HC Deb 11 February 1839 vol 45 cc221-5
Lord J. Russell

then rose to bring in Bills relating to the Jurisdiction of County Courts and of petty Sessions. He would state very generally the improvements he wished to introduce. It was a subject which, in various shapes, and on various grounds, had attracted the attention both of individuals and of the commissioners appointed by the Crown, and likewise of committees of both Houses of Parliament. Every one had felt that, according to the present state of the law, there was a great deal of unnecessary expenditure, hardship, and delay, in the manner in which persons guilty of very petty offences were dealt with, inasmuch as they were committed to prison for the purpose of being tried at the quarter session, which did not take place for some time after their committal. Upon this subject the county-rate committee, after discussing various propositions, had expressed an opinion against giving any summary power to justices of the peace to inflict punishment with respect to offences termed felonies, and suggested the erection of a separate court, with paid magistrates, empowered to decide on these matters. The Committee of the House of Lords last year, after examining several witnesses, some of whom were certainly entitled as authorities to the highest respect, decided that the present system was exceedingly objectionable, and that it was desirable to give justices the power of summary jurisdiction in cases of larceny. In one of their resolutions the committee stated, that if the exercise of this power should be limited to the cases of young offenders, the whole advantage of it would not be obtained, because a great many of the offences were committed by adults. They therefore proposed that the magistrates sitting in petty session should have the power of summary jurisdiction in cases of larceny. The committee of the House of Commons which sat last year on the subject of the metropolitan police took, on the other hand, a different view of the question. They thought it advisable to give to magistrates the power of summary conviction in some cases, with respect to which they did not at present possess that power; but it was also their opinion, that as this was in principle a great innovation, and as it was depriving the subject in such cases of the right of trial by jury, such change should be introduced with caution, and in the first instance the power should only be confided to stipendiary magistrates having professional experience. There certainly was very great reason for proposing some change on this subject. In the first place, as respected the law, there was not, after the passing of the act introduced by the right hon. Baronet opposite, any longer that ground for refusing summary jurisdiction which formerly existed. The former state of the law was very absurd, for with regard to persons stealing live wood, or guilty of what was now called a malicious trespass, the remedy was not by a criminal proceeding, but by an action for trespass. The bill of the right hon. Baronet gave a power of conviction to magistrates when the property injured was under a small value. The consequence of that measure was, that when wood was cut down and carried away, the justices of the peace might immediately convict and sentence the offender to punishment; but if the offending party cut the wood into fagots and left it on the ground, or as Sergeant D'Oyley had put the case, if he cut the branches one day, and carried them off another, then the jurisdiction of the magistrate ceased, and the offender must be regularly tried at quarter sessions. This was not a satisfactory state of the law; and on the other hand, great evils arose from the imprisonment of persons for trifling offences for a long period previous to their trial. It was desirable that punishment should be speedy, and that the offenders should not before trial be liable to the contamination of a gaol for several weeks. Considering that these evils required some remedy, he proposed to give a power of summary conviction in certain cases of larceny, limiting the punishment, if inflicted by ordinary justices, to six months; and in point of age, limiting the offenders to be so dealt with to persons under fifteen years. With respect to stipendiary magistrates, he proposed to adopt the proposal of the police committee of last year, and to give them the power of summary conviction as well in the case of adults as of younger offenders, to whom he would give the benefit of an appeal, as had been given by one of Sir R. Peel's acts. The House of Lords had proposed that an option should be given to offenders either to be tried at quarter sessions or by a magistrate; but he agreed with Mr. Sergeant D'Oyley in thinking that it would not be right to make this a matter of treaty and negotiation between the court and the offenders. Such a proceeding would be a novelty in the established law of the land; and therefore, in giving the offenders the right of appeal, he was not disposed to allow them the option before trial of selecting their court. In making this change with respect to petty sessions, he likewise proposed, in accordance with the suggestions made both by the commissioners and by individuals to the Government, to introduce greater regularity and form into the proceedings. At present there was a great want of form at petty sessions. Various fees were taken by the clerks, who had no formal appointment, and this circumstance was productive of a great want of uniformity in the administration of the law. He proposed, that there should be regular returns of the number of petty sessions, and of each of the clerks appointed; and that a regular record of the proceedings, with respect to criminal law, should be kept. The two other bills which he proposed to introduce contained the substance of the measure introduced last year relative to county courts. The first bill would empower the Crown to appoint a salaried judge for the purpose of deciding in cases of small debts in various parts of the country. The bill would fix the amount to which the jurisdiction of these courts would extend, as well as the places in which they should be held. His learned Friend the Attorney-General had frequently complained of the number of courts of requests, of the great variety and irregularity in their administration, the proceedings being conducted by commissioners who had no knowledge of the law, and whose attendance was not constant. He thought, therefore, that the country generally would receive with favour an amendment of the law in this respect, and would be glad to see the Crown empowered to appoint such paid judges. He was not, however, sure that there would be the same agreement with respect to the mode in which they should be paid. He proposed, that a return of the fees received should be made to the magistrates at quarter sessions, and that they should fix the salary to be given to the judge not according to the amount of fees; and if the fees did not amount to the salary fixed, that the deficiency should be made up from the county-rate. Of the other part of the bill introduced last year, he now proposed to make a separate bill, and which related to the appointment of a salaried chairman of quarter sessions. Owing to the late improvements in the criminal law, restricting the punishment of death to a few offences, the jurisdiction exercised by the quarter sessions was now more important and extensive than before, and he therefore thought it would be advantageous to have a professional chairman at the head of those courts. He proposed, however, that an option should be left to the magistrates whether they would have a professional chairman, and that only on their application to the Crown should one be appointed. These were subjects of great importance, respecting which, he was anxious to learn the opinion as well of those who had long attended to the question, as of the country generally. It could not be denied, that the rendering justice more speedy, and the lessening of the length of time during which offenders were imprisoned before trial, were subjects which, remote as they were from politics, and exciting but little notice, were nevertheless matters of the greatest importance to the people at large. There having been much discussion on various sides with respect to different systems of prison discipline, he took this opportunity of stating his decided opinion that the system of separate confinement was the best that could be introduced; but finding many difficulties in the way of its establishment, it was his intention to propose a vote in the course of the present year to the House of Commons which would enable the Government to build a prison to be used for the purpose of experiment on the subject. The experiment was wholly new. He thought that some prisons in the United States of North America furnished him with some experience on the subject; but at the same time he did not think, that the minds of the people of this country would be satisfied unless something were done within reach of themselves. He found it still more important to make this attempt at this time, inasmuch as the sub- ject of transportation had been of late so much considered, and was likely to be much less inflicted than formerly. He would give ample time for the consideration of these bills, as he did not wish to hurry them through the House, and he trusted, that whether they were carried in the form in which they were proposed, or after having experienced some modifications, they would be the means of effecting considerable improvement.

Sir J. Y. Buller

did not mean to raise any objection to the measures of the noble Lord in their present stage, but he could not help adverting to the proposition made to pay the justices out of the county-rate. He thought that any attempt to pay the justices in this manner would be received very ill by the country. If the noble Lord would point out some other fund for this purpose than the county-rate, it would give considerable satisfaction. He wished also to call the attention of the House to the peculiar circumstances which would affect private bills for the recovery of small debts, in consequence of this motion of the noble Lord. Of course, if his measure should be carried, it would supersede the necessity of introducing any merely local bills; but if it should not pass, the case would be very different.

Leave given.