HC Deb 15 February 1839 vol 45 cc466-71

Mr. Hawes moved, that the General Affirmations' Bill be read a second time. Its object was to extend the benefit of the Bill which was passed last year to those persons who conscientiously felt a repugnance to the taking of an oath, but who did not belong to any of those particular religious sects who at present enjoyed an exemption by law. Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists, had long been released from the necessity of taking oaths in courts of justice; and the measure of last Session extended the principle of the law to those persons who seceded from either one of those sects. But there were many conscientious individuals who had never belonged to any of those religious communities, and it was to them that he now sought the same indulgence to be extended. The first Act passed on the subject was in the 13th and 14th of Charles 2nd. The effect of that enactment was to punish most severely all parties who refused to take an oath. The penalties were extended not only to those who refused to take an oath, but to those who persuaded others not to take one; and the penalty of transportation was even enforced. By the 1st of William and Mary, a greater latitude of toleration was allowed. By that Act the Quakers were allowed to give testimony on declaration; but still their testimony was not admitted in criminal cases, nor were they allowed to sit on juries, or to hold offices of emolument. The 7th and 8th of William and Mary, stated the peculiar hardships the Quakers laboured under from those penalties; the penalties were repealed altogether, and a greater degree of indulgence granted to that sect for a limited time. The 1st of George 1st, made those indulgences perpetual. The 8th of George 1st prescribed new forms of declaration, but those forms were considered objectionable. By the 22nd George 2nd, many doubts were remedied; and in this state the law remained for nearly eighty years. By the 9th of George 4th, the Moravians were acknowledged by Parliament as a class of people entitled to this indulgence; and, by that statute, the indulgence to Quakers and Moravians of making an affirmation was extended in all cases, civil as well as criminal; but, nevertheless, the disability to sit on juries or to hold places of emuloment, was continued. By the 3rd and 4th of William 4th, the Quakers and Moravians were put on the same footing, as to their rights, with other persons, and the indulgence was still further extended, so that all persons who could say they had been Quakers were to be entitled to the indulgence and benefits claimed by Quakers, In the last Session, a bill was brought in by his hon. Friend, the Member for Cambridge. A large secession had taken place from the original body of Quakers. Those who had seceded from the original body had been disallowed the privileges of that body; but by this statute all the benefits intended to be conferred on the Quakers were extended to the seceders as well as conferred upon those who had continued to be of the original sect. The whole course of legislation on this subject of late years had been to relax the law in favour of those who conscientiously objected to taking oaths; and it must, he thought, be for the interest of a due administration of justice, and of all parties in the State, that honest and conscientious men should not be excluded from aiding in the enforcement of justice against wrong doers, and be put in a worse situation than more careless individuals. It had been objected, that if persons who were subpœnaed to give evidence in courts of justice were to be permitted to set up at the moment a claim to be exempted from taking an oath, on the ground that they entertained conscientious scruples, the ends of justice might be defeated for want of evidence. To obviate this objection, he had introduced a clause into the bill, by which it was required, that any who conscientiously objected to take an oath should, previously to his having any power to claim an ex-exemption, register his name in a book, to be kept by the officer before whom the oaths of allegiance and supremacy were taken; and the clause declared, that upon payment of a small fee, such person should be entitled to have his name so registered. The House would perceive that this must be a deliberate act on the part of the individual claiming to be registered. As an illustration of the necessity for this bill he would remind the House of the case of Mr. Wedgwood, the late magistrate at the Queen-square police-office, who resigned his situation because he entertained conscientious scruples as to administering oaths. There were many persons actuated by strong religious motives on the subject of oath taking; and he hoped, therefore, that the House would allow the bill to be then read a second time.

