, having no means of succour but their labour, from which they were cut off, had been brought to the bar twice, and now their trial was deferred for the third time. It was not necessary for him to go further into the circumstances of the case. He would concede for the present that the crime with which they were charged was of the most heinous description; he would presume that the prosecutor was perfectly able to make it out that they had been guilty of the serious offences of which they were arraigned; that they might be fairly exposed to the strongest sentence of the law; and yet he would ask the House whether persons so circumstanced were to be made the sport and prey of an oppressive system of law like this? It was nothing to say that the defenders of the prisoners might have challenged the time which the Crown had taken; it was nothing for the Crown officers to say that they had done nothing but what the law had empowered them to do. What these parties claimed was prompt and costless trial. Law and justice had both been delayed; and he asked the Lord Advocate in what way these parties, stripped as they were from the beginning, of all the means of payment, with those resources already exhausted which were with difficulty raised from a poverty stricken people—in what way were they to appear on the 3rd of January, with that formidable array of Scotch advocates, who, if not led by the Lord Advocate himself, would be enough in number and strength to overwhelm even the purest innocence? He asked in what way were they to have their trial? On the 10th November they were prepared with the most able advocates which money could purchase, and it might be said that the advocates of the Scotch bar would appear again with equal eagerness without further remuneration; but how were the fifty witnesses' expenses to be paid—men who were unable to earn 10s. a week, yet who were to be brought a distance of forty miles and back, from Glasgow to Edinburgh? He did not offer any opinion on the charge itself against these prisoners, nor did he call on the House to make any exercise of its powers, All he wished was, that it should be practically shown that no man should be treated as guilty until ascertained to be so by the law of his country; and that these persons should be forthwith discharged, or their trial accelerated; or if not, then that they be supplied with the means of procuring a fair and honest trial. He had also another petition to the same effect from the burgh of Kilmarnock.

The petitions having been brought up,

The Lord Advocate

said, that he could have no difficulty whatever in answering any part of the statement of the hon. Gentleman; a somewhat similar statement had been made some time before by another hon. Member, and the answer then given would almost equally apply now. There was not one part of the statement of the hon. Member that did not admit of a sufficient answer. The charge against those individuals was one of the most serious nature, a charge of assassination, the result of a conspiracy carried on by an association which had subsisted during a number of years, and which had during that time produced similar offences—an association bound together by secret oaths, and supported by a system of intimidation; so powerful and well-compacted as to render the procuring of evidence to commit almost impossible. It being a charge, then, of so serious a nature, it became the duty of the public prosecutor to carry forward the prosecution by all the means in his power, taking care that no unnecessary expenses were incurred, and no unnecessary hardships inflicted on the prisoners, but that every possible advantage consistent with the due maintenance of public justice, should be afforded them. There had been great delays undoubtedly, but the law required them. If they could have been tried at half an hour's notice, it would have been then called a great hardship that so short a time was allowed. For his own part he was very much disposed to shorten the time. He would say hat two or three days were quite long enough, and it would be a great convenience to the public prosecutor to have the time shortened; but a great outcry would certainly be raised at such a proposition; for it would be said that the public prosecutor was pouncing on the prisoners at a short notice merely to suit his own convenience, while by the law of the country they were entitled to fifteen days' notice. In the present instance great delay had been caused in consequence of the extreme difficulty of getting the necessary information. It was the duty of every public prosecutor to make the evidence as complete as he could before proceeding to trial. On the day when this trial should have come on he received information that very important further evidence had been discovered; that there were other witnesses who would throw great light on the matter. It, therefore, became his duty to gain time, for the purpose of ascertaining the value of this new evidence, and, if necessary, of causing an additional indictment to be preferred, because, according to the law of Scotland, no witness could be examined whose name was not in the indictment. It accordingly became necessary to raise new criminal articles, in order to afford the opportunity for examining these witnesses. That was the reason why, in discharge of his duty, he had thought himself bound to move that further delay. He was quite sure that no Member of that House would be found to impute personal motives to the law officers of the Crown in these proceedings, for doing that which they, in the discharge of their public duty, held to be necessary. It was also said that there was a great array of counsel against them. Why, there was a greater array of counsel against them than in their behalf, and they appeared to have every means of defence. But if they had not those means of defence, they were entitled to call on the court to appoint for their defence any counsel whom they might think fit; and he was quite sure no Scottish advocate would refuse to plead under such circumstances. The accused in Scotland had also the advantage of having the last word, which they had not in England. Upon the whole, therefore, he was persuaded that the Government, in the present case, had acted fairly and properly.

Mr. Pringle

, aware of the custom and the law of Scotland, could assure the House that upon the statement of the hon. Member for Southwark, which was made with great propriety, no case had been made out for the interference of the House.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that he had not the least doubt that the persons confined for the murder were innocent; but there was such an entire system of combination, that be thought it ought to be inquired into, or they would never be able to get at the guilty persons.

Petition laid on the table.