HC Deb 03 May 1901 vol 93 cc621-4

I have to ask leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Larceny Act, 1861. As the Bill will effect an amendment in the criminal law, it may be convenient that I should say a very few words upon it. It relates to a subject to which much attention has recently been directed—namely frauds committed by agents in positions of confidence. The law on the subject is at present contained in Sections 75 and 76 of the Act, and I do not think I am using language too strong when I say that these sections have long been the opprobrium of our criminal law. Confused and overlapping as they are, they are unable to deal with the worst cases. This may be explained by the fact that these enactments have gradually grown; they have been passed to meet particular cases, instead of being prepared on a principle. Pointed attention was drawn to the state of the law by an extradition case in 1891 in relation to frauds committed by a notary in Paris. Extradition was demanded in the case, and the question arose whether the charges against the man were crimes under the English law. The judges before whom the case came used some very strong language on the matter. Mr. Justice Cave said that the law unfortunately, instead of being in the form of a code, or even a well-drawn consolidated Act, was in shreds and tatters, and one had to look at different portions of the statute in order to see how far a person entrusted with property was made responsible for the fraudulent misappropriation of it. Mr. Justice Wills used even stronger language, and said he shared the feeling of humiliation expressed by his learned brother when one was obliged to confess formally that the atrocious things done by the man whose case was before them (if the evidence was to be relied upon) were not punishable by the English law. It seemed to him an extraordinary thing that a man entrusted with money by other people for investment should be able to put it into his own pocket fraudulently and dishonestly, and yet commit no crime punishable by the English law.

An illustration of a case which actually arose in this country will serve to bring before the House the condition of the law more forcibly than any amount of general description of the law. A solicitor was employed to raise money on mortgage, and out of the proceeds to pay off certain other mortgages, and hand the balance to his client. He did not pay off the mortgages, and paid over only a portion of what was supposed to be the surplus, appropriating the rest. It was held that the man could not be convicted under the law. He escaped from the first part of Section 75 because there were no directions in writing, and from the second part because it did not apply to the receipt of money, and horn Section 76 because the section only applied to cases where the agent was entrusted with property for safe custody. I think every hon. Member will agree that such a state of things is a scandal to the law. There are three principal blots in the statute. In a great many cases there can be no conviction unless there have been directions in writing, and in cases which have unfortunately been so frequently before the public, where solicitors are concerned, it often rested with the solicitors to say whether directions should be so drawn up. If there were none, the solicitor would appropriate the money with impunity. In the second place, it has been held that the sections do not apply to the cases of those who are agents to receive as distinguished from agents to pay. Thirdly, it has been held toat the sections, which enumerate a number of specific cases of agents, only apply to persons who are agents ejusdem generis. There was a case in which a conjuror by profession induced a woman to invest in shares, and he misappropriated the money, but escaped conviction on the ground that his ordinary business was that of a conjuror, and that he only casually acted as an agent. This Bill proposes to repeal the sections altogether, and to substitute a short and clear enactment rendering punishable all classes of fraudulent misappropriation of property entrusted to or received by an agent. I trust the Government will have the assistance of the House in passing this measure, which is purely non-contentious. It deserves the sympathy and assistance of every one desirous that this impunity should cease to be extended to frauds of a particularly heartless description.

MR. CALDWELL (Lanarkshire, Mid)

said a Bill dealing with this subject was before the House last session, but in his judgment it failed to meet the cases at which it was aimed, and he was glad, therefore, that the Government agreed to withdraw it. He believed the measure which the Attorney General had now described would, if passed, place the law on a much more satisfactory footing. It would, in fact, place the law of England in very much the same position as that of Scotland. This was an illustration of the way in which sometimes good was done by opposing a Bill which was drawn somewhat perfunctorily, and enabling the Government to manfully consider the provisions so as to produce a really good measure the next year.

Bill to amend the Larceny Act, 1861, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Attorney General, Mr. Secretary Ritchie, Mr. Attorney General for Ireland, and Mr. Solicitor General.

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