HL Deb 19 May 1871 vol 206 cc1031-4

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that eight or ten Bills had been brought in by successive Attorney Generals of successive Governments to deal with this subject, but he feared that the evil they were intended to diminish had increased. In giving evidence before the Westmeath Committee the other day one of the oldest and most experienced officials in Ireland stated that the petty jury panels were in a dreadful state, and it was absurd to expect that justice could be effectually administered until they were amended. It had therefore evidently become absolutely necessary that some effort should be made to rectify the prevailing evil, and this Bill aimed at both amendment and consolidation. The consolidation was intended to arrange all the statutes bearing on the Irish jury system in a clear and intelligible form; and the Amendments would refer to four matters—namely, qualification of jurors, revision of the jury lists, rotation of jurors, and abridgment of the unlimited and uncontrolled power of the sub-sheriffs in selecting jurors. Hitherto the jury lists had been made up of freeholders and leaseholders in counties, and of certain freemen and householders in towns; but of late years numerous social and economic changes had revolutionized the different classes of Ireland, and the old qualification of freeholders and leaseholders had become so obsolete that there were none who could now constitute a jury in Ireland; while in some counties 45 and even 55 and 66 per cent of persons as well qualified in regard to property to serve as those who actually did serve, were excluded from the lists by their not possessing the legal qualification. The result had been that in some instances the administration of justice had been brought to a dead-lock, and wherever the power of challenge had been rigorously exercised persons had been able to prevent any trial taking place. He proposed to put an end to existing qualifications and to substitute a simple and uniform qualification, founded upon the rating to the Poor Law, which had answered admirably in relation to the elective franchises. The rating would be £30 for petty jurors, and £100 for special jurors, which would provide a substantial qualification in the most satisfactory manner. It might be a question in Committee, however, whether these amounts should be exactly maintained. At present the jury lists were arranged by barony constables, who did the work so carelessly that in 1869 there were 2,921 persons, or one-tenth of the whole number, on the lists who possessed no legal qualification. These lists were revised by the magistrates. The revision took place in October, when the magisterial bench was expected to assemble, but there was a scandalous neglect of duty in that respect, and revision was a mockery. He proposed to transfer the preparation of the lists to the clerks of the Poor Law Unions, who were intelligent and responsible men, and who performed similar duties with reference to the elective franchise in the most satisfactory manner; and to commit the revision of the lists to the Revising Barristers, to be done at the same time that the Parliamentary lists were revised. As to rotation, he should state that hitherto frequently the same persons had been summoned time after time, so that certain classes of individuals had suffered great oppression. His suggestion, as embodied in the Bill, was that there should be a regular rotation, from year to year, and that the same persons should not be called upon to serve again until the whole list had been exhausted. This would effect an alteration which had been suggested many years ago by the Irish Parliament and recently by the Imperial Parliament. The only other point to which he wished to call attention had reference to the action of sub-sheriffs, in retaining or omitting the names of jurors, as their prejudice dictated, and this power they had exercised not always in the wisest or fairest way. Both the Crown and the people had reason to complain of this irresponsible power, which was sometimes very grievously exercised. In 1869, on one of those unfortunate party trials which occasionally occurred in Ireland, there was a challenge to the array, which succeeded on the ground that the first 70 names on the panel were Protestants, and that while the panel consisted of 250 names 202 were Protestants, and only 48 Roman Catholics. He might state a case which had occurred within his own experience. Some 10 years ago a conspiracy extended into two conterminous counties; in the one county the jury panel was found to be of so hostile a character that all the prisoners pleaded guilty; but when the Attorney General who prosecuted went to the next county the panel was so obviously favourable that he was obliged to leave re infecta, and not try the prisoners at all. Such a state of things was monstrous and inconsistent with decent administration of justice. He believed it might be safely put an end to if they had a substantial qualification and a fair revision. What the Bill proposed was, instead of allowing the sub-sheriff to take the panel and select from it as he chose, putting people where he pleased, and omitting those whom he did not wish to see on the panel, that the panel as settled by the Revision Court should be alphabetically drawn, and that there should be a general alphabetical jurors' book, from which the list should be formed by taking the names from the letter A, then from B, and so on to the end of the book, and afterwards going back again until the list was completed. That was the proposition made in 1854 by the present Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and he believed it to be a reasonable and satisfactory mode of accomplishing the object, and which, if adopted, would go a long way to satisfy the Irish people that there was a disposition on the part of the Government to do them substantial justice. If the objects of the Bill were gained he was persuaded that the Government would thereby inspire the people of Ireland with a confidence in the administration of justice in that country.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord O'Hagan.)


said, he would not oppose the second reading of the Bill; but, in assenting to the second reading, he guarded himself against doing more than considering it expedient to amend and consolidate the laws relating to juries in Ireland. The Bill would be circulated in Ireland, and they would be enabled, after re-assembling, to ascertain from the feeling which existed in that country, how far the various provisions of the Bill would be likely to prove satisfactory.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.