HC Deb 28 June 1907 vol 177 cc247-55

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said that it was a somewhat more simple but no less important Bill than the preceding one. At present in English Courts colonial laws were treated as if they were foreign laws for the purpose of proof, and they had to be proved by the oral evidence of a qualified expert. This was a cumbrous process, and an inconvenience, especially in view of the extending business between the Colonies and this country, which was hampered when every colonial law had to be proved in Courts of justice in the same way as if it were a law relating to France or Germany or some other foreign State. The question first came up through the acquittal of a man in England, charged with embezzling his wife's money, on the ground that the Married Women's Property Act had not been proved to have been made effective in Australia. In February, 1905, the Governor, then Lord Northcote, at the instance of the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, brought the matter to the notice of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. George's, Hanover Square. Later on the Commonwealth made a formal complaint in regard to the awkward position in which they stood in this matter. They pointed out some of the anomalies which resulted from the present state of things, and asked the Government of this country whether they would not introduce the legislation required to make the Courts of the United Kingdom take cognisance of colonial Acts. At the time the law officers of the. Crown were of opinion that it was undesirable to force English Courts of Justice to take cognisance of colonial statutes, though there would be no objection to facilitating their proof. The late Lord Chancellor also had doubts. The late Secretary of State looked at the question from a different point of view, and saw in this a clear colonial grievance, and thought that if we on legal and technical grounds refused to redress that grievance there would be disappointment felt in these powerful possessions of the Crown. The right hon. Gentleman was in the act of consulting with the legal authorities in England as to the desirability of some such legislation as this when the Government ended, and the election took place. The present Government had not allowed the question to fall to the ground, but had taken it up where the right hon. Gentleman had left it. The present law officers saw no objection and the Lord Chancellor had concurred in the suggestion. Their plan was very simple. The Bill provided that colonial and Indian laws should be received in evidence in British Courts if purporting to be printed by the Government printer, without any other proof at all. The Bill also made it a felony to print or tender in evidence a false copy of such a law. That was the whole machinery of the Bill, and the Government believed that it would completely remove the grievance. The Bill might be extended by Order in Council to Cyprus and to British Protectorates at any time, if it was thought convenient and advantageous to do so.


inquired why the Bill was not now to be extended to Cyprus.


was understood to reply that Cyprus was a British Protectorate but occupied a peculiar position. It had been under a liability to pay tribute to the Turkish Empire, which we now collected but which did not reach the British Treasury because we devoted it to paying interest on the Turkish debt.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said he agreed with the object of the Bill and thought that it should receive the assent of the House. He did not think, however, it should be passed without a certain amount of scrutiny. Two misdemeanours which might involve a penalty of five years penal servitude were created by the measure. One of these misdeameanours was printing a colonial statute without the authority of the Government, and the other was tendering the statute so printed as evidence in a British Court of Law. Evidently the second was the offence which merited the most severe penalties, but in regard to the first anyone who printed or re-printed a statute not necessarily for the purposes of fraud might be made liable to punishment. He did not think that was right, because colonial statutes had been printed and reprinted time after time in this country separately. He was concerned himself with the desire of the colonial Governments to have this Bill passed, but it went further than the actual statutes and seemed to him to refer to by-laws—say, of a railway company.

THE ATTORNEY - GENERAL (Sir John Walton, Leeds, S.)

thought the noble Lord's point on examination would not constitute any obstacle to the measure. The object of the Bill was simply to apply the rule which at present prevailed in the Courts of law with reference to English statutes to the statutes passed in colonial legislatures. If an English statute was produced in an English Court bearing the imprint of the Government printer that was evidence; it was intended that the colonial statutes should be proved in the same way—that was, if any one produced a statute which purported to have been printed by the Government printer of the Colony concerned it should be received in evidence. Obviously they must guard against fraud. The printing of false copies was the first offence provided against in the Bill. A more atrocious crime could scarcely be committed, for these copies would never be printed without a motive. Let him take a case which might occur in this country. Supposing a statute was issued, purporting to have been printed by Messrs. Eyre & Spottiswoode, the King's printers, and it was not, that would be an offence here and was surely punishable. Another offence would be tendering in evidence a copy of such an Act with the false imprimatur upon it, knowing it had not been printed by the Government. He though that was a very serious offence, and in this regard he could not imagine a more serious one. The Government was bound to safeguard it in that way. It was exactly the same rule that existed in this country, and therefore, so far from altering the law, they were strengthening it.


