HC Deb 28 November 1837 vol 39 cc358-65
Mr. Pryme

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to abolish grand juries in England. He was aware that the subject, though one of great and general importance, was not a very entertaining one. At times, however, it became necessary to inquire whether certain institutions had not outlived their usefulness, and did not any longer answer the end for which they were instituted. At one time the grand jury system was justly considered as one of the great bulwarks of English liberty; but now grand juries were no more than an appeal from the committing magistrate. According to Lord Somers, who was a high authority upon the point, grand juries were instituted to search out crime—to find out offences—and not, as now, merely to put cases in a train for trial. In his opinion, the grand jury system was, in many cases, an obstruction to justice. In Scotland there were no grand juries, but there was a public prosecutor; and when a judgment was given against any one it was submitted to the Lord Advocate or the Sheriff. He was not about to propose the adoption of any such principle in this country, although it would be competent for him to do so if he thought it would do good. The hon. Member proceeded to quote a variety of evidence as to the inefficiency of grand juries. Mr. Harvey Coombe, the magistrate of the Lambeth-street police-office, had stated before a Committee of the House of Commons that the grand juries, as at present constituted, were an impediment rather than an advancement to justice. The Recorder of Worcester had said before the same Committee, "After a man has been imprisoned for several weeks, it ought not to be left to a secret tribunal to determine whether there was a sufficient case against him." He wanted no intervening tribunal. He conceived that in the present state of the magistracy in England and Wales, formed as it was by enlightened and intelligent gentlemen, such a tribunal was not necessary. If it was contended that it would be a saving of time, he did not admit the force of such an argument; if there was a gain of time in one respect there would be a still greater loss in another. The time of the judge would, no doubt, be saved, but then they would occupy the time of from three to five thousand gentlemen during the year, and in this point of view more of the time of the country would be consumed. But he would never admit that time was a consideration in such cases. They ought alone to consider how justice could be most speedily and impartially administered. He would not occupy the time of the House further than to express a hope that, if his motion had no other effect, it would call attention to the subject, and that there would be further opportunities of discussing it. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to abolish grand juries in England and Wales.

The Attorney-General

rose for the purpose of opposing the motion. He thought that there was a general impression in the House the other night that the House would not in future give leave to bring in a Bill unless there was a reasonable prospect that it could be carried into a law during the Session. His hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Cambridge, had asked for leave to bring in a Bill to abolish grand juries in England and Wales, Why, if grand juries were so faulty an institution, he had not proposed to extend his Bill to grand juries in Ireland, saving always their fiscal jurisdiction in that country, he had not thought proper to explain. He did not wish it to be supposed, because he opposed this motion, that he considered the institution of grand juries one of the best possible institutions for criminal jurisprudence; on the contrary, he thought that an officer like the public prosecutor in Scotland, who was appointed by the Government, liable to the same responsibility for his actions to which all other Government officers were liable, would be a far better institution. He was convinced that you must either have grand juries or a public prosecutor; and if his hon. and learned Friend had proposed, upon abolishing grand juries, to appoint a public prosecutor, he might have respectfully entertained that proposition, although he warned the House that it would be a proposition which could not be carried into effect in this country without many difficulties. But his hon. and learned Friend had not proposed any substitute for the institution which he desired to abolish; and as there was no chance of carrying such a Bill as he had proposed through the House, he must, with all deference to his hon. and learned Friend, withhold his assent from the motion.

Mr. Warburton

could not assent to the proposition of the hon. and learned Attorney-General, that the House had on a former evening laid down a rule, that if there was no prospect of carrying a Bill into law in the course of the Session, leave was not to be given to bring it in and discuss it. To such a rule he should never for one moment yield his assent. If such a rule had been established in by-gone times, they must have kicked out in their very first stages the Imprisonment for Debt Bill, the Registry Bill, the Catholic Emancipation Bill—ay, and as an hon. Friend near him suggested, the Reform Bill itself. He felt inclined to support the proposition of his hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Cambridge, as a proposition wise and salutary in itself, and he did hope that his hon. and learned Friend would be permitted to introduce it with a view to have it submitted to discussion. If the institution of an office like that of the public prosecutor in Scotland was so advisable as the hon. and learned Attorney-General represented it to be, let him consent to the introduction of this Bill, and then, when it was in Committee let him propose a clause appointing such an officer. If his hon. and learned Friend divided the House on this motion, he should certainly have the benefit of his vote.

Lord John Russell

complained, that his hon. Friend, the Member for Bridport, had not represented correctly the proposition of his hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney-General. His hon. and learned Friend had stated the impression of the House to be this:—that if there was no reasonable prospect that the principle of a Bill could be carried into law, it was not advisable to give leave to introduce it. Now. he was not prepared to abolish grand juries altogether; and such being the case, he should oppose the motion of his hon. and learned Friend for leave to bring in his Bill.

