HL Deb 15 March 1805 vol 4 cc26-9

The order of the day being read, for the commitment of this the different clauses and provisions of the bill were agreed to by the committee, until that which contains the provisions for compelling the administration, of oaths to witnesses, on regimental courts martial, was arrived at; when

The Marquis of Buckingham

rose and expressed his disapprobation of that part of the clause, as well in point of policy, as in the view of military regulation. He thought the old and uniform practice, with respect to regimental courts martial, should be continued. In the course of his long experience, he had never heard a single complaint, made, or one objection urged against it. The soldiers very seldom appealed from the decision of the regimental to the general courts martial; and, in the few instances where appeals were made, the sentences of the regimental courts martial were not only confirmed by the superior court, but the punishment greatly increased; and he never knew an instance of their decisions being reversed, or any kind of slur or stigma thrown upon them by the general courts. He entertained another objection to the clause; no provision was made for the attendance of a proper person or officer upon these courts martial where the evidence was now proposed to be taken upon oath, to take an account of the testimony so given. He alluded to a person empowered as the deputy judge advocates, to take an account of the proceedings, and to transmit them to the proper officer; such a regulation was the more called for, as the witnesses were liable to the pains and penalties of perjury, and without it accusations of that kind must be made from the loose and vague recollections of the persons present. He objected to the proposed arrangement, on grounds of wisdom and policy. The course hither[...]to pursued ought not be departed from; but if the new regulation was deemed an improvement, such a precaution as he had suggested ought at least to be adopted. He assured their lordships he came forward on the present occasion, merely from a sense of duty, and from his zeal for the well-being of the army, and the general good of the service. Constituted as the clause then was, he must oppose it.

Earl Camden ,

in general terms, defended the clause as it then stood in the bill. He conceived the provision by no means liable to the objections entertained by the noble marquis. He thought it would add a degree of solemnity to the proceedings at such courts martial, and obviously give a greater security for the correctness of the testimony given by witnesses.

The Duke of Cumberland

expressed his coincidence in the opinions of the noble marquis, on the present occasion; and, after what had fallen from him, a few words from himself would suffice. First, he should observe, that, in the course of his own experience, and as the result of his inquiries from able and intelligent officers, he never heard a single objection to the long-established mode observed in regimental courts martial; then why adopt a measure which must induce the belief, that the former practice was complained of? Secondly, he objected to the alteration, as more likely to tend to an increased severity, instead of a more lenient system; inasmuch as the discretionary power of the members of such courts martial, who were generally inclined, whenever it could be done with the least regard to propriety, to a lenient mode of proceeding, would be the more shackled, in consequence of the proposed alteration.

Lord Hawkesbury

agreed with what was stated by the noble marquis and the royal duke, with respect to the general conduct of regimental courts martial. He had every reason to believe, that, as much of what was correct, humane, fair, and honourable, prevailed in these tribunals, as in any other whatever. He was free to admit, no absolute necessity existed for the alteration; Yet he felt it would involve such advantages, as should induce its adoption. He referred principally to the check and controul it would establish as to improper evidence on the part of persons not military; with many of whom, an unfounded degree of prejudice and clamour obtained, with respect to the character and profession of a soldier. It established some degree of security as to evidence of that kind, and would give an air of proper solemnity to the whole of the proceedings in regimental courts martial.

The Duke of Clarence

observed, he agreed with every thing that had fallen from a very near relation of his, as to the clause in question. He cordially agreed with the sentiments of the noble marquis, in the present instance, particularly in the propriety of appointing a superintending officer to attend at the regimental courts martial, for the purposes mentioned, and he seemed to think the paymaster would be a proper person for the purpose. Though he highly respected every thing that fell from the noble secretary of state, yet, in the case before them, he disagreed with him in every thing he observed, save one point, which was, that no necessity existed for the proposed alteration; and he appealed to the reverend bench, whether, as Christian prelates, they could approve a measure, tending to the multiplication of oaths?

Lord Mulgrace

defended the clause at some length, and with much ability. He differed from a royal duke, for whose character and opinions he had the most profound respect, in his idea, that the alteration would tend to a system of increased severity; on the contrary, he thought, by providing additional securities for the correctness of the proceedings, it must have an opposite effect. With regard to the appeal made by another illustrious personage, to the rev. bench, if it went for any thing, it involved an application to the bishops to bring in a bill to abolish the administration of oaths in general. Upon the whole, thinking the system of regimental courts martial would be every way ameniorated by the clause, he felt it his duty to support it.—The question being put their lordships divided, when there appeared for the clause 22, against it 13, majority 9. The bill being gone through without any amendment, the house was resumed, and the report of the bill forthwith received.—Adjourned.