HC Deb 17 August 1843 vol 71 cc909-10

On the question, that the Law of Evidence Bill be further proceeded with, the bill having been read a third time, and Mr. Darby having given notice of an amendment,

Mr. Darby

said, he objected to the bill, that it carried into effect a great alteration in the Law of Evidence. He was afraid, if criminals were allowed to give evidence, it would seriously affect the public mind, and make it doubt the administration of justice. He begged that the bill might be delayed till a full explanation were given of its probable effects.

The Attorney-General

said, at present by the law, with the exception of a statutable perjury, whenever a criminal had suffered his punishment, full competency was restored, and the criminal was qualified to give evidence both in new transactions and transactions which occurred before he committed his crime. That was the state of the law, but there was an anomaly. The criminal could not be called as a witness while he was suffering his punishment, and he did not know why a man who was suffering the last day of his imprisonment was not a competent witness to-day, but was such a witness to-morrow. He could not understand why that distinction should be continued. It seemed to him, that it ought either to be done away and the man be allowed to give evidence, or that criminals should be for ever excluded. He did not know on what principle a man should be disbelieved while he was undergoing his punishment, and believed, immediately after it was at an end. That would pre- vent all prisoners from giving evidence, and in case of a murder or other crimes committed in prison, there would be no other means of getting evidence than by pardoning the criminals, which was now the practice. He assured his hon. Friend that this bill only followed up many changes made many years ago. Formerly no man could be heard in a suit in which he had a personal interest, but that had been altered in many cases, and this bill would only remove an additional case of the same kind. Having given the bill much consideration, and made several amendments in it last year, it now had his most cordial support.

Mr. B. Escott

had doubts whether this was a useful measure, though he thought if the law of evidence were to be amended it could not be in better hands than those of the Chief Justice and his friends the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. If this bill were passed they must go a step further, and admit the plaintiff and defendant to give evidence, Already they admitted interested parties, and it was not to be supposed that, the formal insertion of the names of the plaintiff and defendant on the record should preclude them from that the advantage.

Mr. Louis

thought the Attorney-General had made out a strong case, and he should not be averse from taking the further step mentioned by the hon. Member. Several writers on evidence thought the parties should be examined.

The Solicitor-General

gave his full approbation to the measure. At present the law did not exclude interested witnesses when their testimony was not of much value, but, it did exclude interested witnesses where it was most desirable to have their evidence. The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to several cases in which under the law the most competent witnesses were excluded. He said, examine interested witnesses, and trust the jury, after a cross-examination, to form a proper judgment. The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to several cases in which the pardon of the Crown was given in order to made criminals competent witnesses. If he were to oppose this bill on the ground that they must go further, it would be necessary to oppose every measure of improvement. He could not, therefore, do otherwise than give the bill his hearty support.

Bill passed.