Mr. Aglionby

meant to support the proposition for leave to bring in this Bill, but would not pledge himself to support it hereafter. He also complained of the manner in which his hon. and learned. Friend had endeavoured to stifle all discussion upon it.

Mr. Maule

said, that the question was, whether this Bill was a fit subject for the consideration of the House. He was of opinion that it was, and that it did not deserve to be classed with those frivolous and trifling Bills which had wasted so much of the time of the House in former Sessions. He should support the motion of his hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Cambridge.

Sir R. Peel

said, that it was not possible to maintain the proposition of the hon. and learned Attorney-General, that the introduction of a Bill was to be resisted unless there was a reasonable chance of carrying it to a successful issue in that Session of Parliament. The mode of dealing with the introduction of new Bills must depend upon the nature and merits of each distinct Bill. There were many Bills which, although not perhaps at all likely to pass into a law, might, notwithstanding, be very fit subjects to be discussed, while others ought to be rejected without any discussion. With regard to the present measure, he must say that there were, in his opinion, very satisfactory grounds for refusing to entertain it. No practical reason had been given by the hon. and learned Gentleman for striking out of our system of criminal jurisprudence this important branch, which gave, as he believed, perfect satisfaction to the people. If the House were to consent to abolish grand juries on the plausible philosophical reasons adduced by the hon. and learned Gentleman, what was to prevent him from recommending it to abolish petty juries also, for the same specious but unsatisfactory reasons? He could tell them that it was very absurd to have a tribunal of twelve persons to try every species of offence. He could tell them that it was still more absurd to require unanimity in their verdict, and to lock them up in a room till they came, in spite of all differences, to that unanimity. These might appear to some to be good plausible philosophical arguments; and when he had carried his Bill for the abolition of petty juries, and the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge had carried his Bill for the abolition of grand juries, the only part of the community who would receive their legislation with satisfaction, would be that part of it which was in the habit of preying on the property of its neighbours. He thought the House had a right to require of the hon. and learned Gentleman to propose some substitute before they proceeded at all to discuss such a proposition as this. It was bad policy in a branch of the Legislature to condemn any portion of the jurisprudence of the country on which the lives and property of the community depended for protection, merely because a philosophic speech had been delivered to recommend such condemnation. It would be much wiser, he thought, to permit the present system to remain as it was than to deprecate that system, without any substitute being proposed in its stead. He would, therefore, refuse his assent to the introduction of the present Bill. A public prosecutor had been suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (the Attorney-General), such as they had in Scotland; but would not the objection hold as strongly, if not more strongly, against one individual putting a man upon his trial, after hearing evidence in private, than against a grand jury? It was far from his wish to suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman who proposed this Bill, that he ought to publish his philosophical arguments in favour of it in some magazine, but while he would offer no such advice, still, at the same time, if the hon. and learned Gentleman should act upon the advice already given to him in this respect, and would oblige him by telling him in what magazine the arguments appeared, he would promise the hon. and learned Gentleman that he would read them, and give them the most impartial consideration. At present, seeing, as he did, that no substitute was proposed for that which it was intended to abolish—seeing that grand jurors were a powerful check upon the committal of the King's subjects for trial in a public court by magistrates without sufficient grounds—and seeing that the country generally was satisfied with the present system, he believed that to abolish that system abruptly, without viewing and considering it in relation to all the other branches of the jurisprudence of the country, would be attended with bad results and much dissatisfaction. For all these reasons he was prepared to give a decided negative to the introduction of the present Bill to abolish grand juries.

Mr. Wakley

said, that every man in England who had paid the slightest attention to the subject, knew that the grand jury was a species of Star Chamber, which served the purpose of screening the magistracy. The remark appeared to be felt, but he would repeat his belief that its only use was to screen delinquent magistrates. There were hundreds of commitments under the game-laws, which would throw disgrace on the magistracy, if the parties were brought to trial; but they were not tried, because the grand jury conveniently interposed between the com- mitment and the petty jury. If the House rejected the motion and disposed of the question without consideration, they would show the people of England that they were prepared to deny them justice on a most important branch of jurisprudence.

Viscount Sandon

remarked, that commitments under the game-laws did not come before quarter-sessions at all. That court only took cognizance of aggravated offences, such as assaults. The hon. Member ought not to make a charge against the magistracy of England, without any sufficient foundation.

Mr. Wakley

said, that some time since, in the north of England, a contest took place between a gamekeeper and a person supposed to be a poacher, in which the poacher was killed. A coroner's inquest was held on the body, and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against the gamekeeper. The grand jury, when the matter came before them, ignored the bill. He thought this fact afforded sufficient grounds for the assertion he had made.

Mr. Pryme replied.

