HC Deb 03 February 1837 vol 36 cc97-9
The Lord Advocate

, on introducing this Bill, said, that the criminal law of Scotland was in general mild, and gave great advantages to the prisoner in conducting his defence; but the genera! character of the law of Scotland differed very much in the punishment of political offences from the disposition it showed in repressing other crimes by moderate penalties. Both the statute and common law were of great severity, and so extremely vague, that no person, however circumspect, who differed from the Government of the time, could be said to be secure. To refer only to one statute—that of 1585, cap. 10, forbade any person publicly to declare or privately to speak or write any purpose of reproach or slander of his Majesty's person, estate, or government; or misconstrue his proceedings, whereby any disliking may be moved between his Highness and his nobility and loving subjects, in time coming, under pain of death. The statute 1594 ratified this and all other statutes, and enacted the same penalties against whoever heard these leasings, calumnies, or slanderous speeches, or writs, and did not apprehend the authors if it lay in his power, or reveal the offence to the Crown or a magistrate. These severe laws unfortunately did not remain a dead letter. In 1635 Lord Balmarino was found to have incurred the penalty of death, on a conviction of having only heard an in- famous libel and concealed and not revealed it; and in 1681 the Earl of Argyle received sentence of death on the Act of 1585, for having merely added this explanation at taking the test oath, that he took it so far as was consistent with itself, or with the Protestant religion. This was held to be defaming the King's laws and proceedings, contrary to the statute. In 1703, after the Revolution, the severity of these laws was relaxed so far as regarded capital punishment; but the law of Scotland remained on the same footing from 1703 until the 6th Geo. 4th. The improved feelings of the age led to that very important statute which lays down the great principle, which cannot be too strongly kept in view, that the crimes of leasing-making, sedition, and blasphemy, should be punished in the same manner as such crimes would be punished if committed in England. At that time the law of England with regard to blasphemous and seditious libels rested on a statute passed in the 60th year of George 3rd., which provided that if any person shall be convicted a second time, he might either be punished by fine and imprisonment, or banished from the United Kingdom. The 11th of George 4th, and 1st of his present Majesty, repealed that part of the 60th of George 3rd, which related to the sentence of banishment for the second offence; but hitherto no measure had been proposed, as far as he (the Lord Advocate) was aware, for making the corresponding change upon the 6th of George the 4th, with reference to the law of Scotland. I may be thought, perhaps (continued the learned Lord) somewhat unnecessarily to have referred to the severity of the old laws, and the judgments pronounced in bad times, but they ought not to be lost sight of at the periods most favourable to the liberty of the subject; and the enactment of the 6th of George 4th cannot be too strongly kept in view, both as a protection to those political rights which every person ought to enjoy in Scotland as well as in England, and as a safeguard to the court and jurymen, who are placed in a dangerous and painful position when called upon to execute laws of great severity and extremity vague in their enactments.

Mr. Hume

approved of the introduction of the Bill, which would preclude all possibility of the present severe enactments being again enforced, as they had been against the early Reformers of the last century.

Mr. Wilks

wished the Government to bear in mind, that laws of extreme severity still existed in England. By an unrepealed statute of Charles 2nd, no person could be a professor in any college unless he signed a declaration that he had adhered to the religion of the Established Church.

The Attorney-General

was understood to state, that the hon. Member for Boston did not put a right construction on the statute to which he alluded, and that if there was the slightest ground for supposing that its penalties were as severe as had been represented, he would undertake to bring in a Bill for its repeal.

Leave given. Bill brought in and read a first time, as well as Bills to make alterations in the duties of the Lords Ordinary; in the establishment of clerks and officers of the Court of Session and Court of Commission for Teinds in Scotland, and to reduce the fees payable in those courts; and effectually to recover Small Debts in the Sheriff Courts, and for establishing Circuit Courts for the trial of small debt causes by the Sheriffs in Scotland.