HC Deb 18 June 1886 vol 306 cc1869-75

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that its object was to enable persons charged with criminal offences, if they wished it, to be witnesses in their own behalf. The measure came before them clothed with great authority, for not only had that House, on several occasions, affirmed its principle, but it had twice or thrice received the assent of the House of Lords, and one of the last speeches which the late Earl Cairns had made was in support of an analogous measure. The principle had also been recently tested in measures relating to explosives and to offences against young girls. The Explosives Act contained a clause enabling a person charged with an offence under it to give evidence; and in a subsequent trial one of the prisoners availed himself of the privilege. If he had not done so it was almost certain he would have been convicted; but by the evidence he gave on examination-in-chief and on cross-examination he obtained his acquittal. Last Parliament a similar provision was introduced into the Criminal Law Amendment Act, because it was felt that charges might be made under that Act against innocent persons who alone could give explanations that would establish their innocence. This Bill would make the law general. The main ground upon which he recommended it to the favourable consideration of the House was that, although it might enable a proved guilty person to escape, yet that was a small matter compared with the additional safeguard it would provide in connection with the acquittal of the innocent, which would be facilitated by the change. He understood that Irish Members objected to the Bill being extended to Ireland. He should have wished to see the Criminal Law ad- ministered uniformly, believing that the change would be equally advantageous in both countries, and he trusted the opposition of the Irish Members would not be persisted in. He now moved the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Henry James.)

MR. SEXTON (Sligo, S.)

said, he thought that a Bill of this importance and magnitude, effecting, as it did, a fundamental change in the Law of Evidence, should not be proceeded with under the circumstances in which the House was at that time placed, Parliament being about to expire, and when so few Members were present. He believed that the Bill, if it became law, would be exceedingly dangerous in its operation, especially if it were extended to Ireland. ["Oh, oh!"] At all events, the operation of the Bill in that country would not be quite the same as it might be in England. In Ireland persons might be charged with offences of a political complexion, and, although they might be innocent, they would rather run the risk of conviction than answer questions which might be put to them with ulterior objects if they became witnesses. In such cases the silence of accused persons would be regarded as evidence of guilt, and thus the measure would unjustly facilitate the conviction of innocent persons. He feared if the principle were established in England the disposition to extend it to Ireland would be irresistible. From the number of blocks on the Paper, however, the prospect of proceeding with the Bill in Committee seemed very slight.


said, that if his right hon. and learned Friend (Sir Henry James) desired to facilitate the passing of the Bill, he ought not to have begun by introducing the question of Home Rule. He (Sir William Harcourt) did not himself think it desirable that there should be a different rule of law for England and Ireland; and, as he was in favour of the Bill, he would support the second reading. It was one which deserved the full consideration of the House. Upon it might depend the liberties, the lives, and the property of Her Majesty's subjects. He had come to the conclusion that, on the whole, it would be better that men accused should have the opportunity of giving evidence to exculpate themselves from serious charges, and to explain circumstances which would explain their innocence. At the same time, they should, by no means whatever, be compelled to do so. There were many cases in which people who had been convicted would have been acquitted if they could have given evidence. At the same time, he could understand where it would be very inconvenient for a prisoner to be cross-examined; but he thought it would be the duty of the Judge to restrain such power of cross-examination. In his opinion, the Bill would introduce a judicious change in the Criminal Law, and, therefore, he would support it; but he would oppose the measure if it made a distinction between the law of England and Ireland.


