HC Deb 12 July 1842 vol 65 cc19-28
Sir R. Peel

Sir, I apprehend that the House will not consider that it is upon light or trifling grounds that I call its attention to the state of the law intended to provide for the personal security of the Sovereign of these realms, and to the necessity of giving such additional protection to the person of the Sovereign as any legal enactments can supply. Sir, I do not make this proposal upon light grounds, when it is notorious that, within the space of two years, three assaults upon the person of the Sovereign have been committed, by the discharge or attempted discharge of fire-arms, thus endangering the personal security, or calculated to excite the alarm and apprehension of the Sovereign, and to disturb the public mind by natural and just apprehensions for the safety of that illustrious personage. If, then, it be possible for the law to afford additional protection to the person of the Sovereign, Parliament should not separate without legislating upon the subject. Sir, I am glad that in considering the means of preventing any new offences of the nature in question, I do not find it necessary to call in the aid of extreme severity of punishment. I do not contemplate any necessity for creating any new treasons. I do not contemplate the necessity of instituting any new capital punishments for offences directed against the life of the Sovereign. I think the object may be effected without the constitution of new treasons, or the infliction of new capital punishments. Sir, if the state of the law is such that it encumbers the trial of certain offences with needless forms and solemnities which are calculated to administer to the morbid vanity of those base miscreants who commit crimes partly from the desire of gaining an unenviable notoriety, in these cases, I think, these forms and solemnities should be dispensed with. Sir, it becomes necessary for the purpose of explaining to the House the tenor of the measure I intend to introduce, that I should shortly review the existing state of the law with respect to treasonable attempts on the life of the Sovereign. I may dismiss from my consideration all those acts of constructive treason, such as levying of war, or attempts to force the Sovereign to consent to certain measures by means of intimidation; it is only necessary for me to refer to the enactments which provide for the personal security of the Sovereign, and those laws which are directed towards the punishment or prevention of offences connected with this security. Now, the state of the law I apprehend to be this, con- fining myself as I shall do, to treasons directed against the person of the Sovereign. By an ancient statute of Edward 3rd,, it is provided that it constitutes high treason to compass the death of the Sovereign —that compassing the death of the Sovereign must be accompanied by an overt act, such as an attempt upon the life of the Sovereign; for I pass over for the present acts of constructive treason, but, so far as the personal security of the Sovereign is concerned, compassing the death of the Sovereign, attended with an overt act, is treason by the statute of Edward. At a subsequent period, so late as the 36th of George 3rd., in 1796, in consequence of attempts made upon the life of that monarch, a statute was enacted, which made it treason to compass the death or destruction of the Sovereign, or to inflict any bodily injury upon, or tending to the death or destruction, or to the maiming or wounding of the Sovereign. In such cases, down to the year 1799, if an indictment was preferred on the charge of treason, it was necessary to try the prisoner with all the solemnities and forms of law which were required by a statute passed under King William; but in 1799 an attempt was made upon the life of George the 3rd by a person named Hatfield. He was acquitted on the ground of insanity, but the form of the proceedings against him was that established under the statute of William. The prisoner had the names of the witnesses supplied to him; he had that delay, and all the several forms which were required by the statute of William, and afterwards by that of Anne were duly observed. But after that trial in 1800 an act was passed which provided that in cases of offence in compassing the death of the Sovereign, accompanied by an overt act, that in such cases the form of trial for high treason should be dispensed with, and the mode of trial should be the same as in cases of ordinary murders, or malicious shootings, and so stands the law at present, that is to say, in cases of treason under the statute of Edward, where there is compassing of the death of the King, the proceedings against the prisoner may be the same with these in cases of ordinary murder. But if the offence be committed under the statute 36 George the 3rd, if there be a compassing of the wounding of the Sovereign, there is no power to dispense with all those solemnities which accompany the trial far high treason, but the person accused must be arraigned under the statute of William. I propose that in the second case as