HC Deb 23 June 1927 vol 207 cc2191-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Pyres Monsell.]


I desire to raise the subject of the refusal on the part of the Procurator Fiscal of Haddington to take action in a case laid with him for assault by a farmer named Thomas Gifford, Junior, who assaulted his farm hand. I raise the question because of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply given by the Lord Advocate in a question I put on Tuesday. In the reply the statement is made—I am not blaming the Lord Advocate in this matter; he has merely gone on the information sent by the local authority responsible in connection with the carrying out of the law in Haddingtonshire—he says in that reply, that several persons denied having seen the assault, and that is given as the reason for the Procurator Fiscal refusing to take action in the complaint which has been lodged. I want to submit for the consideration of the Lord Advocate the facts as sent to me. The assault took place on 13th December. The assaulted man at once complained to an individual who takes a great interest in the Farm Servants' Union. The farm labourer was advised at once to communicate with the secretary of his trade union. That was done. Advice was given to lodge a complaint with a local policeman. That was done on 15th December, only two days after the assault had taken place. The local police at Ormiston carried through the necessary investigation and interviewed five men who were prepared to act as witnesses. Although several of them would not swear to seeing the actual assault one, John White, was prepared to go to Court to swear that he saw the assault. There is the further fact which has not been brought to the notice of the Lord Advocate. It is common property that after two days after the assault this young farmer was not in the vicinity. He had cleared out and his sister who keeps house for him was anxious for her brother. The parents were sent for and only after further inquiry were they able to get the son to return home.

All these things go to prove that the assault took place. At a later date a civil action was brought. I have a cutting from, the Edinburgh "Evening News" in which it is admitted by the agent for the defender that the assault actually took place. It was so bad that the man had to be off work for a period. If one of the blows had been an inch lower there might have been a charge for manslaughter or murder. As a result of the civil action a payment was ultimately made. I think the two counsel settled the case out of Court. My point is that actually in the civil Court the agent for the defendant admitted that an assault had taken place.. The assault was of a most aggravating kind. It was merely because of a complaint by the farm labourer's wife against the supply of milk made by the farmer, and because that complaint was made, the young farmer went away and brutally attacked, according to the evidence I have here, the young farm labourer.

With these further facts before the Lord Advocate—the fact that at least one individual, John White, was prepared to go into Court and swear that he saw the assault; the fact that the man was actually off work; and the fact that the medical officer was prepared to go to Court and swear as to the actual physical effects of the assault on the man; the fact that the young farmer was not in the district for two days for fear of the consequences—with all these facts before him now, I would like to ask the Lord Advocate if he is prepared to have a further inquiry made into this case. It was one of the worst things that could happen in connection with the administration of the law—for the agricultural labourers to get into their minds that there is one law for the farmers and one for themselves. I know that in a case like this I could not help thinking myself that there would be one law for the farmer and another for the agricultural labourer. I feel that both the local policeman and the Procurator-Fiscal would have been able to get all the evidence necessary if the assault had been made by the agricultural labourer on the farmer, instead of by the farmer on the agricultural Labourer.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. W. Watson)

I regret that the hon. Gentleman should suggest that there has been any variation in the administration of justice. There is no foundation, as far as I am concerned, for any such accusation. This case is typical of circumstances not altogether unknown in criminal justice. The evidence is apt to vary according as it is a case for criminal proceedings or for civil damages. The first point raised is with regard to the decision of the Procurator Fiscal, who is my representative, and for whom I am responsible, and who is responsible to me, not to institute proceedings. The reason for the decision, as stated by him at the time, was that the evidence was insufficient. There were several of the farm servants present. One of them, the man White, to whom the hon. Member has referred, gave a very limited and somewhat indefinite account of what he saw. All he could say was that he saw the complainer, the man Hare, bending down, and the farmer with his stick in the air, and the stick coming down. He could not say anything beyond that, as he was 200 yards away. The other witnesses deny that they saw any assault at all. Evidently, that evidence was insufficient, and I agree with the decision of the Procurator Fiscal at the time. Subsequently, Mr. Hare raised a small debt action for damages. He was off work for three days and there was no doubt he did receive injuries. The question was whether the circumstances amounted to an assault or not. I understand the sum of two guineas was paid extra-judicially.

The question the hon. Member now asks is whether I am prepared to order proceedings to be taken now. It is more than six months since this comparatively trivial assault took place. The question I have to consider is not whether it is advisable to satisfy any vindictive feelings on the part of the complainer by having a prosecution—the civil remedy is his remedy—but I must decide whether it is in the public interest that the prosecution should be brought. If, indeed, any evidence sufficient to prove the assault has become available, it has only become available by the witnesses having changed their minds as to the story they are going to tell, contrary to what they told the Procurator-Fiscal six months ago. If that be so, then I do not think there is a case for a successful prosecution.


If I may interrupt for one moment, what about the admission on the part, of the defender's agent in the Court, in which he said that the assault which was committed in December, 1926, with a walking-stick, was not denied?


A newspaper report. I cannot conduct a prosecution according to the law of Scotland on newspaper reports of admissions in certain cases. That, clearly, is not a matter which I can take into account. Therefore, I say that in my opinion—and I have already expressed my opinion, and the question of the class of the complainer or the accused is of no concern to me; I simply look at it from the point of view of the administration of justice—it is not possible or right to institute a prosecution now, six months after the alleged assault has taken place, and on evidence of the character which is suggested now, and which is contrary to the only evidence available at the time. I regret that I can give no other answer on the matter than that which I gave the other day to a question put by my hon. Friend.

Adjourned accordingly, at Twelve Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.