HL Deb 27 May 1823 vol 9 cc540-2
The Archbishop of Canterbury

rose to move the second reading of this bill. The right reverend prelate observed, that the portion of the bill, which; in that stage demanded their lordships' particular attention, was the clause relative to the voidability of marriages. By the old law, the marriages of minors, without Consent, were declared void ab initio; but the committee, after due deliberation, thought it would be less objectionable to render such marriages voidable within a year. The provisions for the prevention of clandestine marriages, under the old law, were too severe to be brought into execution with effect, and improper advantage had been but too frequently taken of them. The committee, in endeavouring to repair the mischief, found themselves involved in great difficulties, among which they had to make their option. They had no course but either to make the consent of parents or their representatives unnecessary, and thus, on a most important occasion take away the protection of the law from the exercise of the parental office; or to restore the nullity clause of the 26th Geo. 2nd, by which the marriage of a minor without consent might be at any subsequent and indefinite period set aside; or to adopt the mitigated course as shaped out in this bill; by which parents, or those who represented them, could within a year annul the unlawful marriage. This last mode he considered the least objectionable; though it was not altogether without objection. Those who opposed the voidability of marriages, went upon the principle, that those whom God had joined should net be separated by man; but it should be recollected, that marriages might be obtained in a manner that the laws of man would not allow, and therefore could not be approved of by the laws of God. The sacredness of marriages ought to be maintained; but its inviolability might be carried to an injurious extreme. Marriage was the foundation of civil society, and it was of the first importance that its engagements should have the combined protection of the law of the land, and the sanctions of religion.

Lord Ellenborough

observed, that we were now under the old law, with the exception of that clause by which marriages, under certain, circumstances, were declared void. We had been two or three months under that law without suffering any inconvenience; and he hoped the House would bear that in mind when considering the change introduced by this bill. This bill was not that full and comprehensive measure which the House had reason to expect, from the promises held out by its most reverend and learned promoters. It contained little more than the last bill, and left several points untouched, on which it was of the greatest moment that no doubt should exist. The validity of all marriages in foreign countries ought to be cleared up, and subjects residing abroad should be able to ascertain the precise situation in which they stood in this respect, without the necessity of an application to a court of justice. It would be recollected, that a petition had been presented relative to this subject from the Russia company, when a learned lord had declared that he had no doubt of the validity of such marriages. Doubts, however, were entertained by the parties themselves, and they ought to be removed by positive enactment. Facilities on this important point ought to be afforded to Dissenters, and to Roman Catholics. In Ireland, when both the parties were Catholics, the marriage was valid if performed according to the rites of that church; but Catholics coming to this country might not think of having recourse to the formalities made necessary here, and the marriage might in consequence be invalid, and was not this an: encouragement to immorality? With regard to the marriages of minors, as the law stood now, it operated differently on the rich and the poor; for where there was no property to render the invalidation an object, the most incestuous marriages might now be tolerated. He thought that, in order to equalize the law and maintain the principle consistently, such marriages should be declared null and void ab initio. With respect to the clause to which the right reverend prelate had called the attention of the. House, it seemed to be the general feeling of the country, that marriages by banns should remain in the same state ad they now stood and had stood for many years back. The clause of voidability was in fact nugatory. But, if they were as anxious to respect parental rights as the right rev. prelate would have them, they should respect them in the father of the woman as well as of the man. But this clause did no such thing: it operated in favour of the man and against the woman. It did all that could be done to encourage seduction under the semblance of marriage. Instead of being introduced by the right rev. prelate and a learned lord, it would seem as if it were the production of a set of dissolute minors, who were desirous of legislating according to the morals professed by the theatrical libertine Don Juan.

The Earl of Westmorland,

opposed the clause, as an infringement on the religion, the morals, and the laws of the country, as well as on the rights of property.

The Bishop of Chester

opposed the clause, as being directly contrary to the word of God. It was not a clause fits to be enacted by a Christian legislature. At all events he would not be one to give his vote for putting asunder those whom God had joined.

The Bishop of Derry

was anxious that it should not go forth to the public, that incestuous marriages could be legitimate under any circumstances. If a man should marry his daughter, or any descendant of her's, the progeny of that, marriage must be illegitimate, the marriage itself being void ab initio.

Lord Ellenborough

said, he would not be positive as to the correctness of his observation, but he would rather have the exposition of the law from a learned lord, than from the reverend prelate.

The Lord Chancellor

said, they had been told the present was, not a proper time to discuss, the measure;, therefore, though he had been appealed to, he would only say that he was clearly of opinion, that the law of scripture, as well, as the law of the land, should be a good deal more considered than it appeared to him they had yet been.

The bill was then read a second time.