I hope to persuade your Lordships to throw out this Bill; I have the strongest objection to it.
§ The Marquess of Lansdowne
If my noble and learned Friend means really to express his objection to the Bill—
I will state to your Lordships what my objection is—it is not one of details but of principle. This is one of those Bills which occasioned so much mischief to the law, and he was surprised that it should have come from the House of Commons. No one would suppose, that he objected to extending any relief to persons of any religious persuasion. His objection to the Bill was this—that through ignorance of the law on the part of those who patronised it, the Bill sanctioned this principle—that the law of oaths was different in different parts of the United Kingdom. The fact was, that in England and in Scotland the law was at this moment the same with regard to Presbyterians; and here he must observe, that the language of the Bill was, "the people called Presbyterian;" it might just as well be said, the people called Churchmen, for the Presbyterians were as much established as the Church of England; the Quakers were not established, and therefore they were termed, "the people called Quakers;" but the Presbyterians were upwards of two-and-a-half millions 1003 in number; they were established by law, and they included several of his noble Friends opposite, the family of one of whom had been the pillar of their Church for centuries past; and when the Presbyterians went to Ireland they were as much Presbyterians as they would be in England or in Scotland; but this Bill gave the Presbyterians the privilege of making oath by holding up their hands, as if this were not the law of evidence at this day; as if it had not been acted upon for a century; as if a Presbyterian had not been sworn in the Court of Queen's Bench, within the last twelve months, in this way; as if a man had not been convicted capitally, at Newgate, upon the evidence of a Presbyterian sworn in this way; as if, in the year 1745, this question had not been raised at Carlisle on the trial of the rebels, on a Presbyterian refusing to take the oath in the accustomed way, and being allowed to take it by holding up his hand; and the judges, upon being appealed to, decided that he had a right to do so. The Irish Parliament chose to bring in a Bill, in the year 1781, giving the seceders the right of being sworn, namely, by holding up the hand. But this was no relief; it was a right which they possessed before; and, instead of being an extension of their privileges, it actually abridged them; for it excluded them from being witnesses in criminal cases, unless sworn in the ordinary way: so that if a man committed murder or robbery in the presence of a seceder he was not competent to become evidence of the fact. There never had been such ignorance exhibited as in the framing of that Act. It astonished English lawyers at the time, but what did their Lordships think of being now called upon to enter the same boat with the Irish Parliament, and to give their assent to a measure exhibiting equal ignorance and want of knowledge of the law? He would show them how this Bill had been framed, in order that they might see in what manner Bills were pressed through another place. When men professed to be lawgivers, it was not too much to expect that they should know a little of what the law was with which they meddled. Their Lordships would see, that the person who sent the Bill up to this House never could have read the preamble of it. It professed to give a greater relief to seceders than they now enjoyed. It was true, that the relief which it had been intended to confer upon 1004 the Dissenters had been ineffectual, but that, as he before explained, was owing to the Act of 1781. The Bill, when it stated that it was expedient to extend to seceders further relief, gave them that which was no relief at all; but, on the contrary, restrained the privileges which they possessed. If ever there was a measure sent up to that House which exhibited hopeless blundering, total incapacity, and blind ignorance, it was this preposterous and ridiculous piece of legislation.
§ The Marquess of Lansdowne
said, that if he had not been interrupted by the noble and learned Lord, when he rose to move the order of the day, he should have stated pretty nearly the same facts as those which their Lordships had heard urged to them in favour of the rejection of this Bill as the best and most cogent arguments in favour of the measure. It was undoubtedly true, as stated by the noble and learned Lord, that in England and Scotland Presbyterians were sworn in the way most agreeable to their own feelings, and that such would have been the case in Ireland but for the Act of 1781. That Act took away from the seceders in Ireland the privilege of being sworn, in criminal cases, like the English Presbyterians; and this exception had given rise to so much inconvenience, that it became absolutely necessary to remedy the evil As an instance of that necessity he might refer to the case of Doctor Cook, who refusing to be sworn in a criminal case unless in the manner of the English Presbyterians, had his evidence rejected by the court; the consequence of which was, that a verdict which, had he been examined, could not have been returned was found by the jury. Here was a positive abuse to be done away with, and as he and his noble Friend (Lord Brougham) could have but one object, namely to show a befitting respect to the well-founded religious scruples of all classes of men, he should be ready to confer with the noble Lord as to the best means of remedying the evil, either by repealing altogether the Act of 1781, or by proceeding with the present Bill. If the noble and learned Lord desired, he was quite ready for the present to postpone the Bill, but only on the understanding that in the course of the Session the matter should be considered.
§ Second reading postponed.