HC Deb 31 March 1885 vol 296 cc1123-8

said, he rose to call attention to the question of establishing a Court of Criminal Appeal. They had been promised a Bill on the subject, and they had been disappointed, although the House had admitted that such a tribunal was necessary in the interests of justice, and for the redemption from slavery and suffering of a number of persons who, although found guilty, were innocent. As so large a proportion of death sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life, it was fair to infer that there was a doubt in the cases, and yet not sufficient doubt to justify the Secretary of State in setting the prisoners at liberty. If a Court of Appeal existed, some of the prisoners would have the opportunity of proving their innocence if they could. In the cases in which death sentences were commuted to penal servitude for less than life, there must have been even more doubt than in the other cases. In 194 cases of death sentences commuted to penal servitude for life, and 15 cases of commutation for fixed terms, there was the strongest evidence of doubt, calling for further investigation. The fear that if the Court existed there would be an inordinate number of appeals was met by the fact that, out of 572,000 convictions by magistrates in a year, there were only 151 appeals; and as in these cases appeal was now much easier and less costly than it would be in the proposed Court of Appeal, it might be inferred that similarly the sense of guilt in heavier cases would operate to keep down the number of useless appeals. A number of cases had occurred in which men sentenced to penal servitude had afterwards established their innocence. He would mention the case of Galley, of the two farmers, and of a man who was wrongfully convicted twice. Casualties of this kind were more frequent than was supposed. He could give many, with names and result, did time permit. There wore two men wrongfully convicted in what was called the Dudd's Hillcase, who owed their vindication to the accidental meeting of one of them in prison with a prisoner, who confessed that he and another man committed the crime of which the innocent men had been convicted, yet the evidence seemed so clear at the time that the Judge expressed surprise that they should protest their innocence in the face of it. There was the Durham murder case, in which two men were wrongfully convicted. There was also the Penge murder case, where four persons were sentenced to death; one was pardoned immediately as innocent, and the others suffered imprisonment, and one of them, Patrick Staunton, died in prison of consumption. He maintained that all such cases demonstrated that there were so many cases in which the Home Secretary had interfered that there was every necessity for a Court of Appeal. It was his duty to trouble the Home Office in many cases, for all of which he did not answer; but, without answering for them, he could safely say that many of them did call for inquiry. Without wishing to trespass unduly upon the time of the House, he might say the refusal of the demand for this Court rendered it necessary, in cases like those of Penge and Spennymoor, that the House of Commons should be made more and more a Court of Appeal; and this in it self was one of the strongest reasons why the Government should take the matter up. Either the men were innocent, or there were circumstances of such doubt in the case as to show the necessity for a Court of that kind.


