HC Deb 16 July 1877 vol 235 cc1354-8

wished to call the attention of the Government to a matter which had often been mentioned before, but which he thought could not be mentioned too often, until some remedy could be found for the existing evil. He referred to the lengthened periods during which persons were kept in prison before trial. The principle near London was, that there should be a gaol delivery every month; but he wished the House to consider the situation of persons in the rural districts. According to the last Return, 12,000 persons were in prison, and of these 7,000 had been there for more than a month, and were consequently worse off than if they had been within the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court. More than 3,000 had been in gaol for two months; 826 prisoners had remained untried for more than three months, and 86 for more than six months. That was a scandalous state of things, explainable, perhaps, but not the less disgraceful, and it was most serious as it affected those prisoners themselves. He found by the Returns that many prisoners were detained for a long time in prison in Essex. Bristol, Norwich, and other places before being brought to trial. In Birmingham there were 16 persons kept in gaol four months before being brought to trial; in Northampton there were 13 prisoners who were more than four months in gaol before being brought to trial; and in Kent, 13 more than four months. In Lancashire there were 100 prisoners who were kept in gaol more than four months before being brought to trial. He was well aware that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had brought in a Bill last year to remedy the evil, but it would not apply to such cases as he (Sir William Harcourt) was now calling attention to, as it only affected the Winter Assizes. He took the numbers from Returns presented this Session, and the cause of these numerous detentions was not far to seek. They were due to the fact that from July to December not one Judge could he found to deliver a gaol, and prisoners committed in July could not be tried till December. It was not necessary to expatiate on the consequences of so discreditable a state of things. Let the House imagine the case of a man committed to prison in July or August, and kept in prison from his family until December before being brought to trial; and let them also reflect that the man might be innocent. They could not find a Judge to try him. This ought not to be tolerated by the House or the country. The Home Secretary might say that in all these cases, prisoners might be brought up to London for trial; but he (Sir William Harcourt) doubted it. Another defect in their judicial system was, that when the Assizes happened to be fixed at the time the quarter sessions were to be held, the quarter sessions were put off until the Assizes were over, and prisoners who stood for trial at the quarter sessions were consequently detained in gaol longer than they ought to be. This had happened in the county of Lancaster, where the quarter sessions were fixed for a particular day in the hundred of Salford. The Judges, anticipating the ordinary time of the Assizes by one week, appointed for the Assizes the day on which the sessions were to be held. The consequence was, that the sessions could not take place until after the Assizes were over. The sessions were postponed for a month, and the Judges could not try the prisoners. The result was, that the trial of 100 persons had to be put off for a month. That, however, was simply a case of perverse mismanagement. It was the fashion to denounce the Long Vacation, but, after all, what would be thought of a Government office in which work was suspended for so long? The question was, whether there could not be some arrangement by which the administration of justice should go on continuously like the business in other Departments. He knew he should meet with opposition from lawyers who, as well as Judges, liked long vacations. But when prisoners, some of whom might be innocent, were locked up for so many months without a chance of being brought to trial, the Long Vacation became an amusement which was cruel. He felt confident that some of the Judges, to prevent such treatment, might remedy the evil by holding extra Assizes, instead of taking their usual holidays. But even that fell short of what was needed. Much might he done by a better organization of the labour of the Judges and their distribution for the purposes of these extra Assizes, for, at present, much of their power was frittered away all over the country under the system in force. Two eminent persons were sent down to a little country town to try two or three prisoners and a month was devoted to the circuit, during which the Judges did not sit half the time. He moved last year for a Return which though very imperfect and difficult to understand still gave some facts which showed the waste of judicial power. In 1876, for instance, two Judges were sent down to try cases in Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, and Sussex, and 19 days were appropriated to the purpose. During these 19 days one of the Judges sat nine days and the other 10. Nothing was more obvious than that if one Judge had been sent down he would have done all the business. Time was wasted by this want of forethought and care in the distribution of our judicial power. The Returns for which he had moved, and which were now on the Table, showed many instances of this fact, and pointed immediately to the necessity for a better distribution of that power under some central authority, either the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor, who should have the power of fixing when and where the Judges should hold Assizes to effect a speedy gaol delivery all over the country. Such a central authority would effect the object, remove a gross public scandal, and prevent gross injustice. If instead of fixing weeks beforehand on two Judges to go hero and two Judges to go there, we kept a reserve of judicial power in London and sent down Judges as they were wanted, the number of Judges we had now would be sufficient, and we should not hear the complaints that were heard at present.


, said, that this subject had already been discussed at some length at an earlier period of the Session, when he was obliged to refuse anything like an assent to the proposal which was made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, for the reason that, although discussed in Committee, when the Report was brought up, a clause was proposed to the effect that every prisoner who had been three months in prison without trial should be released, unless some application to the contrary should be made to a Judge in the matter showing that there were reasons for a longer detention. Without dissenting from the principles of the clause he was bound to resist it, because there was no machinery by which it could be carried out. He quite agreed that three months was quite long enough for any prisoner to remain in prison untried. That was the case in all cases to be tried at the quarter sessions, and some scheme should be invented by which it would be extended to prisoners to be tried at Assizes. When the clause was introduced, the discussion rather took the shape of an attack against the Government; but he was glad to say there had been nothing of that kind now. This was no new matter, and the first step had been taken to remedy the grievance; because, until this year, a person might have committed an offence early in July and not be tried till the following March. By the Act passed last year we had practically criminal Assizes three times a-year, instead of twice as formerly, and in December last there was not a single prisoner waiting for trial in any gaol in England. The Act, therefore, had been so far successful, and the figures which had been presented to the House were now inapplicable. He did not see why by some machinery they should not have gaol deliveries four times instead of three in the year. Whether that might be done by applying the Winter Assizes Act he was not prepared at once to say. All he would say at present was, that he had been for some time in communication with his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor on the subject, and the matter had also been laid before the Chief Justice for consultation among the Judges, and he thought a scheme might be devised by which untried prisoners might be drawn together in separate centres and tried in different counties. This important matter, he repeated, had been under the consideration of the Home Office for some time, and he should be happy to do everything in his power to remedy the inconvenience that was now complained of. In regard to the Long Vacation, it was fixed by Act of Parliament to commence on the 10th of August, and that was the reason why the Assizes had been held earlier this year than in previous years; but he would take care that next year there should be no chance of inconvenience arising again from the Assizes clashing with the quarter sessions. Having said so much as to the trial of prisoners, ho would not go into the larger question of the apportioning of the labours of Judges, and having stated his views frankly, he hoped they might now be allowed to go into Committee of Supply, as it could be of little use in further discussing a subject which was under consideration in so many quarters.


had only one word to say. He was very glad to hear that the inconvenience of last year was not to recur, but instead of leaving the decision to the Judges, it would be left either to the Home Secretary, or the Lord Chancellor.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee of Supply.