HC Deb 04 April 1854 vol 132 cc431-7

said, he begged to move for leave to bring in a Bill "to alter the time and mode of taking the pleas of persons charged with Larceny, and for the improvement of Criminal Procedure in the case of Larceny." His object was to enable magistrates sitting in petty sessions in open court, or stipendiary or police magistrates, also sitting in open court, to receive pleas of guilty in cases of larceny, when the parties charged were brought before them. The advantages of the Bill were threefold. The Bill, in the first place, would greatly diminish the expense to counties, for, as he believed, about 25 per cent of the persons charged with petty larceny pleaded guilty; yet the grand jury had to find a Bill, prosecutors and witnesses were bound over to appear, and no sooner was the prisoner brought into court than he pleaded guilty. It appeared that out of 540 committals during three years, at Carlisle, the prisoners in 155 cases had pleaded guilty. Assuming, then, that a fourth of the persons committed throughout the country would do the same, and reckoning the expenses of prosecution at Carlisle to be 18l. in each case, he had calculated the saving to the counties of England and Wales, if the Bill were adopted, at 50,000l. a year. He had, however, since then obtained a return, from which it appeared that the number of commitments in England and Wales, during the year 1852, was 27,500. Deducting from these 7,500, which he supposed would be sent to the assizes, that would leave 20,000 sent to the sessions. If one-fourth of these pleaded guilty, and the expense of the prosecution were only 10l., the saving would be 50,000l. The second object was to prevent the great trouble and annoyance of bringing from their families and occupations the numbers of persons who were bound over to prosecute, and witnesses against persons who had pleaded guilty. The third object he had in view bad been suggested by some remarks recently made by that great man, as he must call him, the present Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench, Lord Campbell, in which he lamented the number of persons who had been brought before him at the recent assizes for minor offences, and who had been imprisoned for a longer time before trial than they would have been imprisoned if they had been found guilty. He had, therefore, added a clause which he had not originally contemplated, enabling justices in petty sessions and police magistrates, after due caution, to receive a plea of guilty. Means would be taken to prevent any inducement being held out to prisoners to plead guilty, and they would be told that if they pleaded guilty they would receive the punishment provided by law. Prisoners would be at liberty, after this caution and charge, to plead guilty, and the justices would be enabled to receive the plea of guilty, and in cases of simple larceny to pass sentence upon the spot.


seconded the Motion. He said he remembered seeing not long ago, in a Cambridgeshire paper, that seventeen prisoners had been convicted for cases involving altogether only an amount of 17s.d., while the cost of maintaining the prisoners was about 150l.


said, he was quite ready to support the Motion of his hon. Friend, and he was very happy to give the Bill the best attention in his power. It was quite true, as his hon. Friend had stated, and he thought the fact was rather satisfactory to be known, that the great proportion of the offences committed in the country were of a slight and trivial character. It was agreeable, certainly, to contemplate, considering the great number of offences committed in various parts of the country, that the greater proportion of them were of a very trifling description; and if any mode could be discovered by which these offences could be tried more speedily, and the punishment inflicted at once, very great advantage would accrue to the country. Without, therefore, pledging himself to the details of his hon. Friend's measure, he should most cordially support his Motion.


said, he was very glad that the noble Lord had signified an intention not to offer any resistance to the introduction of the Bill. Every one would feel that the objects of the hon. Member for Cockermouth (Mr. Aglionby) were most praiseworthy; but he must say he thought the hon. Gentleman entertained rather an exaggerated opinion as to the effects of the Bill, especially in the saving of public money. If he understood him rightly, the cost of prosecutions in one county averaged 18l. per case, while the general average was 10l.; and also that 25 per cent of the prisoners brought before the court pleaded guilty. He must say that that statement did not tally with his experience as chairman of quarter sessions, which had now extended over a great number of years; that experience told him that an average of 10l. was too high, and that 25 per cent was very much more than the proportion usually found pleading guilty. He believed, however, that the ends of justice would be no less promoted than considerations of economy by the course which it was proposed to adopt. But he was obliged to confess he did not quite understand the plan of the hon. Gentleman in one respect, at least. He understood him to propose that in many petty cases parties should be allowed to plead guilty. [Mr. AGLIONBY: To plead guilty in all cases.] That was, in very petty cases, the option of pleading guilty being given, the magistrate would be allowed to pass sentence immediately. But the hon. Gentleman does not say what was to be done with the more serious cases, and when, after the plea of guilty was given in, was sentence to be passed. He was the more particular in calling attention to this circumstance, because he desired that the hon. Gentleman would avail himself of the present opportunity to introduce into the Bill a more general proposal than that which he had understood him to propound—that would be calculated to enable magistrates at petty sessions to deal summarily with the cases of extreme petty larceny to which reference had been made. Some few years ago he had himself brought forward a plan some- what of this description, which was very strongly supported, especially by members of the legal profession; but in consequence of an apprehension of an unnecessary and dangerous inroad upon the principle of trial by jury, that proposition was withdrawn. There was the rather numerous class of petty cases where there was only a question as to the stealing of an apple or a small piece of wood, and very often the delinquents were only children, while, on the other hand, many offences of a much more serious nature were now disposed of by magistrates at petty sessions. Now, he could not help thinking that it was worthy of the hon. Gentleman's consideration whether it would not be better to enable petty session courts altogether to deal with and dispose of that class of petty cases, limiting the amount of punishment, so as to guard against any possibility of an inroad being committed on trial by jury.


