HC Deb 16 February 1955 vol 537 cc398-9

3.50 p.m.

Mr. E. H. C. Leather (Somerset, North)

I beg to move. That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Justices of the Peace Act, 1361. I am asking the House today to allow me to introduce a small Bill which is concerned with technicalities into which I would not normally venture. I hope that it is also a non-controversial Bill. May I say, at the outset, that I have been fortunate in having had the help and support of a number of distinguished lawyers on both sides of the House, and also of quite a number of magistrates who have been specifically concerned in the kind of cases with which the Bill deals.

The one and only Clause of the Bill simply says that nothing in the 1361 Act should prevent a person who is bound over for a breach of the peace from appealing to quarter sessions. No more than that. It has arisen because there have been half a dozen cases in recent years, one of which actually took place in my constituency. In that case my constituent was alleged to have been sending out anonymous letters, and was brought before the bench and bound over. In the eyes of the law, binding a person over is not equivalent to a conviction. Therefore, the law as its stands says, "As there is no conviction there is nothing to appeal against, so you cannot appeal."

Unhappily, in these times, when these things make great headlines in the newspapers, an impression is made on the public mind that a person has been declared guilty, and there have been cases, perhaps, and certainly in the one with which I am more directly concerned, in which persons strenuously deny guilt but feel that a stain has been put on their characters and on their honour which will last the rest of their days. Yet the law denies them any possibility of appealing for a second hearing.

In the particular case I have in mind several of the magistrates themselves told me that they were most unhappy, and it does seem to me that in this democratic age the least one can do is to make a very minor adjustment of the law which, I am advised by magistrates and lawyers, will not have any repercussions anywhere else but which will give a person who finds himself in this most unfortunate position a right of appeal to quarter sessions for a second hearing, to make quite clear his innocence in the case.

It seems to me fundamentally wrong that we should place this terrible slur on a person's character and then deny him any opportunity at all to appeal to a higher court to get another trial. That is all that this Bill seeks to do, and I hope the House will allow me to bring it in, and will possibly give it a quiet and peaceful, indeed a silent, passage to the Statute Book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Leather, Sir L. Heald, Mr. Simon, Mr. W. T. Williams, Mr. Royle, and Mr. Gilbert Longden.