HL Deb 30 May 1842 vol 63 cc973-7
The Lord Chancellor

moved the second reading of the Jurisdiction of Justices Bill. It was founded upon a report made by a commission appointed to inquire into the criminal jurisprudence of the country, and that bill had been prepared by the late Government. The object of it was to transfer the trial of many offences that were not of a capital description from the assizes to the court of quarter sessions. Those offences that were punishable with death or transportation for life, were still to be tried at the assizes; but other offences, except certain specified ones which were of a peculiar character, were to be tried by the magistrates at quarter sessions. There were, however, some offences, such as those that were likely to lead to local excitement—cases arising out of combinations amongst trades—out of the Municipal Reform Bill, and the Parliamentary Reform Bill—which it was thought advisable should be tried at the assizes, not so much with reference to the judges who presided, as to the juries. What he now proposed was, that the bill should be read a second time, and that if any noble Lord had any objection to make to any of the clauses it would be competent for him to do so in committee. He believed the bill had been framed with great care and attention, under the immediate inspection of the commissioners appointed by Lord John Russell.

Lord Godolphin

was understood to say, that he did not consider the magistrates at quarter sessions ought to be placed on a par with the learned judges of the land, and that there were many cases proposed by this bill to be tried at quarter sessions which ought still to be tried at the assizes. He would: confine all offences to the as- sizes for which parties on conviction were liable to be transported for fifteen years.

The Lord Chancellor

said, he would take the subject into consideration between then and the period when the bill should go into committee.

Lord Wharncliffe

thought, that if the quarter sessions were not competent to try offences liable to fifteen years' transportation, they were not competent to try persons for offences that were punishable with ten years' transportation. The objection of the noble Lord would apply quite as strongly to the one set of offences as the other. But there appeared to him to be a fallacy on this subject. If the noble Lord had had as much experience of the business done at quarter sessions as he had, the noble Lord would have known that greater skill, greater care and patience, was required on the part of juries to decide justly in minor offences, than larger offences. The most difficult cases were not felonies, but misdemeanors.

The Lord Chancellor

was understood to say, that those misdemeanors to which his noble Friend referred as being difficult to investigate, would be found to be included in the number of offences proposed to be tried by the judges at the assizes. Were this not the case, his classification of offences would be wrong.

Lord Campbell

hoped, that the jurisdiction of the quarter sessions would be improved by this measure. If, indeed, those courts were always presided over by such men as the noble Lord opposite (Lord Wharncliffe), then he would not hesitate to entrust cases of the greatest difficulty to them; but it did happen that many of the chairmen of quarter sessions were certainly by no means competent to administer the law. A bill was introduced three years ago, empowering any county which thought fit to appoint a professional chairman, with a salary to be paid out of the county rates. That bill did not pass into a law, but he thought some such measure absolutely necessary to the due administration of the law in this country.

The Lord Chancellor

wished to observe, that the bill now before the House be- came necessary in consequence of certain alterations which had been made within a few years in the criminal law of the country. With respect to the jurisdiction of the quarter sessions, he knew not what his noble and learned Friend's experience was, but certainly for many years of his life he attended the quarter sessions in five or six counties, and he must say that according to his recollection and experience justice was admirably administered in those counties, and that the chairmen possessed a very accurate knowledge of the criminal law, and administered it most impartially.

Lord Campbell

did not mean to throw the slightest disparagement upon the county magistrates or chairmen, but certainly, he might make the observation, that a country squire, who occupied his time, and that very laudably, in agricultural pursuits, and the sports of the field, was not, however zealous he might be to do his duty, the most fit person to administer the criminal law of the country.

The Duke of Richmond

thought a country squire was much more competent than those who devoted themselves to politics. The noble and learned Lord was, no doubt, a very good advocate for his own profession, but he hoped, that if professional chairmen were to be appointed, they would not be paid out of county rates, but out of the consolidated fund. He thought this bill a great improvement; and though he did not agree with his noble Friend (Lord Godolphin) as to the incompetency of the quarter sessions, still he concurred with him in opinion, that such offences as sheep-stealing and horse-stealing, should be tried before the judges of the land. A sentence pronounced by them would produce a greater moral effect than one passed by the magistrates at quarter sessions. He thought the assizes ought to be held oftener than twice a-year. Why should a man be only kept a fortnight in prison before his trial at the sessions, if accused of sheep-stealing, but if committed for forgery, be kept five months in gaol?

Lord Brougham

observed, that the Home Circuit, till lately, had three assizes in the year. This had been altered by the establishment of the Central Criminal Court, There never was any reason why the Home Circuit should have three assizes, more than any of the other circuits; except this, that the counties in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, had a greater number of offences to try, and a third assizes was adopted, because it was thought expedient, that the offenders should not remain untried longer than was absolutely necessary. When that act passed in 1834, several of the counties in the Home Circuit were included in the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court. He agreed with the noble Lord, that a more speedy trial of offences would be one of the greatest improvements in the criminal law. At the same time, the difficulty would be extreme of giving to all the counties additional circuits, because there would then arise a necessity for a greater number of judges. He differed from the noble Lord on the cross Benches, as to the expediency of having a chairman belonging to the profession of the law. He thought, that it would be of the greatest advantage, were the assizes presided over by a learned chairman, and he stated this without in- tending any invidious application to those who had hitherto so meritoriously, diligently, and, generally speaking, so ably discharged that office. He did not think, however, that the bill adverted to by his noble Friend near him (Lord Campbell) would have produced the effect intended. He was afraid, that few counties would make application for a legal chairman, if the expense was to be borne by the county. But as it was highly expedient that an alteration should be made as to the appointment of chairmen, he begged to suggest to the noble Lord on the Woolsack, that this point would form a fit adjunct to the bill relating to county courts.

Lord Wharncliffe

said, he had given no opinion as to stipendiary chairmen.

The Marquess of Normanby

said, his noble Friend stated, that he gave no opinion as to stipendiary chairmen. He might be allowed to say, that his noble Friend would be the last person to feel that which every other person felt—the accidental removal of a person, who, for a number of years, had meritoriously executed those functions. His own experience led him to believe, that it would be highly desirable to make a trial of the experiment of a barrister as chairman.

The Marquess of Northampton

could not help expressing his surprise at the difficulty mentioned by the noble and learned Lord. Why should not additional judges be appointed? and as to the ex- pence, this, in his opinion, ought never to be placed in competition with the benefits likely to arise from the alteration.

Bill read a second time.