said he did not quite agree with his noble friend on this matter. As he understood his point, it was that a printer might reprint copies of by-laws and instruments having a statutory force, for a legitimate purpose, and that for having done so might be liable to a penalty of five years penal servitude. But under this Act they would not be liable unless they put on the first page of the reprint that it had been reprinted by a Government printer. If it contained only the name of the person who printed it, no penalty would arise. Unless, also, he was very much mistaken this was only the maximum penalty. The whole penalty was not bound to be inflicted. The clause said— He shall be guilty of a felony and on conviction shall be liable to be sentenced. It did not say, "shall be sentenced." The offence was a very serious one, and if the Government passed a law to enable these documents to be taken as evidence in a Court, then they must see that the documents were authentic. The hon. and learned Gentleman had said it was already done in England, and that therefore the law ought to be extended to the Colonies. There was some force in that argument, but the United Kingdom was a small place. Everybody knew who the King's printer was, and even if they did not, as the noble Lord had said, they could easily send down to the library and see what the statute was. But if a document was printed in Australia or some British Colony, which it took three weeks to get at, then it was not quite the same thing. It was not at all the same to allow a document originating in England and a document originating many miles away to be cited in a Court of Law. This was the third Bill the Under-Secretary for the Colonies would have got since last night. There was really no objection raised to any of the right hon. Gentleman's Bills, but with regard to this he certainly had some apprehension, and it seemed to him that before it was passed a little more light should be thrown upon it by the legal luminaries who sat on the Opposition side of the House.

MR. MOORE (Armagh, N.)

asked what was the position of the Colonies in this matter. Were they subject to the same disabilities there as we were here when we desired to prove a colonial statute? He would also like to know what was the position under this Bill of the Isle of Man. A distinction was drawn between the United Kingdom and its own Legislature and other positions of the British dominions with separate Legislatures and separate statutes. The Isle of Man for the purposes of this argument was within the United Kingdom, as were the Channel Islands, and what he wished to know was in what way the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man came into this Bill if their statutes had to be proved. He thought when dealing with topics of this sort there should not be a unilateral operation, but that the proposal should work both ways. He also thought that they might very well have the opinion of the Attorney-General upon the drafting of the Bill. In Clause 3 "Government printer" was specially defined. But there must be a record somewhere of the printers in the British possessions who were Government printers, and therefore persons in authority. He quite understood that by Section:a statute tendered under this Bill in a Court of Law would be good evidence, but the effect of putting in the de- finition clause appeared to be that before that statute could be proved evidence would have to be given that the name on the copy was that of a Government printer, and he thought that there would be as much trouble in proving that the person whose name was on the copy was a printer authorised as there would be in proving the Act. He thought that difficulty could be avoided by omitting the definition clause altogether, and by inserting some such words as "Any person printing an Act for the Government shall be deemed a Government printer."


asked whether the Government desired this Bill to be considered by a Committee of the Whole House or one of the Committees upstairs.


said it would be referred to a Committee of the Whole House.


