HC Deb 19 February 1917 vol 90 cc1086-91

(1) This Act may be cited as the Grand Juries (Suspension) Act, 1917.

(2) This Act shall not extend to Scotland or Ireland.


I beg to move to leave out the words "or Ireland," and to insert instead thereof the words, "In the application of this Act to Ireland Subsections (3) and (4) of Section I shall not have effect."

8.0 P.M.

I think it is very much to be regretted that the Government have not seen the necessity of extending a Bill of this character to Ireland. In framing their Bill, the Government have not taken the existence of that country into their purview. Last year the present Home Secretary brought in an Indictments Bill. I then made a strong protest against the non-application of that to Ireland, but, at all dents, here was a question of public convenience or inconvenience, whereas here there is a distinct question of public convenience. In England you propose to dispense with grand juries attending in every English county and county borough, but in every Irish county and county borough twenty-three gentlemen are to be brought from their business to the Assizes to hear Bills of a most trumpery kind. I supported this Bill on the last occasion, and the hon. Member for North Fermanagh (Mr. Archdale), who has been returned to this House after many years' absence, cordially supported my suggestion that this Bill should apply to Ireland. All that this involves is the omission of the words "or Ireland" and that would do no harm. We are told that this Bill is not demanded in Ireland. Of course it is not, because they do not know of its existence, and they do not know that it has been introduced. A representative from Ireland suggests that this is a useful Bill and that Ireland should have the benefit of it, but the Attorney-General says, "No; I have got a telegram from Dublin Castle from a person who is in complete touch with the rest of Ireland and he speaks for all the counties and the cities of Ireland." Was there ever anything heard of more absurd? The people whom this Bill will affect are persons who as yet have not any legal existence because the sheriff's precept has not been issued to call them together, and it affects the very class who, in the South and West of Ireland, have given such large support to the Government as officers in the Army. They largely constitute the middle classes from whom the grand juries are drawn and they will be absent serving at the front. I do not like to take up further time discussing this matter, and I will now listen to what the Attorney-General has to say. If he can present any arguments why Ireland should not be included, I shall be glad to hear them. We are told that Ireland only needs to state her grievances and the House is ready to listen to our arguments. Here is a little Bill involving no cost except that of printing, and I hope my Amendment will be adopted.


I rise to support this Amendment. The Clause to which objection is taken states that, "This Act shall not extend to Scotland or Ireland." There is no question on this point in regard to Scotland, because there the people have always been too sensible to have grand juries, which they consider is an antiquated system. There never has been in modern times any real justification for this system, and there is no justification for it at the present time. In Ireland there is no demand for the perpetuation of the grand jury system, and it would be a great convenience to those who have to serve on grand juries in Ireland to be relieved from that obligation at the present time. This is a tentative proposal, and it is absolutely for the period of the War. It is tentative as regards the question whether the grand jury system shall be abolished or not. As far as I can see, the cause of justice in criminal administration would not suffer by this proposal, but would be advantaged by the final and complete abolition of the system. This is a tentative proposal, and it would be well, I think, to extend it to Ireland. There are many ways in which the men who are now called up on grand juries could do useful service by assisting in food production, and it would be a great pity if this Act were not extended in its application to Ireland.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Frederick Smith)

I really think I have some grievance against my two hon. and learned Friends opposite. I regret that it did not occur to them when they decided to make this serious proposal to the House of Commons to give me some kind of warning as to their intention. This measure was well advertised in the papers, and the Government announced very early their intention of introducing this legislation. I was asked a question about it as late as last December, and I clearly indicated that it was my intention to introduce this Bill. I gave hon. Members six weeks' notice before the Bill was taken. If I had been given a chance I should certainly have taken steps to ascertain the opinion of the Irish people on this matter. On the Second Reading the hon. and learned Member opposite adopted quite an amiable disposition towards the Bill, and I hope he will not prevent me tonight from getting through the Committee stage. Before the Bill was drafted in a form applicable to England, had my attention been called to this proposal, I can assure hon. Members I would have done my best to meet their wishes. But consider the position in which I am placed. The hon. and learned Member (Mr. T. M Healy), almost with a sneer, said that had communicated with Dublin Castle and accepted their claims to represent the views of the whole nation. I did not do anything of the kind.