said, that though he was glad the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) had assented to the introduction of the Bill, he thought the House ought to act with extreme caution in this matter. With respect to the financial considerations of the hon. Gentleman, let justice be done, at any expense. Nothing could be more fallacious than the statements made with reference to the average number of cases disposed of, and the expense of disposing of them. Those averages included all cases of every description; but if only those were included which ought to be included, the averages would be infinitely lower. Considering the fearful consequences of felony, and the stamp of degradation which a conviction for felony placed upon a man, it became a most serious thing for the House to enable the magistrates at petty sessions to take pleas and pass sentences under the Bill, which was, in point of fact, nothing more nor less than a large extension of the power of summary conviction in cases of felony. In cases of extreme youth, there ought to be the means of sending the prisoner to school without the stamp of felony, and felony cases of a very trivial nature ought not to be treated as equivalent to other felonies. He was extremely jealous of visiting upon subjects of this country the pains and forfeitures attaching to felony, and he was therefore equally jealous of extending the power of summary conviction before a magistrate.


said, he should be very sorry to give a decided opinion on the Bill before he had seen it, but there was one difficulty to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down had not alluded. Parties who were brought before a magistrate charged with felony would have, it was said, the option of pleading guilty or not, as they pleased; but the real difficulty would be to know what the man was pleading to; because, after the plea of guilty was put in, the record would have to be made up. If, however, the record was made up after the plea had been put in, how could the prisoner know what he had pleaded to? The object of proceedings before a magistrate was, not to find whether a man was guilty or not, but to discover whether his case was one to be sent to a grand jury. With reference to the question of expense, he believed the statement of the hon. Gentleman a most exaggerated one. Certainly, it was quite contrary to his (Mr. Henley's) experience. He was certain that the extension of summary jurisdiction would be the right way to get rid of the trouble and expense of those petty offences. He had never yet seen any scheme proposed on the subject that was not attended with as many inconveniences as conveniences; but if he could see his way, he should be very glad to support the measure.


said, that the principle of the Bill of the hon. Gentleman was applied to the criminal jurisdiction of Scotland by the Sheriff's Court Act of last Session, and that the working of that Act during the four months that it had been in operation had been attended by a great saving of both money and time. Under that Act the prisoner was indicted at two separate times. On the first occasion the witnesses and jury were not summoned. If the prisoner then pleaded guilty, he was sentenced at once. If he pleaded not guilty, he was remanded for ten days, at the end of which time the witnesses and jury were summoned and his trial was proceeded with. So far as the result of this experiment went, he did not think that the hon. Gentleman's estimate of the saving likely to be effected by the measure which he proposed was at all exaggerated.


said, he looked with great expectation to the measure proposed by the hon. Gentleman. He did not look upon it principally as being a saving of public money, but as being the means of saving from contamination those persons who, under the present system, however small the offence they might have commit- ted, were confined in some instances for a considerable time before they were sent for trial. He should cordially support the introduction of the Bill, and he could see no reason why it should not prove successful.


said, he thought that the Bill was a most valuable one. One of the most important effects of allowing persons to plead guilty, and sentencing them at once would be to remove them from the contamination which must exist among persons waiting in gaol for trial, and who, not having been convicted of any offence, could not be subjected to so strict a discipline as that applied to convicted offenders. To the influence of this contamination it was, he believed, that the frequency of recommitments ought to be attributed. He should support the introduction of the Bill, and saw no reason why it should not meet with complete success.


said, that while agreeing with a great deal which had been said by the hon. Member (Mr. Aglionby) who had brought forward this measure, there was an objection to the immediate sentencing of offenders who had pleaded guilty by magistrates, because it could not then be known whether or not they had ever been previously convicted, a circumstance which had great weight with the Judges in the apportionment of punishment. He dissented from the right hon. Member for Droitwich (Sir J. Pakington) in his opinion with regard to the proportion of pleas of guilty. In the experience of the court over which he presided, the number of such pleas had materially increased since the introduction of the rural police.


said, he fully concurred with the hon. Member for the city of Dublin (Mr. Vance) as to the importance of removing offenders, especially juveniles, from the contaminating influence of others who were waiting for their trial. The effect of a short sentence was often entirely destroyed by the contamination of a three or four months' previous confinement.


said he had felt it his duty to state folly the objects of the Bill, as he did not think the practice of saying a few words and throwing a Bill on the table was a good one. By stating the objects more fully, he received suggestions in the course of the discussion which were worthy of consideration. The Bill had been spoken of as if it were a Bill to authorise summary convictions. There was a great difference, however, between a summary conviction and receiving a plea of guilty. If he had extended the power of summary conviction by this Bill, there would have been a great clamour about it. If Government introduced a Bill for that purpose, he should support it. Leave given; Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Aglionby, Mr. Marshall, and General Wyndham.

Bill read 1°.