HC Deb 03 June 1839 vol 47 cc1292-302
Mr. Fox Maule

moved the second reading of the Police Courts Bill.

Sir Benjamin Hall

said, he should take the sense of the House against this Bill; to which, as to the one just disposed of, he believed public feeling was decidedly opposed. This Bill would extend the jurisdiction of the Police Magistrates, who were to be increased to twenty-seven, over a circuit of fifteen miles round Charing-Cross, at a great additional expense to the country. The Government were to have the power of appointing these magistrates, who were to receive salaries varying from 1,400l. to 1,000l. each, with retiring allowances of two-thirds of their salaries. Now, he saw no reason for this extension of Government patronage. If, however, the number of the police magistrates was to be increased, and their jurisdiction so far extended, it ought to be with other magistrates than those who now occupied the police bench. And what ground could be urged for excluding from that concurrent jurisdiction which they now exercised, the county magistrates. The report of the committee upon which the bill was founded had stated it would tend to diminish crime, and lessen the expense of prosecutions. This Bill gave the new magistrates the power of convicting summarily in cases of larceny or stealing from the person without violence, under the value of 40s. The returns of committals to Coldbath-fields showed a great increase of crime, as compared with the returns of jury convictions. And both Sergeant Adams (the Middlesex Quarter Sessions Chairman) and the chaplain of the House of Correction, had expressed their decided opinion against summary convictions; the latter stating that it too often led to the corruption, by improper associations, of juvenile offenders; and the former, that summary convictions were frequently unjust, and in cases where juries would have acquitted. Before such extraordinary powers were committed to any persons, it ought to be ascertained that prisoners would receive equal justice, as though they went before juries of their countrymen. But there was high authority for saying that summary conviction was an evil, and an evil never to be incurred, except to prevent a greater—not on any account to be delegated to one magistrate, nor to less than two. And unless the police magistrates were of a superior class, it was a great injustice to the parties who were brought before them, and who were deprived of that trial by jury, the advantages of which were in this country so generally appreciated. He would not speak with unnecessary harshness of the present police magistrates. Many of them were highly qualified for their situations. But some were utterly disqualified for their office, and no person could read the police reports without constantly seeing, with regret, cases which were merely the medium of putting forward idle and ridiculous jesting at the expence of the culprit or the witness. And was it not a matter of grave doubt whether, on such persons as these, additional powers should be conferred? A most startling proposition in this bill was, that any magistrate was to have the power of sending a prisoner to trial without the intervention of a Grand Jury. The prisoner ought to have every chance allowed him, consistently with the law. The Grand Juries were one of those institutions of the country which ought not to be lightly abandoned, even in the favoured metropolitan district. For all these reasons he should move, that the bill be read a second time that day six months.

Colonel Sibthorp

seconded the amendment, saying that he did not approve of in- creasing the patronage of the noble Lord (J. Russell), who had already more than he could well manage, except for himself. There was no end to patronage, inasmuch as every officer, even down to the doorkeepers, were to hold office during the pleasure of the noble Lord, who might discharge them without any cause. The bill was full of expense—it was full of patronage and full of degradation to men who had conducted themselves well; therefore, he thought, the best thing they could do was to throw out the bill, and so save the country the increased expense which it would entail upon them.

