HC Deb 26 April 1910 vol 17 cc265-6

beg to ask leave to introduce a Bill to amend the law regarding the giving of evidence in criminal cases.

This is a Bill which introduced last Session, and I think can pursuade the House, that it is a measure not without importance. It is a Bill which concerns the way in which evidence is or can be given in certain criminal cases in this country. I do not want to make out a worse case than the actual conditions admit, but at the present moment there are two departments in which injustice may be done in the administration of the criminal law. In the first place, a man may be bound over to keep the peace, and he cannot be subjected to a greater punishment in the first instance without having the right to call witnesses in his own defence. That form of the administration of the criminal law has hitherto only been applied to Ireland, and it has been a commonplace for a long time that the law as administered in Ireland was not law at all. Ireland has been treated for a very long time as a conquered country would be just after a successful campaign, and men were sent to prison without being bound over, without even having the power of proving an alibi. They were not allowed to call witnesses at all in their own defence. To the honour of the present Administration that particular abomination has not taken place under their regime. There is another department in which this bad principle applies, and it is that to which desire to call attention, because it concerns not Ireland, upon which the House of Commons is too often indifferent, but all of us. As the rule now stands, after conviction and before sentence, evidence can be put in against the convicted criminal by the police which he has no substantial opportunity of rebutting. That is an extremely important point, because in the mere technicality of the law the man is convicted and is guilty, and cannot understand why that man has no right to bring evidence in his own defence. I submit that is a straining of a legal point. We all know the wise discretion which is granted to the Bench in this country. In the case of a man convicted for a particular offence the sentence, may vary indefinitely from a few days' imprisonment to a life sentence, and after a man has been proved to be technically guilty the police can bring evidence which the prisoner has no chance of rebutting. Hon. Members will remember the case of Von Veltheim, in whose case, after conviction, there was put in a mass of police evidence, every word of which may have been false or true, but which the man had no opportunity of rebutting. This may be a small matter to those who never hope or expect to be placed in those circumstances, but it is a matter of enormous importance to the unfortunate individual who comes under the action of the criminal law. I will appeal to the two Front Benches, whom regard as one organ of Government, to consider whether, under this Administration, this great anomaly in our criminal law cannot be put an end to. I do not think there are any arguments in its favour.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Belloc and Mr. Wedgwood.

Presented accordingly, and read the first time. (To be read a second time upon Monday, 30th May.)