§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD BRAMWELL
, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that the object of it was to make a person charged with a crime a competent witness; also to enable a husband or wife to give evidence when either was charged with a criminal offence; and also to enable any one of two or more persons charged in the same indictment to give evidence. He did not propose to compel these persons to give evidence, but simply to remove the disqualifications which prevented them doing so if they wished. Only 40 years ago no one who had the smallest interest in a case could give evidence in it, but this disqualification had been removed; husbands and wives had been made competent witnesses in civil cases; plaintiffs in breaches of promise might be examined, and last year the Explosives Act admitted as witnesses the persons who were charged with offences under it. The disqualifications he proposed to repeal were the last that were left. Our old Law of Evidence seemed to have been based on the principle that juries must be taken care of, and be told what evidence they were to receive, instead of hearing all and judging for 1301 themselves of its value. That seemed to him a bad principle. It was better to let juries hear evidence and judge of it than to shut it out. The proposed change would be beneficial to the innocent, and, as regarded the guilty, it would promote justice. He believed that wrong convictions were rare, but the possibility of their occurrence would be diminished if the accused was allowed to tell his own tale on oath, subject to cross-examination. If the accused did not offer his own evidence he would be exposed to the remark that he dared not do so, while if he had been examined it would not be competent for his counsel to use the now common argument that the mouth of the prisoner was closed, and that if it were not he would be able to rebut the evidence against him; ingenious speculations would fall to the ground, and the prisoner would be asked to account for his conduct. The changes were proposed, not for the benefit of the accused, but for the benefit of justice; and he had been in favour of them ever since he had to do with the administration of the Criminal Law. The correspondence in the newspapers had brought this matter within the range of practical politics, and had suggested to him the desirability of bringing forward the present Bill; but he wished to say that he had always believed the principle of the measure to be a right one, and that he did not adopt it in consequence of what had been said recently. He believed that the opinion he held was also held by the Judges generally. A Bill similar to this would be introduced in the other House: but their Lordships would not have the trouble of discussing the matter twice, because if that measure came to that House he would not proceed further with his own. If, on the other hand, their Lordships should pass his Bill and send it to the other House, he should be quite willing that both Bills should be dealt with there in the manner which might be deemed best. At all events, he had given their Lordships an opportunity of discussing the question once, and this was more than could be said of many important measures last Session. In conclusion, the noble and learned Lord moved that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Bramwell.)1302
§ EARL CAIRNS
said, it would very ill become him to offer any opposition to the Bill, for it proposed to do what was proposed to be done by the Government of which he was a Member, and it was included in the large measure for the codification of the Criminal Law which was brought into the other House of Parliament by that Government. That measure was about to be re-introduced into the House of Commons; and he hoped the Bill now under consideration might become law as part of that larger measure, instead of being an isolated Bill. He admitted, however, that they might have to wait a long time for that larger measure, and, perhaps, it was better to deal with this pressing subject in the way now proposed. Another reason he had for supporting the Bill was that the Explosives Act, and some other recent Statutes, enabled persons charged under their provisions to be examined as witnesses. He was informed that in the trial which took place under the Explosives Act this provision "was brought into force, and that it acted extremely well. If it were wrong for a counsel to state to the jury the prisoner's version of what had occurred a great hardship was inflicted on the accused; but if a counsel were allowed to give the prisoner's version, it was still more absurd that the prisoner himself should be prevented from stating it on oath to the jury.
§ VISCOUNT CRANBROOK
wished to point out that the Bill made a prisoner competent as a witness, not only on his trial before a jury, but in all processes preceding his trial. He would, therefore, suggest the desirability of abolishing the declaration which at present a magistrate was by statute bound to make warning the accused of the consequences of making a statement. They did not want him to make a statement upon oath; but if he wished to make it on oath as a witness they ought to repeal the Statute.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, he rose to express, on the part of the Government, entire concurrence in the object which his noble and learned Friend (Lord Bramwell) had in view. The Bill about to be introduced in the House of Commons by the Attorney General was not only the same in substance with that now under consideration, but he believed it would be nearly, if not quite, 1303 the same in form. Still, he had no objection on that account to the course taken by his noble and learned Friend in bringing the matter before their Lordships, for in many possible contingencies the present Bill might further the object which all who agreed in its principle had in view. Even if only a few cases of injustice could be shown to arise, that would be a sufficient reason for altering the law; but in point of fact he believed that the number of cases in which there was at least some appearance of injustice due to the present state of the law was constantly on the increase. Nothing could be more difficult to justify than the principle that when a man was charged with a criminal act, alleged to have been committed in the presence of a single witness, the mouth of the accuser should be opened while the mouth of the accused was closed; and that when—as had happened in several cases—the witness was afterwards indicted for perjury, this process should be reversed. He was sanguine as to the success of this measure, because a similar one, introduced in the House of Commons in 1878 by his hon. Friend MR. Evelyn Ashley, passed the second reading by a considerable majority.
§ LORD FITZGERALD
said, in his opinion the Bill should be extended to include the examination of prisoners before magistrates. The principle of the measure was to be found in the Explosives Act, and it was one that had been called for for 20 years past. He had had a long experience in the administration of the Criminal Law, and had seen cruel cases resulting from shutting the mouths of prisoners. He should certainly support the Bill.
§ LORD BRABOURNE
said, he might point out that where a prisoner was undefended, it was the duty of the presiding Judge or magistrate to call upon the prisoner at the proper time to make his defence, and therefore every prisoner had the opportunity of stating his version of his case. As a matter of fact, a prisoner had every opportunity of stating his case, which he usually did to an attorney, who employed counsel at his discretion. If he was allowed to appear as a witness, an ignorant rustic, though he might be innocent, would suffer by the cross-examination of a clever counsel; and if he refused to be a witness, a presumption would be at once raised 1304 against him in the minds of the jury. He thought, too, that counsel should not be permitted to state to the jury what a prisoner had stated to them, as it was far better that any such statement should be made by the prisoner himself; and no Judge that ever tried could prevent a counsel from meeting the prisoner's statement in an hypothetical way, or from introducing it in such a manner as he thought would best serve the interests of his client. He did not, however, wish to oppose the Bill.
§ Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.