said he was extremely sorry to hear it, because in his opinion this was eminently a Bill to be considered by the Standing Committee on Law. He agreed with the hon. Member for North Armagh, and also drew attention to the careless drafting of the second sub-clause, which made it an offence to print a word for word copy of an Act, while it was not an offence to print anything that was not a word for word copy of the Act. So that if a fraudulent copy was made no offence would be committed, but if an actual copy was made an offence would be committed. He knew that that was not in the least what was intended, but that was the wording of the clause. He had no doubt he would be told that the words followed the English statute, and he should think that that would be extremely likely, because many of the English statutes were very badly drafted indeed. He would have thought also that it would have been very easy to have discovered who the Government printers were without defining them in the Bill. He believed in all the legal libraries, at any rate, there was a collection of the Colonial statutes, so that there was not very much difficulty about that. The sub-section appeared to him to be as bad a piece of drafting as could possibly be imagined. It defined a Government printer as being first of all several things and then "or otherwise be a Government printer." He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would reconsider his determination and have this Bill considered by a Committee upstairs.


thought that the hon. Member for North Armagh had discovered a mare's nest, and he was very much surprised that the noble Lord behind him should have apparently agreed with the hon. Member's view. It, however, seemed to point to the question as to whether a man's name appearing on the print was sufficient proof that the printer whose name appeared purported to be a Government printer. He hoped that point would have the attention of the Government.


replying to questions raised, said there would be no difficulty in establishing the fact of who was the King's printer, and evidence as to a true or perverted copy of an Act would be forthcoming from the Government office and from the offices of Agents-General, who all possessed copies of the Colonial statutes. In the Colonial Courts he understood the practice was to receive an accredited copy of an Act without requiring further proof. As to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, they were not considered Colonies, and this Bill was not intended to apply to them. It was only intended to apply to Indian laws, and to the laws of those parts of the King's dominions which came under the administration of the Colonial Office.


said that that should be made clear in the Bill, because the Isle of Man was a British possession and did make laws of its own.


said he had intended that the Bill should be considered in Committee of the Whole House, but he realised that various legal points might be more conveniently discussed in Standing Committee, and as he most earnestly desired to meet the views of hon. and learned Members who took an interest in Colonial legislation, and in order to meet the views of the noble Lord, he acquiesced in the suggestion that the Bill should be considered upstairs, and therefore would not move that it should be committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


said he was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had made up his mind to send this Bill upstairs, because the whole debate had really been on Committee points, which would most probably be dealt with much better by a Committee upstairs than they could be some time after eleven o'clock at night, in this House. He thought the right hon. Gentleman, in the interests of the Bill itself, had come to a very wise conclusion. He was most anxious that the Bill should pass, because the right hon. Gentleman had made out a most convincing case. It was a monstrous state of things that any person who committed an offence against the law should be able to escape the consequences of his offence simply and solely because it had not been proved that the statute under which he had been convicted had been adopted by one of our possessions. He had one criticism, however, to make. The Bill proposed to deal with the practice of the courts of justice in this country. He was rather surprised, that being so, that it had been left to the right hon. Gentleman to justify rather than the law officers of the Crown. They all knew that the right hon. Gentleman was a man of the greatest ability and the greatest versatility, and was quite qualified to take charge of the whole of the British Empire, but he should have imagined that even the right hon. Gentleman would hardly feel himself qualified to fulfil the functions of the law officers of the Crown. Under these circumstances he thought it would have been better, that the Bill would have been better drafted, and its purpose better explained, if it had been drafted by the law officers of the Crown.


said the law officers of the Crown were responsible for it.


said it was a mere matter of detail, however, and he was glad the right hon. Gentleman had made up his mind to pass it into law.


said the broad principle not touched upon so far was in Clause 2. He rather objected to the sentence of five years penal servitude, which appeared to him to be the minimum that could be given, and he hoped that in Committee some lesser punishment might be prescribed. He also suggested that something should be put in to safeguard the newspaper proprietors from liability for copying an Act and publishing it in the newspaper. As the Bill stood now any newspaper proprietor who happened to take a report of an Act made by a Colonial Legislature was liable to be held guilty of a felony. He hoped upon those two points that the right hon. Gentleman would see his way to make some concession.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.