said, he also hoped that the Bill would be read a second time. In prosecutions for sending unseaworthy ships to sea, prisoners had been allowed to give evidence with very great advantage to themselves. There had been seven or eight important trials, in which it would have gone very hard with the accused if they had not been allowed to give evidence. It was said that silence would be prejudicial to the prisoner; but, in a very important case, the Judge adopted the view that no presumption was to be drawn from the silence of the prisoner, and, certainly, no latitude of cross-examination would be allowed. Anything like an unfair cross-examination into the past life of the accused would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill; and any Judge trying the case would be bound to prevent such a cross-examination. It would be an important step to make the principle of the Bill applicable to England. If Irish Representatives wished to make a distinction between England and Ireland in that respect, they could bring up an Amendment in Committee. He trusted, however, that that would not be done; because he had no doubt that Judges were disposed to administer the law as fairly in Ireland as in England. The late Sir John Holker, and almost all the distinguished men who had considered the question for years past, were in favour of the principle of the Bill, and he trusted that the House would recognize it and would allow this amendment of the law to be a redeeming feature of the legislation of the present Session, and that it would be applied not only to England, but to Ireland.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he felt a double difficulty in opposing the second reading of the Bill. First, although he thought that a measure of such great importance should not be taken hastily, in a very thin House, at the end of the Session, he would admit that he had supported, during the last few days, several Bills against which similar objections had been urged; and, next, he conceded, that every light ought to be thrown upon each case by all possible evidence. He did not object to the proposal to make the wife or husband of an accused person a competent witness, nor did he object to allowing an accused person to tender himself, or herself, as a witness; but he understood the present Bill, with a very slight exception, proposed to make the law as to evidence in criminal prosecutions the same as it was in France. At every stage of the proceedings, the prisoner might be examined by the magistrate; the only difference being that, by this Bill, the prisoner might refuse, but, in France, he could not. Unfortunately, unless magistrates in each case explained the Statute, an accused person would not know that he might withhold his consent. In troubled times, for a man charged with, a political offence, the Bill opened up a new procedure. At so late a period of the Session, he did not think that a matter involving such a serious change in the practice of our Courts could be properly considered. He did not know whether he was justified in drawing a distinction between cases of political crime and cases of ordinary crime; but it was a distinction which the public mind had ever drawn in this country. In cases of alleged seditious speeches, as in the Chartist times, or of alleged unlawful assembling, as in St. Peter's Fields in 1819, the provisions of the Bill might be used with terrific effect against poor and ignorant men. He would appeal to the right hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced the Bill (Sir Henry James) whether it was necessary, in the interests of public justice, to press this matter at the end of the Session. If it were proposed that the taking of evidence should only be on a trial which would take place before a Judge of the Superior Court, he should not have so much objection to the Bill; for he believed that there was no Judge of the High Court who, in a political prosecution, would allow himself to strain any form of procedure against the prisoner. He (Mr. Bradlaugh) had often said, both in this and in other countries, that no English prisoner need fear to trust his life to the impartiality of any Judge of our High Court, even though a political opponent. But he (Mr. Bradlaugh) could not pretend to have the same confidence in the unpaid magistracy, or even in the stipendiary magistrates. For the unpaid magistracy, he should not like to trust them, in poaching cases, or in those of trespass in pursuit of game, with the uncontrolled right to examine the prisoner before them. It was said that, under the Bill, a prisoner was not bound to answer; but how was a poor and ignorant man to know that? If it were provided that some kind of caution should be given by the magistrate, as was now provided by statute, where the magistrate, before committing a prisoner for trial, asked if he desired to make any statement, a great deal of his objection would be done away with. Still, he thought that the matter was not pressing, and he hoped the House would not read the Bill a second time. He trusted that he would not be thought to be opposing the Bill in any captious spirit, but that it would be seen he was only trying to see that no injustice should be done to persons in a most difficult position.

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

said, he was very much delighted, for he thought it was a most refreshing tiling, although the House would probably be much surprised, to hear a thoroughly Tory anti-Reform speech from the hon. Member for Northampton. This reform had been advocated by Reformers for many generations; and to hear the hon. Member go against it, was enough to make the ghost of Jeremy Bentham rise from his grave to haunt him. The Bill was simply the logical consequence of a long series of Acts for the amendment of the law to which Sir Samuel Romilly gave the initiative, and that reform was advocated alike by Liberal and Conservative lawyers. While, however, he (Mr. Hunter) supported the principle of the Bill, he was quite willing that Ireland should be excluded from its scope; inasmuch as it was strongly opposed by the Irish people, under the impression that it would operate unfairly and harshly against prisoners. He, however, would point out that that had not been the result in Scotland, where persons accused of offences were examined before the Sheriff, with a result equally valuable in detecting the guilty, and in clearing the innocent.


said, that he hoped the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir Henry James) had, by the opposition which his Bill had evoked, seen the un-wisdom of forcing it upon the House after the understanding entered into by the Prime Minister that no measures of a contentious character should be considered this Session. The Irish Members regarded the Bill as eminently contentious. Having regard to the class of men who hitherto had been in a position to manipulate Party and political trials in Ireland, he was firmly persuaded that this Bill would be the means of working the most frightful injustice in Ireland. Having also regard to the time of the Session, and the undertaking of the Prime Minister that no contentious Business should be forced upon the House, he would appeal to the right hon. and learned Gentleman not to proceed with the Bill. Even if he carried the second reading of the Bill, it would be nothing more than a barren victory; for many of his (Mr. O'Brien's) hon. Friends, who were then absent, would return in their full strength on Monday for another purpose, and the prospects of the Bill for that Session would be hopeless. He begged to move the adjournment of the debate.

MR. BLAINE (Armagh, S.)

seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. W. O'Brien.)

The House divided:—Ayes 37; Noes 40: Majority 3.—(Div. List, No. 139.)

Original Question again proposed.

MR. MOLLOY (King's Co., Birr)

said, he hoped that now the opinion of the House had been so strongly expressed, the right hon. and learned Gen- tleman who had introduced the Bill would withdraw it. He (Mr. Molloy) objected to the measure, in its present form, not only for Ireland, but for England.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at Eight o'clock till Monday next.