Mr. Hawes

was exceedingly glad that an opportunity had occurred of explaining the ground-work on which this bill had been introduced by her Majesty's Government. It had been said that bills so unconstitutional and tyrannical as those regarding the improvement of the metropolitan police had never previously been before Parliament, and his hon. Friend who had moved the rejection of this bill had used language nearly as strong. Yet in the whole course of the speech which his hon. Friend had just made to the House, he had heard nothing which affected the principle of the measure; nor could he gather any thing even against its details that might not be removed in committee. And certainly he had heard nothing from his hon. Friend which went to show that the measure contained anything either despotic or unconstitutional. As a member of one of the districts of the metropolis, he had felt it his duty to pay his best attention to the improvement of the metropolitan police. There was no subject of so much importance—none that so generally affected the comfort and happiness of all classes of society, the poor as well as the rich, and there was no portion of society that suffered so much from the inefficiency of the police as the poorer classes of the community. Guided by those principles, he was fully prepared to defend this bill, and to acknowledge with sincerity the gratitude which he felt to her Majesty's Government for the good they had done by the introduction of such measures, founded upon the report of a select committee of that House; and he would at once declare that he did not know where they could have had a better, or a surer groundwork. That committee sat for two entire Sessions. The members composing it had done him the honour to appoint him chairman, and he certainly had not been proposed to that office by any poli- tical Friend. In the discharge of his duties while officiating on that committee, it had been his most anxious wish to obtain the best evidence; and he begged to state that he had looked in vain for any adverse evidence. The labours of the committee had received much public attention—they had formed the subject of ample discussion and comment in the newspapers, and every possible effort had been made to arrive at an accurate and sound conclusion. The committee had no difference of opinion notwithstanding their protracted labours—they never had a single division, although composed of Members of various opinions in politics, and among others a right hon. Baronet a distinguished Member of the Opposition side of the House. The report had been most minutely considered before it was approved by the committee; it had been discussed line by line—he might safely say almost word-by word. That report was agreed to unanimously, and obtained the support of Members of all shades of opinions in politics. It expressed the full and deliberate sentiments of all the Members of that committee, and he must therefore deny the insinuations that had been made, that the report was to be viewed as mainly containing the sentiments of himself individually although it had been formally sanctioned by the committee. As to the specific objections which had just been stated by the hon. Baronet, he thought they could be easily answered. The first was, that the bill would occasion great additional expense to the country. Now, he denied, distinctly, that any additional expense would be created by the measure; but if such were to be the case, he would fearlessly assert, that no portion of the public money could be better laid out than in improving the administration of public justice. The House and the Government could not confer a greater benefit on all classes of society, than in procuring the best and ablest men to act as police magistrates; and they would try in vain to accomplish that object, if they did not take means to provide them with adequate salaries. Such was the object of this bill; but it was a mistake to say that it increased the number of magistrates. The fact was, that it proposed to reduce one magistrate from each office, and to give the surplus salaries to the remaining magistrates; thus adopting the best means to secure better candidates: and for a similar purpose, the clauses had been introduced, empowering the magistrates to retire on fixed salaries, under certain circumstances—most properly, in his opinion; and though not wishing to speak unnecessarily of the noble Lord the Secretary for the Home Department, he did not hesitate to say, that there never was a Minister of the Crown who had done more for the improvement of the police, and administration of justice in the country. He did not wish to depreciate the claims or acts of any one. He fully acknowledged the great services of the right hon. Baronet opposite; but he, at the same time, felt it but just to state, that for his exertions and improvements in these respects, the noble Lord deserved well of his country. He had already alluded to the clauses empowering magistrates to retire under certain circumstances. He had stated, that it was to secure the services of efficient persons, and to obtain the best candidates. And he would ask, was it not reasonable to suppose that some Gentlemen, when they observed the increased labours which would devolve on them under the operation of this bill; when they saw the increased responsibility it would occasion, that it might, therefore, be their wish to retire? Such a course seemed to him to be the only way to get rid of inefficient officers. He saw no other way of getting rid of them, without personal application for their removal. But it was said, that it was an unusual power to give the Secretary of State the power to remove magistrates. Was it to be said, then, that magistrates were never to be removed, was it to be said that they were to be appointed for life? And if not, he would ask, who else ought to have the power of removing magistrates? Where could it be placed in better hands than in those of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who would be under the control of that House, and who discharged the duties of office publicly in sight of that House. [Lord J. Russell.—It was a power that would be seldom exercised.] The noble Lord said justly, it was a power that would be seldom exercised. He was confident it would be placed in the fittest hands, free from all caprice, and so long as the country possessed a popular House of Commons, he had no fear that any Minister of State could make an improper use of the powers which might be confided to him. With regard to the question of patronage, he begged to state, that the bill would really establish no increase of patronage. He wished to know where the supposed increase was to be found. At present there were twenty-seven magi- strates, nine police offices, with three magistrates to each office, and this bill proposed to enact, that there should not be more than twenty-seven magistrates. Where, then, was the increase of patronage? He came next to consider the objection that had been raised as to the extension of jurisdiction. Hon. Members were probably not aware, that the jurisdiction presently exercised by the police magistrates, was not only exceedingly extensive, but also not strictly legal. All that the present bill did was, to define their powers, particularly in cases of petty felony—which was much wanted—and to make their jurisdiction clear. He maintained confidently, that the bill did not extend, but defined their jurisdiction, and secured the public against abuse of power. A necessity had been long and very generally felt for some such bill as this. Hon. Members might, perhaps, recollect the statement made by the noble Lord last year, that in a large number of cases, it had been ascertained, that the prisoners had suffered a longer course of imprisonment before they had been brought to trial, than they had been sentenced to upon conviction. Was it desirable that such a state of things should continue, more particularly in regard to juvenile offenders? On that subject, he would request the attention of the House to the report of the committee on county-rates in the year 1834, in which they would find the following remarks:— We have reserved for the conclusion of our report, an earnest recommendation to Government, and to Parliament, to take into their early consideration the practicability of establishing some tribunal for the speedy trial of young offenders, charged with comparatively light offences. The present process of the law is too cumbrous, and too dilatory in regard to cases of this description, and neither gives adequate protection to innocence, nor ensures a duly a regulated punishment to guilt. The committal to prison for trial involves frequently a period of confinement longer than that which follows actual conviction, and a stigma upon character, not justified by the moral quality of the offence with which a young person is charged. All the magistrates examined before that committee, concurred in recommending the establishment of a summary tribunal for the trial of young offenders; and the committee sent round the evidence given before them, to all the magistrates of the metropolis, calling their attention to the subject, and asking their opinion. Besides that committee on county-rates, the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of the criminal law, came also to the same conclusion; and certainly, if ever there was a case in which anything like fair grounds for legislation had been obtained it was the present, where all parties who had considered the subject had arrived at the same conclusion. He was justified, therefore, in saying that this bill was founded upon grounds which he would maintain were sound and stable. He was not so well acquainted with the question of trial by jury, but the object which the committee had in view was to establish a tribunal to which immediate appeal might be made, and which would at the same time provide proper checks against abuse, and obtain a deliberate and impartial hearing of each case. On that subject the committee had also come to an unanimous conclusion. All these clauses were said to be harsh and stringent. They were so apparently; but it was important for that House to know, that there was scarcely one of them which was not taken from some local act, some of which had been in existence for twenty-five or even forty years, and all local acts which had lately passed the House had formed the grounds from which some of these clauses had been selected; so that in this bill all the police regulations common to the different cities in the empire were concentrated. It was evident, from the numerous complaints made from different parts of the metropolis, that such a measure was necessary. They would all recollect the admirable arrangements made at the coronation of her Majesty—scarcely one accident had occurred, owing to the energetic and judicious manner in which the magistrates and police had acted on that occasion; but if people had been disposed to raise questions, some unpleasant litigation might have arisen from the uncertainty of the law, and the want of percision as to the nature and extent of the magistrates' jurisdiction. Every hour the efficacy of that establishment was increased, and it was daily rising in public approbation. He believed that this bill would still materially improve that establishment, and he only hoped that the noble Lord, or whoever else might be called upon to appoint magistrates under the powers which it conveyed, would exercise a sound discretion, and select those who would discharge their duties for the public benefit. Whoever would take the trouble to look through the report of the Select Committee, would find a most anxious desire manifested by all the Members to render the operation of the law useful to that class who had not hitherto been so well protected; and whether they referred to petty assaults or other crimes, all the provisions were founded on the practical results of experienced magistrates sitting in their offices from day to day, who had stated, that cases were continually occurring in which, under the existing system, they could not give relief. There was not any one class of the people, from the highest to the lowest, that would not be benefited by the passing of the bill. He would have been exceedingly sorry to have been connected with any thing like a harsh, violent, or unconstitutional measure. In his proceedings with regard to the present bill, he had been supported by his Friend, the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets—a Gentleman not at all likely to have given his sanction to any bill that could with justice be so designated. That hon. Member entirely concurred with him in his views on this subject. They were willing to throw their characters as supporters of it before the consideration of the public. He entertained no fears of the result, and would confidently wait the verdict. He would not detain the House longer, but would give the second reading of the bill his most cordial and best support.

