HC Deb 17 July 1861 vol 164 cc1032-4

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed to Question [12th June]. 'That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair,' and which Amendment was, to leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'this House will, upon this day three months, resolve itself into the said Committee,'

—instead thereof.

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, he could not but express his surprise and regret at the opposition of some hon. Members on that side of the House. That opposition was neither consistent with Liberal opinions nor was it calculated to advance the Liberal character of the House, and he could only account for it by supposing that through pressure of business those hon. Members had been unable to study the subject. The objects of the Bill had been some what misrepresented. Originally no person, of whatever set, was absolved from the necessity of taking oaths. Afterwards the Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists were excused from taking oaths, and by a subsequent Act the exemption was extended to those who had formerly belonged to either of those sects, and who, though they had left those bodies, yet retained the scruple. In 1853 the Common Law Commission recommended that persons holding conscientious religious objections to the taking of an oath should be allowed to make an affirmation, it the Judge was satisfied of the sincerity of the objection. In, 1854 a clause was introduced into the Common Law Procedure Act to carry out the suggestion with regard to civil cases, and the objections taken to the clause were rather on the ground that it left too much to the Judge than on any ground relating to its principle. The present Bill only proposed to extend the present law in civil cases to criminal cases. That extension was even more safe than in the former case, for in civil cases witnesses had more frequently an interest in the matter in dispute, whereas in criminal cases the witnesses were for the most part persons accidentally present at the circumstances to which they deposed, and who had no interest in the matter. In 1849 a Bill to that effect passed through the House, and it was then as now alleged that persons did not usually object to be sworn. It was proved, however, that numerous persons had been sent to prison to mix with common felons because they objected to swear on a book, which, as they conscientiously believed, forbade them to swear at all. He believed that the Bill under consideration had not had fair play, as it was confounded with a Bill which had also been introduced this Session, and which had been lost. That Bill was intended to abolish oaths in a certain sense, and he had supported it because he believed to abolish oaths in a certain sense, and he had supported it because he believed that the oath had not that religious sanction which was supposed to form its whole vitality. But the Bill under consideration had no connection with or resemblance to that other Bill. On the contrary, it preserved the religious character of the proceedings. He believed, however, that many Gentleman had formed an opinion against the Bill solely because they thought it was similar to that other Bill which had been lost. The effect of the existing state of the law was that well known offenders often escaped punishment because the most material witnesses might have a religious scruple against taking an oath. He had no hesitation in stating that in his opinion the evidence of an objecting witness, whose sincerity was above suspicion, was more credible and trust worthy than nine-tenths of the persons who too often rushed into the witness-box without thinking of the responsibility they were incurring in taking an oath. As an example of the cases in which conscientious objectors were imprisoned, he might mention the case of a lady of birth and position, who was called as a witness in a case at Lewes in 1848, and who, though informed by the Judge, the late Mr. Baron Alderson, that she must take the oath or he would be compelled to send her to prison, respectfully but firmly re- fused, on the ground that she considered it to be unlawful according to the literal interpretation of the text in Scripture. She was accordingly sent to prison. She afterwards wrote to the plaintiff in the case, saying that she could not bear that he should be put to the loss of the money to which he was entitled through the want of her evidence, and she, therefore, begged him to accept a cheque which she enclosed for the amount of his debt and costs. Was that a person whose evidence ought to be rejected as unworthy of belief? And yet if a murder were committed, and that lady were the only witness, she would be rejected under the present law, and the murderer would escape. He hoped the House would allow the Bill to go into Committee, in which case he thought there would be no objection to the clauses, for they were identical with the enactments of the Common Law Procedure Act.

Question put, and agreed to.

Billconsidered in Committee.

House resumed.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered To-morrow.