The House divided:—Ayes 25; Noes 196: Majority 171.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Leader, J. T.
Briscoe, J. I. Marsland, H.
Brotherton, J. Maule, W. H.
Bulwer, F,. L. Pechell, Captain
Chichester, J. P. B. Potter, R.
Currie, R. Rundle, J.
Davies, Colonel Salwey, Colonel
Duncombe, T. Vigors, N. A.
Eliot, hon. J. C. Villiers, C. P.
Evans, W. Wakley, T.
Finch, F. Yates, J. A.
Hawes, B. TELLERS.
Hume, J. Pryme, G.
Jephson, C. D. O. Warburton, H.
List of the NOES.
Acland, T. D. Baring, H. B.
A'Court, Captain Barnard, E. G.
Adare, Viscount Barneby, J.
Ainsworth, P. Barrington, Viscount
Alsager, Captain Bateman, J.
Anson, hon. Colonel Bateson, Sir R.
Archbold, R. Beamish, F. B.
Attwood, T. Belfast, Earl of
Bagge, W. Benett, J.
Bailey, J. Bentinck, Lord
Baines, E. Berkeley, hon. F.
Baker, E. Berkeley, hon. C.
Bannerman, A. Bethell, R.
Baring, F. T. Bewes, T.
Blackstone, W. S. Houldsworth, T.
Blair, J. Howard, P. H.
Blake, M. I. Howick, Viscount
Blakemore, R. Hughes, W. B.
Blennerhasset, A. Ingestrie, Viscount
Blewitt, R. J. Ingham, R.
Blunt, Sir C. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Bolling, W. James, Sir W. C.
Bowes, J. Johnston, General
Bramston. T. W. Johnstone, H.
Broadley, H. Joliffe, Sir W.
Broad wood, H. Jones, W.
Brownrigg, S. Knight, H. G.
Bruges, W. H. L. Knightley, Sir C.
Bryan, G. Langdale, hon. C.
Burr, H. Lascelles, W. S.
Busfeild, W. Lefevre, C. S.
Callaghan, D. Lennox, Lord G.
Campbell, Sir J. Lennox, Lord A.
Christopher, R. A. Lister, E. C.
Clive, Viscount Litton, E.
Clive, hon. R. H. Lockhart, A. M.
Collier, J. Logan, H.
Collins, W. Mackenzie, W. F.
Colquhoun, Sir J. Maclean, D.
Courtenay, P. Macnamara, Major
Craig, W.C. Mahon, Viscount
Cripps, J. Maidstone, Viscount
Dalrymple, Sir A. Manners, Lord C.
Darby, G. Maunsell, T. P.
D'Israeli, B. Maxwell, H.
Divett, E. Monypenny, T.
Duckworth, S. Mordaunt, Sir J.
Duke, Sir J. Morris, D.
Duncombe, W. Muskett, G. A.
Dunlop, J. Neeld, J.
Eaton, R. J. Nicholl, J.
Eliot, Lord O'Brien, W. S.
Erle, W. O'Callaghan, C.
Estcourt, T. Packe, C. W.
Etwall, R. Paget, F.
Fazakerley, J. N. Pakington, J. S.
Fitzroy, Lord C. Palmer, C. F.
Fitzroy, hon. H. Palmer, R.
Fitzsimon, N. Parker, R. T.
Follett, Sir W. Peel, Sir Robert
Forbes, W. Pendarves, E. W.
Fremantle, Sir T. Perceval, Colonel
Gaskell, James Milnes Perceval, G. J.
Gibson, J. Philips, M.
Gibson, T. Phillpotts, J.
Gladstone, W. E. Protheroe, E.
Gordon, Captain Ramsay, Lord
Goring, H. D. Redington, T. N.
Grimsditch, T. Rice, right hon. T.
Halford, H. Richards, R.
Harcourt, G. S. Rickford, W.
Hayter, W. G. Rolfe, Sir R. M.
Heathcote, Sir W, Rolleston, L.
Henniker, Lord Rose, Sir G.
Hinde, J. H. Round, C.G.
Hodges, T. L. Round, J.
Hodgson, R. Rushbrooke, Col.
Holmes, hon. W. Russell, Lord J.
Hope, G. W. Sandon, Viscount
Hope, H. T. Seymour, Lord
Horsman, E. Shaw, right hon. F.
Sheppard, T. Vere, Sir C. B.
Slaney, R. A. Vivian, J. E.
Smith, J. A. Vivian, Sir R. H.
Smith, R. V. Whalley, Sir S.
Somerset, Lord G. Wilberforce, W.
Spry, Sir S. T. Williams, R.
Stanley, E. Williams, W.
Stanley, Lord Williams, W. A.
Stansfield, W. R. Wilmot, Sir J. E.
Strangways, J. Wilshere, W.
Strickland, Sir G. Winnington, T.
Stuart, V. Winnington, H.
Style, Sir C. Wood, T.
Sugden, Sir E. Young, G. F.
Surrey, Earl of Young, J.
Thomson, C. P.
Tracy, H. H. TELLERS.
Tufnell, H. Dalmeny, Lord
Turner, W. Stanley, E. J.

Leave refused.