HC Deb 20 February 1850 vol 108 cc1129-35

Order for Second Reading read.


moved the Second Reading of this Bill. He stated that he considered it one which would meet with the general concurrence of the House, its object being to introduce a considerable improvement in the administration of the law with respect to small offences. The Bill proposed, in the first place, to extend the provisions of the Juvenile Offenders Act, and to give magistrates the power of summary jurisdiction, irrespective of age, in cases of larceny below a very limited amount. With respect to the other portions of the Bill, it would be recollected that at the commencement of the last Session he had intimated his intention of bringing in a Bill of this kind, and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General then stated that it was the intention of the Government to deal with the subject, they being of opinion that some alteration in the general law of larceny was imperatively called for. He had no wish to interfere with trial by jury in cases of larceny to a greater extent than was absolutely called for by the general sense of the country. To many of the cases of larceny, trial by jury was almost inapplicable. One class of offences which was more particularly adverted to in this part of the Bill, was that of the offence of coal stealing. In some counties the offence of coalstealing was very common; but offenders were brought to trial at great cost, and on account of the insignificant nature of these charges, justice was frequently dispensed with altogether. In and near Dudley, where there were many coalworks, offences of this kind were either passed over and forgiven, or the persons charged were tried at the Worcester quarter-sessions, twenty-six miles distant. A coal-owner told him that he was plundered of many tons of coal per week, owing to the difficulty of prosecuting the offenders. He proposed by the Bill to fix the amount of the larceny at the very low amount of 1s., which the House would be aware was the old distinction between grand and petty larcenies. He believed that in a very large proportion of all cases of larceny, the value of the property did not exceed that sum; and he was confirmed in that view by the elaborate and able reports of the Criminal Law Commissioners and of the County Rate Commissioners. There was another part of the Bill which dealt with the question of costs which might be incurred under the operation of this Act, and upon this subject he was anxious to call the attention of the Government. He would strongly urge on the Government the fact that a great pecuniary saving might be effected to the Government by the operation of the Act. The expense of prosecution under the Juvenile Offenders Act, was limited to forty shillings; but he believed the average cost did not exceed twenty shillings; whereas every trial at quarter-sessions involved an expenditure of from 5l. to 8l. There could be no doubt, therefore, that a considerable saving would accrue to the Government by the operation of this Act. As the counties had been relieved from the cost of prosecution at the sessions under the Juvenile Offenders Act, so ought they to be relieved from the expenses attending the summary convictions under this Act, if the Bill were allowed to become law. The question of costs as affecting the counties would refer solely to the expenses of the trial, because with respect to the maintenance of the prisoners, whatever that amount might be, after conviction, it would be balanced by the saving in the maintenance of the prisoner before trial. He hoped, therefore, that the Bill would meet with the general support of the House.


said, that he had given notice of an Amendment with respect to this Bill, but it was not his intention to move it upon that stage. His objections to the Bill were twofold in their character; he objected to the jurisdiction proposed to be given to the magistrates, and to the alternative punishment which it was proposed to inflict in certain parts of the Bill. He was far from being of opinion that some alterations were not required in the law as it now stood; but he objected to the proposal of giving increased power to the magistrates. With regard to the Juvenile Offenders Act, he did not think that it had been attended with the good results which had been expected from it, because the punishment which it authorised did not apply to offences committed by persons in the higher ranks of society. Juvenile offenders in the superior ranks of life had no temptation to commit larceny; and if the upper classes were not to be visited with a punishment which affected their sense of dignity and of corporal pain, then, he contended, that it was not fair that two justices should be empowered to administer a whipping to persons who stole a bunch of turnips, when they happened to be under sixteen years of age.


begged to remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that under the Juvenile Offenders Act, a discretionary power was reserved to the magistrates either to proceed summarily or to commit for trial.


considered that the objection which the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk had urged was one which militated against the principle of the Bill, and that he ought therefore to go to a division at once. He himself did not see what reasonable ground there was for objecting, in the case of juvenile offenders, to a summary jurisdiction on the part of magistrates, or to the infliction of corporal punishment. Neither did he see any reason why this summary jurisdiction over juvenile offenders should not be extended, as it was proposed by this Bill to extend it, from fourteen to sixteen years. He found that in nearly all the prisons in the country, juvenile criminals were classed as offenders under the age of sixteen years. The only fault he had to find with the Juvenile Offenders Act was, that the juris- diction which it conferred was hardly summary enough. A very general impression prevailed that it was productive of very bad consequences to take a juvenile offender to prison in a van with other accused persons, and keep him there three or four days, thus giving him a status in the criminal population of the country; and therefore he was strongly in favour of administering a boy's punishment for a boy's offence at the nearest police station. As to the argument used by the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk, with reference to the non-infliction of a similar punishment on youths of high station, it was well known in what manner young gentlemen were corrected for juvenile delinquencies at Eton and Westminster. He gave the Bill his cordial support.


had found, from his communications with Ireland, that a measure of this kind was very much needed, in mercy to the poorer class of criminals who were now tried before a jury. They endured a punishment before they were put on their trial far greater than their offence deserved. He had received a letter from the assistant barrister for the county of Cork, in which it was stated that out of seventy-eight cases in the Crown book for the current sessions, many of the prisoners had been sent from distances ranging between thirty and forty miles. The letter went on to say that there was a man now waiting his trial on a charge of stealing a piece of timber valued at three-halfpence, and when he was discharged from gaol, he would be fifty miles from home. Another would be put on his trial for stealing twelve sods of turf, and he would be thirty-nine miles from home when released from prison. His opinion was, that the law at present in force was too severe on the lower classes. The magistrates had the power of adjudicating in a summary manner where offences were committed on the growing produce of the land to a very considerable amount, though they could not do so when it was severed from the freehold.


