HL Deb 28 June 1860 vol 159 cc1084-6

said, he rose to present a Bill to their Lordships for the further amendment of the Law of Evidence in Criminal Cases, and to request them to read it a first time. Last year, and the year before also, he presented a Bill to their Lordships in reference to evidence in criminal cases, which, however, he was unable to carry in consequence of the serious objections made to it by his noble Friends the Lord Chancellor, Lord Cranworth, and Lord Chelmsford; but he yielded rather to their reluctance than to their reasons. The object of that Bill was to enable defendants in criminal cases to enjoy the same benefit which defendants in civil cases now enjoyed, of being examined, only with this difference—that in criminal cases the examination was to be voluntary, and not compulsory; any defendant might volunteer to be examined on oath, but on so doing he subjected himself to cross-examination and to a prosecution for perjury if he made a false statement. The Bill of last year applied to all kinds of criminal cases, and this circumstance gave rise to serious objections by his noble and learned Friends. He retained his own opinion; but, in the hope that he should free himself from those objections, he proposed by this Bill to confine the right of defendants to be examined as witnesses in their own behalf to cases of misdemeanour, in which the prosecutor was himself examined. It was said with regard to the former Bill, that a person charged with felony would be likely to take the chance of escaping by perjury, for which the punishment was much lighter; but that argument did not apply to this Bill, as there was scarcely any misdemeanour in which the punishment was materially graver than the punishment for perjury. He would not enter further into explanations, as the whole matter would be discussed on the second reading, beyond reminding their Lordships of a remarkable case, in which a gentleman was recently convicted when his mouth was closed, and upon whose evidence, subsequently, the principal witness against him, was convicted of perjury. The gentleman who was convicted had been pardoned, and the Royal clemency had been extended to the very young person who was convicted on the second trial. This remarkable case showed the necessity for such an alteration of the law as he recommended.


said, he would certainly have met the re-introduction of the former Bill of his noble and learned Friend with the most strenuous opposition, as its effect would have been entirely to alter the administration of justice in this country. The modified proposal which was now made deserved great consideration, but would require to be carefully limited. The measure could not be extended to all misdemeanours, because in some cases the distinction between misdemeanour and felony was purely technical. He was inclined to think, however, that, as an exception to the general rule, permission to give evidence might be extended to the defendant in such cases as assault and libel, where the prosecutor appeared as one of the leading witnesses against him.


said, that the way in which French criminal jurisprudence was conducted was sufficient to raise the strong- est objection to the cross-examination of accused parties. That system was chiefly objectionable from being conducted by the Judge. Anything more preposterous, cruel, or inhuman, could not be conceived. But it was not surprising that it should prevail in a country where the connection of a despot and a mob was considered the perfection of government, and what was more, of free government. It would be impossible for such a principle ever to be admitted here, unless this country should come to the conclusion that the power of a single individual and a mob was the most eligible form of government.

Bill read 1a.

House adjourned at a Quarter past Seven o'Clock, till To-morrow, Half-past Ten o'Clock.