well as the first, it should be at the discretion of the Crown to conduct the trial in the ordinary manner, that it shall not be necessary to go through the formalities as they are described by Erskine in the trial of Hatfield, who defended the prisoner. In describing those formalities Mr. Erskine said,— The prisoner is covered all over with the armour of the law. He had* been provided with counsel by the King's own judges, and not of their choice, but of his own. He has had a copy of the indictment ten days before his trial. He has had the names, descriptions, and abodes of all the jurors returned to the court, and the highest privilege of peremptory challenge derived from and safely directed by that indulgence. He has had the same description of every witness who could be received to accuse him; and there must, at this hour, be twice the testimony against him as should be legally competent to establish his guilt on a similar prosecution by the meanest and most helpless of mankind. An attack upon the King is considered to be parricide against the State, and the jury and the witnesses and even the judges are the children. It is fit on that account that there should be a solemn pause before we rush to judgment, and what can be a more sublime spectacle of justice than to see a statutable disqualification of a whole nation for a limited period, a fifteen days' quarantine, before trial, lest the mind should be subjected to the contagion of partial affections? After the trial of Hatfield, however, these formalities were dispensed with, and in the case of Francis we proceeded against him in the ordinary mode of a trial for murder or malicious shooting, and I cannot help thinking, that after the experience which we have had of repeated attempts on the life of the Sovereign, or at least of assaults from which intention to kill or wound the Sovereign may reasonably be inferred, that the subjecting of such miserable persons to the forms and formalities of a trial under the statute of William, that investing them with the dignity of traitors is an unnecessary security against the abuse of the law, and one which almost tempts them to commit the crime, for the sake of the supposed importance which it gives to them. I propose therefore that, in cases of treason, where the offence is a compassing of the wounding the Sovereign, accompanied by an overt act, that in such cases, as well as in those other cases contemplated by the act passed after the trial of Hatfield, the; offender may be tried by the ordinary tribunals of the country as in any ordinary I charge of murder, and that the formalities of high treason may in such cases be dispensed with. I propose to constitute no new offence, and I do not intend to constitute any new punishment; I merely propose a change in the form of proceedings in cases where a charge compassing the wounding of the Sovereign is made, and to assimilate the form to that observed when the life of the Sovereign is said to have been attempted. It was on this principle that we recently acted in the case of Francis. In that case, after full consideration, notwithstanding that his life was forfeited, we determined that it was not for the public interest that the sentence of capital punishment should be carried into effect. We did not come to this determination until after the most mature deliberation. We decided, with the conviction that the jury who had found the verdict acted from pure and honourable motives and upon sufficient grounds, and that their intelligence and independence were not to be called in question. But, at the same time, however base the motives, however heinous the offence, yet still acting in conformity with the commands of a gracious Sovereign, whose prerogative it is to administer justice and to dispense mercy, we determined to apply the same principles to the case before us as we would with respect to any other case involving capital punishment. Two cabinet councils were held. We reviewed the whole of the evidence taken against Francis, we resolved not to decide without an interview with the three judges, by whom, or in whose presence, the prisoner was tried, and without a conference with the law officers of the Crown, the Attorney-general and the Solicitor-general, by whom the prosecution was conducted. The result of the conference with the three judges was an unanimous expression of opinion that it was not advisable that the capital sentence should be carried out. The opinions of the judges were found to be in accordance with that of the law officers of the Crown; and under these circumstances, I think the House will be of opinion that we have taken a more effectual security against the repetition of the offence, by applying the same principle to the case of Francis as we would have applied to any ordinary case of charge of murder, than we should have done had we stretched the law; or if not actually stretched it, at least had departed from the usual practises, for the purpose of making a severe example. But the decision to which we came was founded upon the unanimous report of the judges