If my hon. and learned Friend had confined himself to the first quarter of an hour of his speech I should have been able entirely to agree with him. But the last half-hour of his speech, in which he entered into particular cases, was, I think, unfortunate. So far as he thinks that a Court of Criminal Appeal should be created I altogether agree with him. No one could be more happy to be relieved of the responsibility which falls upon a Secretary of State of considering cases which have been decided by a Judge and jury than I should be. No doubt the Court is anxious to be just, and the intention of those who administer the Criminal Law is upright; but, fallible as human judgment is, cases must occur in which there may be a failure of justice, and any means of redressing such possible errors I should be most happy to promote. My hon. and learned Friend is in this matter really persuading those who are already convinced. But when he goes into an elaborate discussion of particular criminal cases, expresses a decided opinion upon them, and affirms that they bear out his contention, then I must say that I entirely dissent from my hon. and learned Friend. My hon. and learned Friend has a most humane disposition, and I am willing to admit that there are some cases in which there is a miscarriage of justice; but I do not believe that the great majority of criminal convictions are unfounded. Now, what possible good can come from recalling the Staunton case? My hon. and learned Friend has, to my knowledge, put that case most incompletely and inaccurately. It is one which has exercised the minds of judicial men. It has been before successive Secretaries of State, Law Officers, and Lord Chancellors; and my hon. and learned Friend, I venture to say, stands alone in his opinion with regard to it. There is no Court of Criminal Appeal which could come to the conclusion at which my hon. and learned Friend has arrived. And how can an ex parte statement like that which my hon. and learned Friend has made be of any service in the vindication of justice? There was no man in the House who had notice of his intention to bring the case forward, so that he might refresh his mind as to the facts. While regretting the course which my hon. and learned Friend has taken with regard to this particular case, I will repeat what I have already said, that on the general question I entirely agree with him. I am happy to think that in this country crime of a serious character is rapidly decreasing. That is one of the most satisfactory features of' the time. The sentences of penal servitude are less than one-half what they used to be some 20 or 25 years ago, and this, in itself, is satisfactory. There is, I think, a disposition on the part of those who administer the Criminal Law to mitigate its severity. I believe that the time has arrived when it may be more considerably done—when the sentences may be less severe and less protracted, with equal security to life and property in this country. I have never failed to express that opinion, and upon proper occasions I always like to act upon it. My hon. and learned Friend has re- ferred to many cases in which men wore condemned to death and the sentences afterwards commuted, and has rather illogically concluded either that the men deserved to die, or that they ought to be released as innocent. That is not so. A doubt may have arisen; and in no case of doubt will a Secretary of State allow the sentence of death to be executed. That is all I need say on the subject which my hon. and learned Friend brought before the House; but there are one or two questions to which I would refer before sitting down. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Lincolnshire (Mr. J. Lowther) made an attack upon my noble Friend on the subject of Turkey, and demanded whether or not we were eager to cultivate friendly relations with Turkey, and with Austria and Germany. If the right hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance, I can inform him that we are ex-tromely desirous of cultivating friendly relations with Turkey; but I do not think that to rip up what occurred on former occasions would be likely to conduce to that object. Therefore, I must respectfully decline to enter further into those matters. And with regard to Germany and Austria, who can doubt that the Government of England desires to cultivate the most friendly relations with those Powers? Then there was the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Thirsk (Colonel Dawnay), who uttered a great denunciation of the war proceeding in the Soudan, and spoke of the horrors attending it. I regret the continuance of that war as much as he does; but I do not exactly know the conclusion at which the hon. and gallant Member wished to arrive. Was his speech preliminary to a Motion to with-draw the British Forces from the Soudan? As far as I could understand his speech, it had no other moral, and no other conclusion could be drawn from it, than that we should retire at once from the Soudan. If these are the sentiments of hon. Gentlemen opposite, it is rather singular that they have not been expressed in a more definite form. I should like to have asked the hon. and gallant Member, if he had been present, whether he voted the other night with the hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. John Morley) upon his Amendment on the Vote of Censure, for it was a speech for the Motion of the hon. Member for Newcastle; but if he recorded his vote against the hon. Member for Newcastle I do not understand his speech. Then the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Onslow), in regard to the Afghan difficulty, would reject anything like compromise, for he said that the boundaries of Afghanistan were very well known, and he urged us to stand up for them. But I understand that a Commission has been appointed for the delimitation of the boundaries of Afghanistan; and therefore I do not know that the boundaries are so perfectly well-defined and understood as the hon. Member supposes. If such were the case, for what purpose was it that Envoys were sent from England on the one side, and from Russia on the other, to define the boundaries which, according to the hon. Member, have been already established?


observed, that the House and the country were much indebted to the hon. and learned Member for Stockport (Mr. Hopwood) for having brought the important question of criminal appeal under their consideration. He (Sir Eardley Wilmot) had long devoted his attention to this subject, and he was greatly disappointed at what had happened in respect of it two years ago. At the beginning of the Session of 1882 a measure for the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal was announced in the Speech from the Throne; and the Attorney General introduced a Bill embodying its provisions, which underwent an elaborate discussion extending over three months in Grand Committee. Yet the Bill was allowed to drop, after all the labour and pains devoted to it, and from that time to the present day they had heard nothing more on the subject. It was a monstrous anomaly that in this 19th century the Home Secretary should stand up and say that he was in favour of criminal appeal, and yet not have the courage to utilize the services of the Law Officers to push forward a measure dealing with the subject. What was the use of the right hon. Gentleman holding high Office and having a powerful majority behind him if he was not able to pass a measure to protect innocence, and remedy a grave defect in the Criminal Law? He (Sir Eardley Wilmot) had twice introduced Bills on this subject. In the first he limited the appeal to capital cases and sentences of penal servitude for life, and in the second he limited the appeal to capital cases only. He had been unable to carry either of these Bills, and he had refrained from pressing them more energetically, relying on the promise of the Attorney General in 1882 that Her Majesty's Government fully intended immediate legislation on the subject. He was at a loss to understand the policy of the Government on this question. It could not be said that legislation was not required, for many cases—he might instance those of Perryman and Nicholson among the more recent—had arisen from time to time showing that an appeal would rescue innocent persons from punishment to which they were unjustly condemned. Nobody could defend the absurdity that a man whose innocence was established beyond all doubt should have to go to the Home Secretary and appeal to the Prerogative of mercy for pardon for a crime he had never committed. He considered that it was a disgrace to the Government, with its powerful majority, that it had not long since remedied what was universally admitted to be a most serious defect in the Criminal Law of England.