HL Deb 19 July 1838 vol 44 cc315-9
Lord Denman

, before moving the Order of the Day for the third reading of the Affirmations Bill, had several petitions to present in favour of that measure. The first petition was from certain inhabitants of Manchester and its vicinity, who had formerly belonged to the Society of Friends, but who had now seceded from that body, and attached themselves to the Church of England; they still, however, retained their objections to take oaths, as required by the statute, and therefore could not now be received as witnesses in courts of justice. Under these circumstances, they prayed to be relieved from the situation in which, by their decision, they were now placed. The next petition was from 100 merchants and bankers of Manchester and its neighbourhood, men of great respectability and influence, who stated, that they knew a great number of persons, formerly Quakers, who had seceded from that sect; and the petitioners prayed, that for their security, those individuals might be admitted to make affirmation, instead of being, as now, obliged to take oaths, to make them competent witnesses in courts of justice. The noble and learned Lord observed, that, with reference to this subject, he had received a letter from Mr. Foster, a justice of the peace for the counties of Chester and Lancaster, for many years a police magistrate of Manchester, and now chairman of the Salford quarter sessions—a gentleman who, from his experience, was competent to form an opinion on the subject. The letter was also signed by seventeen other magistrates of the county of Lancaster, including the chairman of the visiting justices, and all these gentlemen stated their conviction, that great inconveniences and evils were now produced, by the exclusion of persons who were ready to make affirmations, but objected to take oaths; and they sug- gested, that the bill which he had laid on the table, gave reasonable and satisfactory security to make it safe to admit those persons to affirm, instead of taking an oath; and they prayed, that for the sake of the public benefit, and the due administration of justice, the evidence of those persons might be received under the arrangements made in the bill. The noble and learned Lord also presented a petition from certain inhabitants of London and the neighbourhood, who stated, that they never had belonged to the Society of Friends, but still they entertained an opinion that oaths were unlawful; that feeling so, and refusing to take the oath when called on to give evidence, they had narrowly escaped being sent to prison, and they urged, that in consequence of their scruples, and the state of the law, persons were deprived of the benefit of their testimony, and that the ends of justice were thus defeated, and though the petitioners felt that some of the provisions of the bill before the House were insufficient, still they prayed that it might be passed into a law.

The Earl of Wicklow

had understood the bill to proceed on the ground of the objections to take oaths made by persons who formerly belonged to the society called Quakers. It appeared, however, from the last petition, that other persons claimed the same exception. To this he (the Earl of Wicklow) could not consent, though he would abstain from voting against this bill, if the noble and learned Lord would consent to confine its operation solely to those who had been Quakers but had now seceded from that persuasion.

Lord Denman

, in moving the Order of the Day for the third reading of the bill, said, that he should be sorry to make the exclusion to which the noble Earl adverted, for one of the gentlemen on whose behalf he had moved in this matter, and to whom he had often before referred, never had been a Quaker, and yet had the same objection as was entertained by that body to the taking of oaths. That gentleman had declined a situation of 800l. per annum, in consequence of his objection even to administer an oath; and yet if that gentleman were called as a witness before him (Lord Denman in the Court of Queen's Bench, to-morrow, he should have no option but to send that gentleman to prison for refusing to give evidence on oath. Sooner, however, than that the bill should not pass, he would consent to take it with the restriction pointed out by the noble Earl opposite.

Lord Holland

said, he felt bound to remark, that Mr. Foster, whose recommendation had been alluded to by his noble and learned Friend was one of the most useful magistrates in Manchester, and that on the authority of that gentleman he could state, that the feeling in favour of this measure was not confined to those who sought the exemption for themselves. The matter was of general public importance, for the hardship of the present law was not so much on those who refused now to take oaths, as upon the persons who were thus deprived of the benefit of their evidence. Under this feeling there was in Manchester a very general desire for this bill.

The Earl of Wicklow

said, he found that his amendment could not in form be proposed until the bill had been read a third time. Now, he must object to the third reading, unless he had an assurance from the noble and learned Lord, that he would afterwards agree to his (the Earl of Wicklow's) amendment, to confine the bill to those persons who had been Quakers.

Lord Ashburton

, was understood to say, that if relief should be given at all, this bill was wholly insufficient. He, however, objected entirely to the measure. He had also received communications on this subject, and he was still of opinion that the general evidence in English Courts of Justice, would be greatly impaired when the great mass of the community found, that evidence was not given under the solemn sanction of an oath. If, however, anything was to be done by legislation on this matter, he should be inclined to confine it, as suggested by the noble Earl behind him (the Earl of Wicklow) to persons who had belonged to the society of Quakers; at the same time, he could not help thinking, that by this plan the lives and properties of the people would be less carefully guarded under so loose a mode of admitting evidence, than they were at present. If the House went to a division, he should vote against the third reading of the bill.

The Marquess of Bute

looked upon this bill as being a judicial and not a political measure—a measure which, as he understood, was considered necessary by the noble and learned Lord, and his learned brethren, the judges, who from their experience found, that considerable interruption occurred to the ends of justice from the impossibility of obtaining the evidence of many worthy and excellent men who had conscientious objections to take an oath. It must be irksome and abhorrent to the learned judges to be compelled to punish individuals so circumstanced, and feeling, that this was a judicial measure important to the ends of justice, he felt it his duty to vote in favour of the bill of the noble and learned Lord.

Lord Ellenborough

observed, that he had altered the bill to the form in which it would stand if the amendment of his noble Friend (the Earl of Wicklow) was agreed to, and he found, that in that case it would be necessary to strike out one half of the preamble and the same quantity of the enactments, which was scarcely a tit way to deal with a bill on its third reading. The better course would be, to throw out this bill, and then the noble and learned Lord might bring in a fresh bill embodying the principle contended for by his noble Friend.

Lord Denman

said, it was true, that the bill was a judicial measure, for the purpose of effecting the admission of the truth in courts of justice, but the noble Marquess had misunderstood him (Lord Denman) in supposing, that he had the authority of the judges to state, that it was generally their opinion that the bill should pass into a law. The bill, however, did rest upon some authority, for one of his most respected brethren, Mr. Baron Alderson, had, at an early period of this Session, drawn up a bill on this subject, which fell through because it had been thought more convenient to annex its provisions to another measure, which had been rendered necessary by a decision of the Irish judges with respect to the admission as witnesses of Presbyterians without an oath. By the existing law evidence was excluded upon which life and limb, and property to a vast extent, might depend. As long as these persons were Quakers they had the protection of the law, but they were deprived of that on becoming members of the Church of England. Should that, in justice, be so? The only objection to the bill was that mentioned by the noble Baron opposite (Lord Ashburton), viz., that the gen- eral effect of evidence in courts of justice would be diminished, because under the bill certain individuals would be permitted to say, "I do not think it lawful to take an oath, and I request to be permitted to make an affirmation." The observation would be quite as good with reference to Quakers, who were examined every day without an oath. Did a Quaker have less respect for the truth because he gave evidence on affirmation? or would a man who made an oath think he was less bound to speak the truth because a Quaker was not sworn? The evil which he had brought under the notice of their Lordships was one of great magnitude; he had suggested a remedy, and had persevered to the last in attempting to get that remedy applied; and though the result might be unfavourable, he felt it his duty to take their Lordships opinion upon the question. If defeated now, he should certainly bring forward the subject again, at an early period of the ensuing session.

Their Lordships divided. Content 16; Not-content 32: Majority 16.

Bill lost.