§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
then rose to move for leave to bring in four Bills:—A Bill to facilitate the performance of the duties of Justices of the Peace, out of Sessions, within England and Wales, with respect to persons charged with indictable offences:—A Bill to facilitate the performance of the duties of Justices of the Peace, out of Sessions, within England and Wales, with respect to summary convictions and orders:—A Bill to regulate the holding of Courts of Special Sessions and Petty Sessions:—and a Bill to protect Justices of the Peace from vexatious actions for acts done by them in execution of their office.Though there might be difference of opinion in the House as to the expediency of intrusting to the unpaid magistracy the large powers they now possessed, all must agree that it was the bounden duty of the Legislature to afford all possible assistance to gentlemen who discharged such duties as were devolved upon them. Now, at present, the law upon the subject was to be found scattered among many Acts of Parliament, and many recorded decisions of the courts; and it was difficult, if not almost impossible, for magistrates to execute their various functions without being subject to prosecutions or actions in the honest performance of their duty. He felt that it would have been vain for him to attempt to put all this branch of the law into the shape of a code; he thought he should have discharged his duty if he succeeded in putting into better form that portion of the law with which he now proposed to deal. With some labour, and assisted by others, he had collected all the statutes and decisions applicable to the proceedings and duties of magistrates in the commitment of parties chargeable with indictable offences; and he believed, that if he should receive the assistance of Gentlemen conversant with the subject, and if 5 the House should concur in his suggestion to refer the Bills to a Select Committee, a complete code of laws upon this point might be framed. He had adopted the same course with regard to the duty of magistrates in cases of summary convictions, collecting in a second Bill all the Statutes, and embodying also in it the various decisions of the courts, and appending a schedule of forms and precedents. In these two Bills he had endeavoured to introduce nothing new; the House, if they should think fit hereafter to make any improvement in the law upon the subject, could do so, but his object had been simply to collect together the enactments and decisions forming the existing law upon these heads. The third Bill comprised the provisions applicable to the holding of special and petty sessions, and in that Bill there was some new matter. It would enable the magistrates of the county, if they should think right, to provide fitting places, at the expense of the county, for holding Sessions; for he thought it highly inexpedient that they should be held at public-houses, where the witnesses and others must be exposed to great temptations. It would also enable the magistrates in county sessions, if they should think fit, to pay the magistrates clerk by a salary; and as that payment was to come from the county rate, he proposed to retain the power of receiving fees with the county, and the power of dispensing with them in certain circumstances, but with a further provision, authorising the Secretary of State, in concurrence with the magistrates, to frame one uniform scale of fees to be in operation through the whole of England. The fourth Bill contained a collection of the laws applicable to the protection of magistrates. These matters not being subjects of political importance might not be interesting to many, and, unaided by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, he (the Attorney-General) could not hope to succeed in this undertaking; but he should propose to allow a Session to intervene before going into Committee on the Bills, and then he trusted he should have the assistance for which he looked. At all events, he felt that he was taking a step in the right direction.
§ SIR J. PAKINGTON
, though, of course, not pledging himself to the details of these measures, could not refrain from expressing his thanks to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his most praiseworthy effort. If arrangements could be made for prevent- 6 ing the indecorum of holding petty sessions in public-houses, it would be a very great improvement; the only fear was, that the expense, considering the existing charges upon counties, might hinder its coming very speedily into operation. He (Sir J. Pakington) might say the same with regard to the payment by salaries. But if he could render any assistance in forwarding the objects in view, he should do so with great pleasure.
§ MR. CRIPPS
wished to ask whether the fourth Bill would limit the power of the judges of the local courts to entertain actions for unliquidated damages? He did not know whether the Attorney General had heard any complaints upon the subject; but it was becoming a common practice to bring actions against magistrates, for the mere purpose of harassing them, for what the parties were pleased to call illegal commitments, laying their damages under 20l. He (Mr. Cripps) knew of three most respectable and highly intelligent magistrates who were on the point of sending in their resignations, simply because they had been harassed with actions, in which, although they had succeeded in gaining verdicts, they were put to 15l. or 201. expense, and worried for merely doing their duty.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
had not heard of any complaints of this kind, and had not introduced in these Bills any provision upon the subject; his main object was to consolidate the law, remedying also some defects and difficulties that had arisen in the construction of the statutes; it would be for the House to consider hereafter whether any new enactments should be added of the nature alluded to. He ought to have mentioned that he had placed in the margin references to the books of authority where the present law was to be found; if the forms of the House would allow him to circulate the Bills in that shape, it would be very convenient.
§ MR. HUME
suggested that all the references should be appended in a sheet at the end of the Bill. With regard to the question of the hon. Member (Mr. Cripps), he (Mr. Hume) must say, that if the public were not to have the protection of the law, or of the dread of the law, against improper proceedings of justices of the peace, the Government ought to adopt some rule that should prevent any one being appointed a justice till he had been examined and was known to be qualified to 7 act as such. He was opposed to all unpaid services; that might appear singular; but he found, in every public department, from the highest to the lowest, that services professing to be unpaid were always to be paid indirectly in some improper manner. But it was a gross reflection upon the common sense of the Legislature and the Government, that because a man, perhaps a labourer at Woolwich, scarcely able to write his name, happened to succeed to an estate or a fortune of 10,000l. a year, he must be clapped into the commission of the peace immediately; it was disgraceful that there was not some qualification required, or some means taken which should protect the liberties of the people. Why, it was but a few weeks ago that a poor girl of twelve was imprisoned for fourteen days for taking home with her a book given her to use at one of the national schools. Many such acts occurred, though the Legislature only heard of them now and then; and he should protest against any protection being granted to these unpaid magistrates, unless there was some regulation regarding their qualifications and acquaintance with the law. But, as far as consolidation went, these Bills were very proper.
§ Leave given.