Sir E. Knatchbull

was not one of those who would oppose the second reading of the bill. But there was such a large mass of business already before the House, that he doubted whether they should be able to afford time and consideration sufficient for a measure of that importance. He, therefore, was of opinion, that it would be better discussed in a Select Committee than in a committee of the whole House.

Lord John Russell

said, that if these police bills were likely to be really improved by referring them to a Select Committee, he should certainly think it would be advisable to accept of that proposition. But, although there were certain bills with regard to which such a course might be advisable, he did not consider the present to be of that description. There were two classes of persons to whom these bills applied, whose conduct required some stringent provisions. He alluded first of all to pawnbrokers, who were instigators of the crimes so frequently committed by juvenile offenders—by children of nine, ten, and eleven years of age. These young offenders would not have the same inducements to commit crimes, if it were not for the facilities afforded them by pawnbrokers, who receive their stolen goods. These people receive from those young offenders every thing they could pick up, either in the shops or streets. The other class of persons to whom he referred, were the gambling-house keepers. These houses were on the increase year after year. They extended to all classes of society—not only to persons of the higher ranks, but to merchants' clerks, and to shopkeepers' apprentices. The evils resulting from the existence of those gambling houses required an immediate remedy. Therefore, apart from the very able speech which had been made by the hon. Member for Lambeth, he thought that it was necessary to proceed with this bill, in order to provide the means for repressing those dreadful scenes of profligacy and vice carried on under the name of gambling houses.

