HC Deb 12 February 1861 vol 161 cc342-6

In calling upon the hon. Baronet the Member for Tavistock, I wish to explain to the House how it has occurred that the Question appears now in the Paper, upon the Table of the House, in a somewhat different form from that in which it appeared in the Notice Paper delivered to the Members this morning. The hon. Baronet, yesterday, in giving notice of the Question publicly, used the words, "The inability of the witness to affirm her belief in a future state of rewards and punishments." But, in the printed notice the words were, "The inability of the witness to affirm her belief in certain speculative propositions." It was by my direction that these words have been changed, as they appeared to me not to be becoming words so applied; and the words which were used by the hon. Baronet in his public notice have been restored. At the same time I had a confident belief that the hon. Baronet did not mean anything disrespectful to the House; and I am happy to be confirmed in that opinion by the statement of the hon. Baronet himself, and by his ready acceptance of the change which I have made.


Sir, I can assure you that I never had the slightest idea of being guilty of any disrespect to the House. The woman had been asked several questions, and I thought that I was putting the Question in the most comprehensive way, in the written notice, by writing that she was not able "to affirm her belief in certain speculative propositions." I thought that was the milder way in which to put the Question; and that was my sole reason for writing down those words. It is perfectly true that I did publicly stale to the House the question in the other form. I now take the opportunity of asking the Secretary of State for the Home Department, as a matter that involves the proper administration of justice, Whether he has been informed of a recent decision in the County Court at Rochdale by the Judge, Mr. C. Temple, who is alleged to have non-suited a plaintiff on account of the inability of the witness to affirm her belief in God or in a future state of rewards and punishments; and whether, on the assumption that the Judge ruled properly, the Government will deem it necessary to amend the law applicable to similar cases?


Sir, in consequence of the notice given by the hon. Baronet, I have to-day communicated with the County Court Judge who tried the case to which reference was made. I find it was the case of Maden versus Catenach. It was an action brought by a daughter against her mother for the value of a pianoforte. The only witness for the plaintiff was herself, and, upon her appearing in the witness-box, the attorney for the defendant put to her the question whether she "believed in a God, and in a future state of rewards and punishments." She answered both those questions in the negative; and, thereupon, the Judge ruled that she was not a competent witness, that her evidence could not be received, and, consequently, the plaintiff was non-suited. Since that time there has been, I believe, a motion made for a new trial in the cause, of which I have before me a newspaper report, from which it appears that the motion was refused. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of that report. Those are the facts, so far as they have come to my knowledge; and the hon. Baronet is aware whether they have been correctly stated. I will take the liberty, if the House will permit me, of reading a statement of the law upon the subject, which I find in Starkie's work upon Evidence—a well-known standard work upon the subject. He says:— Before a witness takes an oath, he may be asked whether he believes in the existence of a God, in the obligation of an oath, and in a future state of rewards and punishments; and if he does be may be admitted to give evidence—and it seems that he ought to be admitted if he believes in the existence of a God who is the rewarder or punisher in this world, although he does not believe in a future state. But it is not sufficient that he believes himself to be bound to speak the truth merely from a regard to character or the interests of society, or fear of punishment by the temporal law. This is a clear statement of the rule of law upon the subject. Now, the law is not at all narrow or intolerant with respect to the administration of an oath, for it permits any oath which is binding, according to the religious belief of the witness, to be administered. So that a Mahomedan, a Hindoo, or a Chinese may be sworn according to the ceremonies which are binding on his conscience. The existence of some religious belief is invariably presumed; and the only instance in which an oath is dispensed with is in the case of members of the Society of Friends, who, by a special Act of Parliament, are allowed to make a declaration which implies religious belief in place of an oath. That, Sir, being the state of the law, I can only say, in answer to the second Question of the hon. Baronet, that it is not my intention to ask the House for leave to bring in a Bill to make any alteration in the law.


moved that this House at its rising do adjourn till two o'clock, to-morrow, being Ash-Wednesday.


Mr. Speaker, as the matter to which I have called attention is one of great gravity, I think the House ought not to adjourn until it has given redress in a matter of this sort. I think it my duty, before I hear this Motion put, to state that I do not think the answer of the right hon. Gentleman satisfactory. He has stated the facts and appealed to me as to whether or not his description of the facts was accurate. It is not accurate. He has stated that it was a suit by Mrs. Maden against her mother for a pianoforte. [Sir GEORGE LEWIS: By her husband.] Of course I withdraw. As the right hon. Baronet's statement reached my ears this evening, I thought he said it was by Mrs. Maden herself. As he has stated now that it was by her husband, I accept his correction. The suit was brought by Mr. Samuel Maden against Mr. Catenach for £6 3s., the value of a piano alleged to be detained. I thought the right hon. Gentleman's statement raised an impression against Mrs. Maden, that she was suing her own mother for a pianoforte. That seemed not a fair way of putting the case, and I do not think that this House ought to adjourn even till two o'clock to-morrow, while we are in the position of denying justice. [A laugh.] Hon. Gentlemen may laugh when they hear that the plaintiff was non-suited, because the witness was held to be incapable of stating what was true. I was very much struck with the general laugh on the other side, as if that were any ground for denying justice. I was quite surprised that hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House should act in a manner so disrespectful to the great cause of justice, to the British people of all sorts of opinions. Are we not to give justice to persons of all opinions? I will ask the hon. Gentlemen this question. Suppose when they are going home to-night one of them were attacked by any body, or ill-treated in any manner, and had his property plundered; and suppose another person observed what took place, and he happened to be of certain religious opinions, how would that hon. Gentleman like it if that person were forbidden to give evidence in his favour?—or suppose it was a matter involving life or involving reputation, or social position, and the only witness was a person who was disqualified from giving evidence, on account of absence of religious belief? Hon. Gentlemen laugh a great deal too easily. They may depend upon it that it is a much more serious matter than they suppose. In the North of England there are a great many persons who would be disqualified from giving evidence on this ground. It is all very well to varnish over the facts and say that a thing is not so when it is so. I am not sure that there are not persons in the Church of England who would not have some difficulty in answering some of the questions which were put to Mrs. Maden. This is much too serious a matter to be passed over in this way, and I think the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary would act in a manner more becoming his situation, as the great guardian of justice in the administration of law in this country, if he undertook to bring in a measure to enable persons of all or no religious opinions to give evidence, upon stating that they intend to be bound by what they say, and that they regard it as a conscientious duty to fulfil that which they have promised. It does not at all follow that witnesses should be of particular or no religious opinions. I say it without the slightest disrespect to those opinions. On the contrary, I should wish as much as any one in this House, that we should support those opinions in every way in our power.


Sir, I entirely agree with the address of my hon. Friend. I think it is a monstrous proposition that a title to justice is to be made conditional upon the profession of religious belief. I have always understood that the great principle of religious liberty was the boast of this country, and that a man is not to be questioned as to his having or not having any religious opinions, that no such conditions are to be imposed upon him, and that a profession of faith is not to be required from him—that his religious belief rests entirely between himself and his Maker. I confess I heard with great regret the declaration made by the Home Secretary. I think it is a crying injustice that because a man honestly states his belief or non-belief, no matter what it is, that upon that ground he is to be denied justice by those whose duty it is to administer the law. I put in my solemn protest against such a doctrine, and I do not believe that the cheers I beard from the opposite side of the House will be at all reciprocated by public opinion out-of-doors.

Motion agreed to.

House at rising to adjourn till To-morrow, at Two o'clock.