HL Deb 22 June 1855 vol 139 cc1-8

in moving the second reading of the Bill, said that some few weeks since his noble and learned Friend (Lord Brougham) moved several Resolutions on the subject of the administration of criminal justice, pointing to evils which existed and suggesting Amendments. He (the Lord Chancellor) had since looked into the subject with the view of ascertaining how far it would be practicable and desirable to carry these suggestions into effect. With regard to some of them he found difficulties in the way that were at present insurmountable; but it appeared to him that two or three of those suggestions might be embodied in a Bill so as possibly to become law during the present session, not intending thereby to stop anything else in the way of Amendment, but believing that there were provisions to which there could be no objection, and the present measure had been brought in to carry those proposals into effect. His noble and learned Friend pointed out the great hardship to which persons were subjected, who, being committed for trial very soon after the summer assizes, might not have their cases disposed of for six or seven months, although, after all, it might very possibly turn out that they were innocent of the crimes charged against them. There was great difficulty in making arrangements to meet that case satisfactorily. In the first place, it would not be satisfactory to the country that the more heinous class of offences should be tried by any less authority than a superior Judge. To provide that all such cases should be tried before one of the superior Judges, and at the same time to prevent persons charged with such offences from remaining a long time in prison before trial, would render it necessary that the Judges should go an additional circuit every year—that was, that there should be three assizes or gaol-deliveries in each year instead of two. The difficulty was how this could be done consistently with the due discharge of the many and onerous duties which the Judges had to perform, in their courts, in chambers, and in the Central Criminal Court in London, without adding to the number of the Judges; which, if possible, he was anxious to avoid, He, however, thought it not impossible that the arrears of the courts might be disposed of at the sittings after Hilary term, and that some of the Judges might be thus left free during the sittings after the Michaelmas term—that was in November—to hold a third assizes in those counties where the number of prisoners in the gaols might render this additional gaol-delivery between the two ordinary assizes necessary. At all events, he thought the experiment worth trying, and if the business could not be transacted with the present number of Judges, it might be desirable to increase the number; though it was desirable if possible to avoid doing that, as a multiplicity of Judges was calculated to lead to a want of uniformity in practice. He proposed by the present Bill that it should be lawful for the Crown to issue a commission of Oyer and Terminer in any county at any time, and that the prisoners of the adjacent counties should be brought there for trial. Thus, for instance, if the commission issued for Nottingham, the prisoners belonging to Derby might be tried there, and in the same way the prisoners belonging to Nottingham might be tried at Derby, if the commission were issued for that county. And he proposed that the commission should issue alternately, one year for the one county and the next for the other. With regard to the rest of England, he did not propose to interfere with the general circuit arrangement, as he conceived there might be much practical difficulty in transferring the criminal business of any one county to another, and unless it should be found necessary he did not propose to do so. At the beginning of November in each year a return would be made from each of the counties which would show where there were prisoners waiting for trial and where inconvenience would result from delaying the gaol-delivery to the ordinary assizes, and he proposed that for those counties a commission should issue. For the northern circuit he thought two Judges would be necessary to transact the business of this extra assize, but for each of the other circuits one Judge, he thought, would be sufficient. This would take eight for the November circuit, leaving in London the chief of each of the common law courts, and four puisne Judges for the transaction of business at chambers and for the criminal business of the Central Criminal Court of the metropolis. Such was the outline of the measure which he submitted to their Lordships for a second reading, the only specialty about which was the power that it conferred to the Crown to unite adjoining counties—all the rest might be done by the Crown without coming to Parliament. The general result would be that the average imprisonment of criminals before trial would be limited to two months, though, of course, there would always be occasional instances of greater delay. It had been suggested by his noble and learned Friend, that there ought to be not less than four gaol-deliveries in the year—that was, that the interval between each should not be greater than three months. No doubt that would be more convenient, and it would be still more so if they could provide that the interval should not exceed three weeks. But they must deal with the machinery they had, and the question was whether they would not, by the plan proposed, arrive at the maximum of convenience which that machinery was capable of affording. Then it should be remembered that the great bulk of the offences committed in the country were tried not at the quarter sessions, four of which sessions must necessarily be held in each year, and, beyond this, in many of the counties, he believed, adjourned sessions were held about equidistant between the two quarter sessions, which adjourned sessions he now proposed should not be left, as at present, to the opinion of the counties, but be made obligatory. This might possibly, in some cases, be considered onerous upon the county magistrates, but, if so, provision would be made for appointing a salaried judical officer to discharge, when necessary, the duties of chairman. The result of these arrangements would be that there would be eleven sessions and assizes every year for each county, which would bring on the trials, on the average, at intervals of very little more than a month.