thought it was unnecessary for him to say that he approved entirely of this Bill, because, with the exception of fixing the maximum at 1s., he might say it was a transfer of the Bill which he had formerly the honour to introduce. He thought the hon. Gentleman had acted judiciously in taking as the maximum 1s., which formerly was the boundary between grand and petty larceny. When he (the Attorney General) intro- duced his Bill, he was pressed very strongly to fix the amount at 5s. An alteration in the law, as it now stood, was, he thought, imperatively called for. At present, if two boys went into a potato-field, and the one stole potatoes from the ground, he might be taken and summarily punished before the magistrates; but, if the other took them from a heap in the corner of the field, he could not be convicted except by a jury at the assizes or the sessions. In the same way, if two boys went into a garden, and the one took fruit from a tree, while the other picked it up from the foot of the tree, the former was taken before the magistrate, while the latter was tried by a jury. There were many good reasons why they should give to two magistrates the power of summary jurisdiction in the ease of smaller offences. Take the case of the coalowners. They were subjected to great loss by the theft of small articles of coal, and they submitted from time to time to the injury rather than prosecute; till, at last, they found themselves compelled to proceed against some person for the theft of an article not amounting, perhaps, to more than a penny in value. If, however, the magistrates had the power of summary jurisdiction in such cases, the evil would soon be put an end to. It was for reasons like these that he introduced last year a measure at the earnest request of many of the Irish Members. With respect to juvenile offenders, and indeed all offenders, it was not absolutely necessary that they should be brought before the magistrates and punished, as laid down in the Bill. There was a discretionary power left in the magistrate's hands; and it would also be in the power of persons brought before the magistrates, if there was any reason to believe that their cases were not fairly dealt with, to go before the higher court. It should be remembered that when poor persons were sent to the assizes or sessions, they often had not the means of taking witnesses to so great a distance; but if such cases were disposed of by the magistrates, then the accused would be able to bring forward witnesses, and thus have a better opportunity of getting his innocence or guilt clearly established. It seemed to him, therefore, though he was quite aware that the measure would be open to objection on the part of those who were afraid of any invasion of trial by jury, that this Bill ought to receive the sanction of the House.


considered that the House was under great obligations to his hon. Friend for introducing this measure. He was entirely in favour of that part of the Bill which extended summary punishment from boys of 14 to boys of 16 years of age; but he had some difficulty as to the other part of the Bill, and would like to see it sent before a Select Committee. If they once opened the door to admit cases to be dealt with summarily by the magistrates in the way then proposed, he was afraid they would find themselves involved in serious difficulties. He cordially supported the measure so far as it related to the summary punishment of young persons; but it was a matter of grave question whether they should take this step towards doing away with trial by jury in the case of adults.


thought that if the hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin had made out that this measure was absolutely necessary for Ireland, it would not be difficult also to show that it would be of great advantage in England. He had had some experience of the sematters, as chairman of the quarter-sessions in his district, and he must say that scarcely a session passed during which the grand jury did not, by memorial, complain that a number of trumpery cases were brought before them which any magistrate might easily have disposed of with perfect justice to the parties and to the community. The magistrates, however, had no discretion in such cases, for they were bound by law to send persons charged with those offences to take their trial either at the assizes or the sessions. He had seen cases where the articles stolen were so trifling in point of point of value, that a laugh was caused in the court. The hon. and learned Member for Dundalk, who, he thought, ought to take the opinion of the House on the principle of the measure now, if he meant to take it at all, objected to giving any further jurisdiction to the magistrates in summary cases; but, in point of fact, the magistrates had, in one respect, more powers at present than this Bill would give them. If, for example, a man were to break into a gentleman's garden and take the fruit from his trees, or break into his hothouse and take the grapes from his vines, he could not be tried by jury, but would be punished by the magistrates. He saw no objection to that part of the Bill which extended the summary jurisdiction to persons of 16 years of age, as he believed that many offenders escaped from the unwillingness of persons to bring their cases before the higher tribunals.


observed, that there were two distinct principles involved in the Bill, and it might be possible to agree with the first, and to entertain considerable doubts about the second. He had, himself, great doubts about the second branch of the measure, particularly after what had been said by the Attorney General, because it was quite clear, though the old distinction between grand and petty larceny had been admirably introduced by the hon. Member for Droitwich, that this Bill would be the commencement of a system for doing away with trial by jury. That, however, was a matter which might be discussed hereafter; and he thought, therefore, that the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk had taken a prudent course in not dividing the House now. With regard to juvenile offenders, as the great object of the former Bill was to prevent their contamination in gaols, he thought that sixteen years of age was the proper line of demarcation between the boy and the young man.


regretted to have heard what had fallen from the hon. Member for Oxfordshire, as, having sat for sixteen years as chairman of the court of quarter-sessions, he was fully convinced of the necessity of some such measure as the present Bill. With regard to the age of juvenile offenders, three years' experience had satisfied him that the discretionary power of magistrates might be advantageously exercised over boys under sixteen years of age. As to that portion of the Bill which related to cases in which the value of the article stolen did not exceed one shilling, he could assure the House that out of sixty or seventy cases at the quarter-sessions, there were nineteen or twenty of this kind, in which felonies had been committed by persons to save themselves for starvation.

Bill read a second time.