HC Deb 22 March 1842 vol 61 cc1028-32
Mr. Bankes

re quested the indulgence of the House, while he answered a question put to him the other night by the hon. Member for Liskeard. The hon. Member had directed his attention to a statement which had appeared in the public papers, and declared that he had also other sources of information with respect to the matter on which he desired, that certain inquiries should be made. The substance of the hon. Member's statement was to this effect, that in the county of Dorset, the magistrates had expressed a disinclination to a modern practice adopted by the judges, of ordering counsel in every case of prosecution at the public expense, and he said, that according to the information he had received, in order to avoid this proceeding of the judges, the magistrates of that county had, in some instances, adopted a course which he considered improper,—namely, that of committing persons over the assizes to the ensuing quarter sessions, so as to avoid the jurisdiction of the judges. He ventured to state, without any particular knowledge as to the circumstances which happened at the last assizes, that he was quite sure the magistrates of the county never had, and never could, adopt any such course as that which the hon. Gentleman might consider not expedient, at least by any-side wind or indirect means. It was perfectly true as respected the ordering of counsel in every case at the assizes, that the magistrates of the county had remonstrated, and would again remonstrate, if that course was again adopted, because they did consider it an unnecessary expense, not only to the county, but to the public at large, who now bore a share in the expense, and they would request the judges to discriminate between those cases which did require, and those which did not require the assistance of counsel. But he was quite sure they had adopted no such course as that adverted to for the purpose of attaining the object they had in view; and he was glad that the information he had received perfectly bore out what he had stated. It certainly was true, and the hon. Member for Liskeard was so far justified, in point of fact, that some offenders were on the occasion of the late assizes committed over to the ensuing quarter sessions. The circumstances which had occurred in that case were these:▀×There were five prisoners, but they were all included in one charge,▀× namely, of swindling the poor, a case apparently of conspiracy, in which the parties were persons who had been going about the country cheating the poor by selling them articles with false samples. The magistrates considered, that this was a very important case, as it affected the interests of the poor, and they were very desirous that it should be brought before the public, and that those persons, if they proved guilty, should be punished. The assizes were then within three or four days. The prosecutors were so very poor, that they stated to the magistrates that, if obliged within a limited time to go into court, they could not collect funds enough to enable them to appear at the assizes and carry on the prosecution. The magistrates did not consider that it would be right on their part, they being committing magistrates, however desirous they might be of aiding the prosecution, to furnish the funds necessary, and make themselves at once judges and prosecutors; and they considered, therefore, that it was right to give those poor persons time to see whether they could not, among their neighbours, collect sufficient money to carry on the prosecution. This was the only ground for the statement that had been made in reference to those circumstances. The hon. Member for Liskeard must be aware, with his practical knowledge, that no inconvenience could happen to the offenders in question, because, under the circumstances, the judges would not hesitate to inquire into the case, and liberate them, if it were found to be just, before they left the town; and such was in point of fact the case. The judges, acting in conformity with their duty, having a commission of gaol delivery, did completely deliver the gaol, and those persons, as no prosecutors appeared, were consequently discharged. This explanation would, he hoped, satisfy the mind of the hon. Gentle man who had brought the question forward. The magistrates had no improper view in acting as they had done, and considered they were only doing their duty. They wished to bring before the public a case which deserved the public attention. No blame on account of this case attached to any magistrate of the county of Dorset. He begged, in conclusion, to read a short extract from the charge delivered to the grand jury at the last assizes by Mr. Justice Erskine, whose eminent qualities as a lawyer and a gentleman required no eulogium from him. He said,— When he compared the calendar in that county with that of those counties through which he had then just passed, — namely, Hampshire and Wiltshire, he could not but congratulate the grand jury and the magistrates of the county in which he was then speaking; for whereas in other counties the calendars which had been presented to him were greatly increased; nay, double what they had been on the same occasion last year, in Dorset he had the pleasure of finding the calendar contained only one-half the number of charges it did at the corresponding period last year. He must, therefore, congratulate them on the state of their county and their gaol, and he did hope this happy circumstance would be an encouragement to them all to proceed in a course which appeared so successful in securing the good and sound moral habits of the people. He trusted this would be sufficient to prevent it going forth to the public, that in acting as they had done, the magistrates were neglectful of their duty, or that they had the meanness to resort to Improper modes of carrying into effect the measures they thought right.

Mr. C. Buller

was exceedingly glad to find, from the statement which had been made, that the magistrates of the county of Dorset had been actuated taking, what appeared to him an erroneous course, by the very best motives. He had not made any attack on them; nor did he say the practice of which he complained was peculiar to that part of the country. He must also be allowed to remark that his hon. Friend had omitted all reference to the inconvenience he pointed out the other day, namely, that the practice was destructive of public liberty, by keeping prisoners in gaol for a very long time; while, on the other hand, his own statement had proved in at least one instance, that a set of very great scoundrels had escaped the punishment they deserved.