HL Deb 19 January 1838 vol 40 cc246-9
The Duke of Richmond

presented a petition, which he said was important, not only on account of the subject of which it treated, but from its being signed by a great number of the acting magistrates of the county of Sussex. They complained that they were constantly compelled to commit persons for trial at the quarter sessions for petty stealing, and that such persons were frequently detained in gaol five or six weeks before trial, and when convicted the magistrates felt that they could award them only a very small punishment. The public, not being in the secret, naturally concluded that the offence was very trivial, or that the magistrates were too lenient. He was present when a man was tried for stealing a padlock, a toothbrush, and some other trifling articles, value 6d. That man had been in gaol fifty days prior to his trial, and the magistrates consequently sentenced him to only one week's imprisonment. Now, it was a question whether these petty offences ought not to be visited summarily, and whether the petty sessions, which were now generally held in private rooms, might not be held on public days, and become public courts for the trial of such petty cases, with the consent of the prisoner. The next point to which the petitioners respectfully called the attention of their Lordships was the treatment of juvenile offenders, in respect to which subject, he entirely concurred with the petitioners. They stated, and the statement was confirmed by the printed returns before the House, that a very large number of persons under the age of fourteen or fifteen years was committed to the various prisons in this country for small larcenies. The petitioners were of opinion that it would be infinitely better both for the public and the offenders themselves if the magistrates had the power and opportunity of sending such juvenile criminals to some school of reformation, instead of being under the necessity of sending them to the House of Correction, or committing them to prison to await their trial, however well disciplined those places of confinement might be. What was required most was, that they should save young offenders from the evil example and influence of their older associates, by whom in most cases they were led into crime. The petitioners prayed their Lordships' House to try the experiment, by causing some establishment of the kind to be set on foot. His noble Friend at the head of the Council was aware that the plans adopted by the Refuge for the Destitute and the Children's Friend Society for the reformation of juvenile offenders had proved to be most successful. Lastly the petitioners asked their Lordships to direct their serious attention to the Acts which were passed last year. When those measures were before the House, he ventured to move a clause to the effect that none of the offences which were to come under the description of "capital" hereafter should be tried at quarter sessions. The House agreed with him, but the Bill came up so late in the Session that there was no opportunity to send it back to the other House to have the clause introduced. It was therefore at present left to magistrates to decide before whom persons charged with grave and heinous offences should be tried. Such offences ought to be tried before the Judges of the land. He did not wish to impose additional labour on the judges, but he thought it would be more satisfactory if such cases were always put under their jurisdiction. He hoped that her Majesty's Ministers would direct their attention to the matters touched on in this petition, but if they should be too much occupied with other business, or were not agreed on the prayer of the petition, he should hereafter move that it be referred to a Committee of their Lordships.

Lord Brougham

agreed with the noble Duke that this was an important subject, and that it was one which imperatively called for inquiry, he thought all who had listened to the noble Duke would admit. He was one of those who supported those Bills which had diminished the amount of capital offences, and by which capital punishment was restricted to very few crimes; but he never had thought that the change thus made in the law would have the effect of superseding the ordinary jurisdiction of the higher tribunals of criminal justice, and transfer the administration of the law in those cases which had ceased to be capital to the magistrates at quarter sessions. Certainly he had never understood that arrangement to be a part of the project. He thought this subject ought to receive immediate consideration.

The Duke of Richmond

, in justice to the magistrates of the county of Sussex, must say, that they were very well aware that they had power to try any offence not capital, but it was not their custom. They had made no complaint against the judges, who had no power to interfere with them by any order. What the magistrates complained of was, that the discretion was not removed from them, and that there was no fixed rule. Among fifty, or sixty, or a hundred magistrates, of course some would take one view of a case and some another. He saw no objection why an Act of Parliament should not be passed to have certain cases tried before the judges. It was not the wish of the magistrates of the county of Sussex to relieve themselves from any trouble; but their object was to secure a better administration of public justice. It was perfectly well known that some judges on the circuits were constantly saying "Why do you send this petty case before me?" While others would as often say "Why was that case tried at the quarter sessions, why did you not send it up to the assize?" All that the magistrates wanted was some definite regulation on the subject, and one that would be binding, so that this matter might not be left to the discretion of individuals. He had no doubt that a Bill having this object in view would easily pass through the Legislature, and he therefore hoped that the Government would introduce one at an early period. If not, he would again take the liberty of bringing the subject under the notice of the House.

Lord Wharncliffe

had no doubt that great and capital offences ought to be tried by the judges of the laud, or that a bill of the nature recommended by the noble Duke could be easily passed through the Legislature, and therefore he would suggest that a bill should be brought in immediately for confining minor cases to the jurisdiction of magistrates, and sending great offences before the judges. There could be no doubt, that a solemn trial before the judges would have a much greater influence than a trial at a quarter sessions before the magistrates.

Lord Abinger

said, his noble Friend had taken pains to show that the magistrates had not complained of the judges, but that they had complained of each other, many of the magistrates thinking that they were bound to save the public expenses as much as possible; and he should not be surprised that, if such a bill as that recommended were brought in, they would hear an objection made, that the consequence of sending an increased number of cases to the assizes, would be a proportionate increase of the county-rate. Of course, grave and heinous offences ought to be carried before the judges; but there were certain offences, not exactly of a petty character, but for which the punishments were fixed, which might be tried at quarter sessions.

Petition laid on the table.

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