said, he thanked his noble and learned Friend very heartily for introducing the present measure, which he could not look upon only as an instalment, but as an Important advance in the Amendment of the Criminal Law. From the Returns which he had obtained, he found that out of 28,000 persons committed, 6200 were acquitted or discharged for want of prosecutors. He had Returns, taken from eleven counties almost at random, from which it appeared that, at the last assizes, and the last Quarter Sessions, the average imprisonment suffered by each prisoner committed to the assizes, from the time of their commitment to the time of their trial, was seventy, and to the sessions thirty days. It must be borne in mind that these were the averages, the prisoners in many instances having suffered a much longer confinement. At the Middlesex Sessions and the Central Criminal Court, the average length of each prisoner's confinement was sixteen and seventeen days respectively. A great part, therefore, of these prisoners in the counties had suffered a longer period of imprisonment before they were brought to trial—for he did not mean to say that they were all innocent—than those who were found guilty, who, in most cases, were only sentenced to five or six weeks' imprisonment. It was certainly high time that the Legislature should interfere to correct this state of things, but he was quite ready to admit the difficulties that lay in the way of a perfectly satisfactory measure. If the difficulty were to be overcome by increasing the number of judges, let that be done, but he would say only in case of absolute necessity.


thought he might say, not only for himself, but also for his learned brethren on the bench, that they would do everything in their power to further this measure, for they felt it to be most desirable that as little time as possible should intervene between the committal and trial of prisoners, due time being given for preparing both the prosecution and the defence. At present, while the grand juries were assembled, and before they were discharged, whatever cases might be sent in for trial were brought before them, and sometimes it happened that the parties accused were convicted and sentenced to transportation, or even to death, within forty-eight hours of the time of their committal. He thought more time ought to be allowed between the committal and the trial, and that the practice in Scotland might be followed with advantage in this country. In Scotland, it was necessary that forty days should elapse between accusation and trial. He should be much gratified if these third assizes should prove beneficial, but their Lordships must not be too sanguine of success. The experiment had already been tried to some extent; a third assize had been held in the year, not throughout the kingdom, but over a considerable part of it; but the arrangement had caused great dissatisfaction, and petitions had been presented from various parts of the kingdom praying that the extra assize might be discontinued. He hoped the experiment to be made by this Bill would be more successful, but he thought his noble and learned Friend had exaggerated the evils to be remedied, and passed rather too lightly over the difficulties to be overcome. The noble and learned Lord had said that, under the present system, some 6000 innocent persons might be imprisoned for several months awaiting their trials; but it would probably turn out on inquiry that a considerable proportion of these 6000 accused persons had been previously convicted of crime. He remembered seeing an account of a case tried in Scotland, when, although the prisoner confessed the felony with which he was charged, the jury found him "Not Guilty," whereupon the Judge, addressing him, said, "Go home, Sir, and reform; your character is now so bad that the jury will not even believe you when you confess you are guilty." He (Lord Campbell) thought it not improbable that many of the persons to whom his noble and learned Friend had referred were of no better character. He regretted that the business of suitors must necessarily be to some extent neglected during the absence of the Judges at the third assizes. It had been suggested to send down on these extra circuits gentlemen learned in the law, who were not Judges of the superior courts; but, although no doubt lawyers of great ability and learning might be selected for the duty, he did not think such an arrangement would be satisfactory. He entirely approved the proposal that meetings of Quarter Sessions should in future be held eight times a-year, but he thought it ought to be left to the Lord Chancellor, and not to the Home Secretary, to determine whether, under any circumstances, the meetings of Quarter Sessions should be dispensed with. He considered that it was desirable to enlarge the power of bail. At present a coroner had no power to admit to bail, and it frequently happened that verdicts of manslaughter were returned by coroners' juries against persons for supposed negligence, and, in consequence of the inability of the coroner to take bail, such, persons were committed to prison until an application for bail could be made to the Judges of the superior Courts. He thought, also, that the bailing powers of magistrates should be extended. He entirely concurred in the propriety of reading the Bill a second time.


thanked the noble and learned Lord on the woolsack for having introduced the Bill, although he could not agree that 6000 persons were annually confined unjustly. It was well known that out of that number 5000 had nothing to complain of.


said, with respect to the provision authorising the appointment of paid chairmen of Quarter Sessions, that in his opinion the charge should not be levied on the county, but on the consolidated fund, the same as the County Court Judges.


owned that if the Quarter Sessions were to be held so often as eight times in the course of the year it would be necessary to appoint a professional chairman; but he was far from thinking that the criminal business would be better transacted by such a person than by the ordinary chairman. By the Bill as it stood, when a professional chairman was once appointed, the Crown was to continue to appoint, although a retired barrister or judge might have meanwhile come into the district and might be most competent to undertake the duties, which he would discharge without pay. Now, he thought it advisable there should be a provision to enable the magistrates to represent to the Crown that the necessity no longer existed for a professional chairman, and that there were country gentlemen competent to undertake that office.


said, that in East Sussex there were eight sessions held in the year, so that it was impossible that any person could be in gaol more than six weeks without trial.


said, that the power given in the Bill to the Home Secretary to dispense with a sitting of the Quarter Sessions would not be found in practice to be of any inconvenience. The power had only been given to that functionary because it had always been the custom in Acts of Parliament to vest such powers in him. At the same time he must say that no other officer could know what was at any time the state of the gaols; and it was only the condition of the gaols which could enable any functionary to dispense with the Quarter Sessions.

Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.

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