Mr. T. Duncombe

hoped the hon. Baronet the Member for Marylebone would not press his motion against the second reading, and allow the bill to pass through its present stage without a division! He must say, that the speech which they had heard from the hon. Member for Lambeth had satisfied his mind on many points, and although he wished still to draw the attention of the House, to the clauses regarding the establishment of Courts for Small Debts, he should reserve himself until the bill was in committee, and he hoped tile hon. Baronet would not persist in his amendment.

Mr. Fox Mottle,

with reference to the Police Bill before the House, thought it right to express his own thanks, and the thanks of the party to which he was attached to the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Hawes), for the clear, lucid, and distinct manner in which he had explained them. In vindicating the bills now before the House, the bon. Gentleman had in fact vindicated the conduct of the committee, of which he was the chairman. The debt which the country owed to the hon. Gentleman for the course he had taken, as well upon the committee as in the House, in reference to this most important subject, was greater than he could express; and if any person either in that House or out of it, should venture to charge the hon. Gentleman with introducing and supporting a tyrannical measure, he (Mr. F. Maule) was satisfied that the time would come, and shortly too, when not only the hon. Gentleman's own constituents, but the constituency of the whole of the metropolitan districts, would thank him for the pains he had taken to amend the police jurisdiction of the metropolis and its suburbs. As regarded the bill now under consideration, there was only one point upon which he wished to say a few words. Much objection had been taken to the proposition for allowing a certain class of offenders to be sent to trial without the intervention of the grand jury. He could only say, that that proposition had been made with the full sanction and approbation of the great majority of the metropolitan magistracy. For his own part, he thought it a most wise and proper regulation. Carefully guarded as it was, it was impossible, that it would tend in the smallest degree to infringe the liberty of the subject.

Mr. Wakley

rose to call the attention of the House to the salaries which this bill awarded, and to the class of persons from whom the new magistrates were exclusively to be selected. They found of late years that no opportunity was forgotten of introducing a person of the legal profession, whenever an office was to be filled up. He wanted to know why the Home Secretary was to be bound to choose a barrister of seven years' standing to fill the office of magistrate, when there were hundreds of thousands of persons, not members of the legal profession, who were better qualified to perform the duties of the magisterial bench. He trusted, that the hon. Member for Marylebone would not divide against the second reading of the bill, as there appeared to be a very general opinion in the House that the bill ought to go to committee. But when they came to the consideration of the clause which imposed the restriction to which he had adverted, he certainly hoped the Government would be disposed to give way upon that point. The amount of the salaries proposed to be given to the magistrates appeared to him to be most objectionable and most indefensible. The two police commissioners who had discharged their duties with so much credit to themselves, and so much advantage to the public, received each a salary of 800l. a year. Those gentlemen, it was to be remembered, were appointed and their salaries affixed by Sir Robert Peel, a Tory. Now, what was the conduct of the Whig Ministers of the present day? Why, under this bill they proposed to give to each of the junior magistrates a salary of 1,000l. a year, and to the chief magistrate 1,4001. a year. He looked upon this reckless extravagance as wholly indefensible; and when the clause came under the consideration of the committee, he should certainly move, that the salaries be reduced from 1,000l. to 800l., and from 1,400l to 1,000l a year.

Mr. Clay

could not concur in the views of his hon. Friend who had just sat down. In his opinion no justice was so dear as bad justice, at whatever price it might be obtained; and as they were about to give large powers to the magistrates appointed under this bill, he thought it was incumbent upon the House to give such an amount of remuneration as would enable them to obtain persons competent wisely, usefully, and honestly, to discharge the functions of the office they were about to impose upon them. Neither could he concur in the view of his hon. Friend with respect to the impropriety of limiting the choice of the magistrates to members of the bar. It was perfectly true, that gentlemen in other walks of life might be found fully competent upon all general points to perform the functions of magistrates, but under the extended jurisdiction of the courts now proposed to be established, it was more than probable that legal points might arise which would require a sound knowledge of the law in the person who presided. For his own part he fully concurred in the principle of the bill, and should give it his very cordial support.

Mr. Darby

thought that some of the provisions of the bill were most objectionable, especially those which took away the right of trial by jury, and substituted a fine for imprisonment in certain cases of felony. He wished, in common with his hon. Friend, the Member for Kent, that these bills might be sent to a select committee. If they were not, he was convinced it would be impossible for them to pass through the House.

Sir E. Wilmot

differed from his hon. Friend who had just sat down, and was decidedly favourable to the proposed plan of giving the magistrate summary jurisdiction in certain cases.

Lord Granville Somerset

was not friendly to the main provisions of the bill. He thought, indeed, that the measure could only be justified by the tyrant plea put forward by the hon. Member on the opposite side of the House. But, whatever the ultimate fate of the bill might be, he certainly hoped it would not be sent to a select committee. He was decidedly of opinion, that every provision of a bill of this kind ought to be discussed in the face of day.

Amendment withdrawn; bill read a second time.