before whom the prisoner was tried, and the law officers of the Crown who conducted this prosecution. It was no feeling of false humanity which tempted us to remit the capital sentence, but into the reasons which influenced us I am sure the House will not expect that I should enter into detail. The bill which I now propose will also provide for other offences beyond those which hear the name of treason. The bill will subject to severer punishment, than can be applied under the law as it at present exists, all those offences which are connected with the discharge of fire-arms at, or attempts to alarm the Sovereign, even where the charge does not amount to high treason. Perhaps I cannot do better than read to the House the class of offences against which my measure proposes to provide. I propose to enact that after the passing of this act, If any person or persons shall wilfully discharge, or attempt to discharge, or point, aim, or present at or near the person of the Queen any gun, pistol, or other description of firearms whatsoever, although the same shall not contain explosive or destructive substance or material, or shall discharge or attempt so to discharge any explosive or destructive substance or material; or if any person shall strike or attempt to strike the person of the Queen with any offensive weapons or in any manner whatever, or if any person shall wilfully throw or attempt to throw any substance whatever at or on the person of the Queen, or with intent in the cases aforesaid to break the public peace, or with intent in any of the cases aforesaid, to excite the alarm of the Queen. In all these cases, I propose that the offenders shall be subject to certain punishments not of undue severity, for I think that it is of importance that the law should derive its efficacy from public opinion, but I propose to increase the severity of the punishment, which would be visited on these offences in the present state of the law. I propose that any party so offending, that is intending to hurt the Queen, or to alarm the Queen, shall be subject to the same penalties which apply to cases of larceny; transportation not exceeding seven years; but we propose also another punishment more suitable to the offence, and more calculated to repress it—that there be a discretionary power of imprisonment for a certain period, with authority to inflict personal chastisement. Instead of dignifying those miscreants with the solemnities of a trial for their life, and inciting them to those offences by making them the objects of that most misplaced and stupid sympathy with which some persons are apt to view such offenders, let us make known to the world, if men can be found actuated by any malignant wish to disturb the peace of their Sovereign, when enjoying that relaxation so necessary to her after the cares and anxieties of her station, that for these contemptible acts they shall receive the degrading punishment of personal chastisement. I do confidently hope, Sir, that without calling in the aid of any extreme severity, the provisions of this bill will be effectual in repressing these offences. Let us look at the nature of this crime. It is not a traitorous offence against her Majesty, a contrivance laid by persons possessed of great power against the peace of the realm —the miscreants who have lately offended in this way have been actuated by scarcely any assignable motive whatever. The law, in charity to human nature, has never contemplated the possibility of any human being in the form of man finding any satisfaction in presenting a pistol at a young lady, that lady a mother, that lady the Queen of these realms (cheers), and it is monstrous to think that she shall be subject to injury from an offence from which the meanest of her subjects are protected. I hope, Sir, that this House will respond to the proposal I now make, that a new security against such attempts shall be taken. Sir, I confide in the power of public opinion—I confide in those feelings of affection for her Majesty which I am sure animate the breasts of her subjects for constituting a defence against the attempts of powerful individuals to disturb the public peace. What we have now to guard against is the designs of those wretched miscreants, which are calculated to disturb the peace, not only of her Majesty, but of every loyal subject of her Crown, and if due additional security can be furnished by an enactment such as I propose, which trenches upon no principle of English jurisprudence, which invokes no undue severity of punishment, I have every confidence that the measure will meet with the unanimous approbation of this House, and that every individual among its Members will return from his Parliamentary duties to his domestic retirement with increased satisfaction, if he can be assured that her Majesty will enjoy, as she has a right to enjoy, a degree of security and tranquillity at least as great as that which the law secures to all her subjects. I will add no more, but move for leave to bring in a bill to provide for the further security and protection of her Majesty.