Mr. Goulburn

did not think it proper, in the present thin state of the House, to enter into a discussion upon this subject, which he should feel it absolutely neces- sary to do in the further progress of the bill. But there necessarily must be very strong objections to a measure, the real purport of which was this—that every individual who chose to make a payment of 3s. 6d., might decide whether he should or should not he put upon oath in the trial of any question that might be brought forward in a court of justice in this country. The hon. Gentleman said, indeed, that the individual must register before he could claim an exemption. That was perfectly true; but then he would be at liberty to take an oath at any subsequent period. An individual, therefore, had an opportunity of saying whether his evidence should be given under circumstances that would destroy its validity in the opinion of many—that of merely making a declaration in court; or should be given under that solemnity which would give it validity in the opinion of almost all—namely, that of his being sworn before the court. In his opinion, this was a most serious innovation upon the proceedings of courts of jussice; an innovation of the most dangerous description, and one, therefore, upon which, in a subsequent stage, and when there should be a fuller attendance of Members, he should feel it his duty to take the sense of the House.

Mr. Gibson

regretted, that he could not agree with the right hon. Gentleman in the opinion that this was a dangerous innovation upon the proceedings of courts of justice; because Quakers, Moravians, and Separaists, had for many years been exempted from taking oaths, and the principle of the present measure was recognised by the bill which was passed last Session in favour of those persons who had seceded from any one of those denominations of Christians. Having extended the benefit of the exemption to them, they were bound, in common consistency, to extend it to the rest of the community. He could not understand why persons who had seceded from the Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists, should be put in a more favourable position than the rest of the community, except the sects from which they had seceded. Nay, they were put in a more favourable position than many who belonged to the Established Church. He thought, this was a very strange way of supporting the Church. It was offering a bonus to dissent, because they were limiting the field in which the members of the Church were at liberty to exercise their consciences. If he were not constrained to offer his opposition to the right hon. Gentleman for the reasons he had already stated, he should feel bound to do so on the general principles of toleration, which he held to be perfectly consistent with a desire to support the principles of the Established Church. It was perfectly monstrous to oblige people to take oaths when they conscientiously declared, that they considered the taking of an oath to be inconsistent with their duty to God. The right hon. Gentleman had said, that if this bill passed, any man on paying 3s. 6d., might avoid the necessity of taking an oath, as if men would be able to foresee that they should obtain some privilege or advantage in not taking an oath, or as if any man could possibly have any private interest in travelling to a public office and declaring, that he felt it inconsistent with his duty towards God to take an oath. On the ground, then, that this bill was only an extension of the bill of last Session, on the ground that it would be a measure favourable, instead of being unfavourable, to the Established Church, and on the ground that it was consistent with the interest of the established religion, he should give his vote in support of the motion for the second reading of the bill.

Mr. Law

, on this occasion, should pursue the same course as that adopted by his right hon. Friend, and not enter at any length into the question. He must, however, complain of the Bill as being not so much an innovation on the proceedings of our courts of justice, as an extension of a principle which had already been introduced in those proceedings, and which had been most mischievous in its effects in the administration of justice generally. All those who had been in the habit of attending courts of justice, must have observed with what extreme jealousy juries regarded the evidence of persons who claimed to be exempted from taking an oath. It often happened that jurymen would interrupt the Court, when summing up the evidence, with the observation—"My lord, I believe that witness has not been sworn." He was convinced, if there was a case in which six witnesses should be examined who declared that they entertained conscientious scruples respecting taking oaths, and therefore were allowed to give their testimony upon a mere affirmation, and in which six other witnesses should give their testimony under the solemn obligation of an oath—that, ordinarily speaking, the jury would be disposed to act upon the testimony of those who had taken the oath, rather than upon the evidence of men who had declined, from religious scruples, to give the best security to the public which the law provided against false testimony. It was on the ground, therefore, that the further extension of the principle of dispensing with the obligations of an oath would endanger the security and confidence which the public now felt in the administration of justice, that he should give to this Bill his most strenuous opposition.

Mr. Pryme

thought, that a jury would receive the testimony of persons who gave their evidence under a solemn declaration before the Deity that they would speak the truth, with quite as much confidence as they would the testimony of men who went through the form of an oath in the hurried and irreverent manlier in which oaths were sometimes administered in courts of justice.

Bill read a second time.