Particular attention has been directed to the fact that the hon. and learned Member who represents Ulster (Mr. Archdale) sympathises with the views which have just been expressed in regard to this Amendment, but I am sure I shall not he thought unreasonable if I hold that this is a matter upon which I should consult the views of the Attorney-General for Ireland more especially in regard to a matter which concerns the judicial system of Ireland. I have received a telegram from the Attorney-General in which he says he is opposed to this change in Ireland, and that he cannot find that it has any considerable volume of public opinion behind it in Ireland. Of course, he may be right or wrong, but no one who practices at the Bar would deny my obligation to consult the Irish Attorney-General on this point. The hon. and learned Member says there is no distinction between the position in England and in Ireland. I know, however, that in England there is an overwhelming demand for this Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Cork (Mr. Healy) says that nobody in Ireland has ever heard of this Bill. No doubt that is a rhetorical phrase, but in this case the phrase of my hon. and learned Friend is so rhetorical that it has no connection with the facts. Does he really mean that the members of the grand jury, the very class which has bombarded me in this country with representations of their intention, the class that supplies officers for the Army, read so little of the English and Irish newspapers that they are wholly unaware that this measure is contemplated in this country to relieve grand juries of the grievances under which they suffer when in Ireland they are feeling the same burden?

As far as I know, they have never made a single objection to this measure. The other day I did consult the only two members of the Irish party whom I could discover in the precincts of the House, and both of them specifically stated that, in their view, there was no general desire that this change should be made in Ireland. The proposal now made would involve very serious risk to the Bill as a whole. No doubt my hon. and learned Friend has observed that Sub-sections (3) and (4) of Section I cannot survive if these words are left out, and we require the securities that are preserved by those Sub-sections. I know this could be dealt with on Report, but to do that would not be convenient to the general structure of the Bill. Let me say that if my hon. and learned Friend can satisfy me, and those more particularly responsible for the administration of Irish affairs, that there does exist in Ireland any real desire that this Bill should be extended to Ireland, I do not anticipate that there will be the slightest difficulty in giving immediate effect to that desire, and for my part I will give it every assistance in my power. The hon. and learned Gentleman is a reasonable man, and he will see that it would be very unfair and unreasonable to me and to those classes who are complaining of the burdens imposed upon them in this country if I were to endanger this Bill and delay its passage by accepting this proposal, because this is a measure which is very much demanded in this country. Had I been able to get all the stages of this Bill through on the last occasion it would not have been necessary to summon the grand juries at the forthcoming Assizes at Durham and other places, but it is now too late. I sincerely trust that after these observations my hon. and learned Friend will not pursue his hostility to these proposals.


As far as I am concerned, of course if the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not accept my Amendment I shall not persist in delaying his measures, but he must allow me to say that he has laid down what I respectfully submit are entirely false canons of procedure. It is the duty of the Government draftsmen in the case of every Bill brought into this House, which is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, to consider the United Kingdom as a whole. The contrary doctrine laid down by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is what has hitherto been called in the dictionary of his party the separatist principle. Scotland is out of the case, because the Scottish legal procedure is entirely different from ours, but you have forced the English common law upon Ireland, and it becomes the duty of the Government draftsman, the law of the two countries running in one stream, to consider how far Ireland is affected. The course of action invariably taken is to do whatever is convenient to yourself and to let the Irish, if they can, come in at the tail. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has also laid down the doctrine that it is our duty to place our case before the Attorney-General for Ireland of the day. Sometimes one is not on such terms of admiration and freedom with the Attorney-General for Ireland as the whole House is with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and he is certainly putting upon Irish Members an extraordinary duty, namely, of going round to the office of the Attorney-General for Ireland, knocking at his door, and saying, "Dear Sir, I am an Irishman. You have a Bill which is at present in steep, and you are not thinking of applying it to Ireland. Pray do not forget the Emerald Isle." Was ever such a doctrine put forward from that Treasury box? Most of the Attorneys-General for Ireland that I have known would have kicked out any such Irish Member.

I do not wish to oppose the passage of this measure. The right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests, if I would bring him evidence of a sufficient body of opinion amongst the Irish Members of this House in favour of the measure, that they will immediately bring in a Bill and make it applicable to Ireland. Have I any means of showing what is the opinion of Ireland except by taking a Division? I feel quite sure that the large and stalwart muster of my hon. Friends around me would support me in the Division Lobby, but I really cannot say how many the Division bell would bring in. I would therefore ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to do this. Let him acknowledge the attitude that I am taking up in letting this Bill go through. I accept his promise of future performance, but I say that the duty is upon him to make himself acquainted with Irish opinion, and it is not upon us. Having regard to the question of drafting, I must do justice to myself by pointing out that I propose to move to insert the words, "That in the application of this Act to Ireland Sub-sections (3) and (4) of Section I shall not have effect." I must, on the other hand, acknowledge, and it is only right that I should do so, that the moment the right hon. and learned Gentle man was able to quote the Attorney-General for Ireland as opposed to this change, I agree lie had a very strong argument against the line that I have taken up. I therefore lay no blame upon his shoulders. The blame is not his; it lies in that quarter where he has put it, and I leave the matter there, stating my profound dissatisfaction which enables a useful Bill of this kind to be refused to the Irish people.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill, as amended, considered.