Lord J. Russell

I rise to express my cordial assent to the motion. I entirely agree with the right hon. Baronet, that when new mischiefs and new crimes are committed, it is desirable that the law should be changed, so as to meet them. The right hon. Baronet, as I understand him, does not at all propose to interfere with the ancient law of treason, or with offences to which that law is applicable. In fact, we have not to deal with great? plans of insurrection, or plans of conspiracy, for the purpose of overturning the State. With respect to crimes of that kind, there are certain securities provided by law, which, I think, are rightly provided; and, with regard to one of which —the defence by counsel—it has been extended to persons accused of felonies of an ordinary nature. But the offence with which the right hon. Baronet proposes to deal is, undoubtedly an offence new in its kind. It does not spring from any political passion spread through any portion of the people. It has its origin, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, in some base and malicious passion to injure the person of the Sovereign. When such offences are committed, as unfortunately we have seen committed during the last two years, I think it is an occasion on which the law should be altered to meet offences of that kind, and on which means should be provided for bringing the person guilty of them to trial speedily, and without those solemnities which are fitly provided in cases of a much graver nature as regards the State. With respect to the ordinary offences of treason, to which I have just alluded, there may be great difficulty in ascertaining whether the offences were the result of a plot or conspiracy. The persons who have evidence to give may be witnesses whose evidence could be completely destroyed, if the prisoner were furnished before hand with the means of rebutting their testimony. But about offences of the nature of those we have now to deal with, there can be little question. They are committed in the face of day, and they must be committed against the person of the, Sovereign. Agreeing, therefore, in the principle that for extraordinary offences new laws should be made, I agree readily with the right hon. Gentleman as to the kind of punishment by which he proposes to meet this new crime. I think, as it is the offence of base and degraded beings, a base and degrading species of punishment is most fitly applied to it. It is impossible to think or almost to divine what kind of motives are those by which this crime is prompted. My imagination is really unable to conceive how a person can be tempted to interfere with the ordinary recreations of the Sovereign, and to attempt to deprive her Majesty of that common enjoyment of air and exorcise which is not denied to the meanest of her subjects. And as her Majesty is more exposed to such attacks than any other person, I quite agree that the remedy suggested is most imperatively called for. I trust in God that the law may be found adequate to its purpose; and whether these offences arise from a morbid love of notoriety, or whatever may be the motives of those committing them, when it is known that they will be treated with the punishment they deserve, I hope we shall not have in future years the grief and pain of witnessing crimes not only painful as they affect the peace of the Sovereign, and as they must, in some degree, disturb her tranquillity of mind, but as they are clearly most disgraceful to the nation.

Mr. Hume

I am quite satisfied the House will pass this law unanimously. But I may, perhaps, take this opportunity of suggesting, that as the right hon. Baronet once effected great good by simplifying and condensing the statutes relating to the criminal law, the officers of the Crown could not be better employed than in devising the means of bringing the laws respecting treason into one comprehensive statute.

Mr. O'Connell

However politic such a change as my hon. Friend suggests may be hereafter, I trust we shall not be turned aside from expressing an unanimous opinion in favour of the proposed law. I hope it will not be deemed presumptuous in me, who speak with the weight of no station, to interfere on an occasion where the House is certainly unanimous., But I cannot avoid expressing, in the name of my constituents, and in the name of that part of the empire from which I come, the universal abhorrence and disgust felt there at those base offences committed against her Majesty's person, and the thankfulness which they will entertain towards her Majesty's Government for a measure calculated to mark with the contemptuous execration of the whole nation those brutal attempts on her Majesty's life. It is said that flogging is a brutal punishment. But what are they but brutes who are guilty of this offence? If these offences were committed against a person in private life, and that individual a mother going to the worship of her God, when her life was thus assailed by the cowardly attack of the assassin, our abhorrence of the crime must be unbounded; but when such an attack was made against the most universally popular Sovereign that this country ever beheld, one in whose pure character no taint can be discovered, and who attracts the admiration and affection of all her subjects, it is really degrading to our nature and afflicting to every right-thinking mind. I do not think that the rulers of the House should stand in the way of the passing of this bill as speedily as possible, and I am of opinion that no technical opportunities of delay — such as a traverse in prox.—should be allowed, because the trial should follow as soon as possible the commission of the offence. I beg pardon of the House for having thus intruded.

Leave given.

Bill brought in and read a first and a a second time.

On the motion that the bill be committed on the next day,

Several hon. Members: Pass it at once.

Sir R. Peel

thought it better to have it committed to-morrow, in order to adopt any suggestions which might be made.

Bill to be committed.