HL Deb 16 May 1889 vol 336 cc190-200

My Lords, this Bill deals with an apparently small matter, but it is one of some importance in relation to the trial of prisoners. Down to a comparatively recent period prisoners who were committed for trial in respect of offences which were triable at Quarter Sessions were not tried by Judges of Assize except under special circumstances, the Judge of Assize trying the Assize cases, and the Sessions cases being tried by Quarter Sessions. A clause was introduced under which it was made possible for the Judges to try or not to try those cases, and in the result they were not tried; for the consequence was that the Judge of Assize tried the Assize cases, and the Sessions cases were tried before Quarter Sessions. Owing to the change which was made the question arose as to whether the Judges were not bound to clear the gaols of prisoners whom I may call Assize prisoners, and in the result the Sessions cases have been tried as well as the Assize cases of late years at the Assizes. This has resulted in very considerable inconvenience and increase of expense. The average cost of trying a case at the Assizes is very much greater than the average cost would be of trying the same case at Sessions. One result has been that the increased cost of trying those cases at Assizes has had to be borne by the country, cases which could very well have been just as well tried at Sessions. This Bill proposes that, in future, unless a case is committed by the magistrates for trial at the Assizes, or unless the Judges consider it ought to be tried at the Assizes, it shall be tried by the Quarter Sessions, instead of being tried by the Judges of Assize. Sometimes a prisoner would be tried earlier by the Judges, but one must look at the matter as a whole, and a trial at Sessions assumes a more local character than a trial at the Assizes. This is often a matter of importance to a prisoner, sometimes as it enables him to call witnesses whom he would not be able to call if he could not afford the cost of taking them to the Assize town. That is undoubtedly a very great advantage to the prisoner. I cannot for a moment doubt that, looking at the matter as a whole, whether you look at the interests of the public in the matter or to the interest of the prisoner, the balance of advantage is in favour of the principle contained in the Bill. In such towns as Wigan and Bolton, for instance, which have their own Recorders and Quarter Sessions, prisoners would be tried before the Recorder and would be able to call their witnesses to character or otherwise on the spot, and not have to go to the expense of bringing them to the Assize town. Therefore, my Lords, I move that it be read a second time.


My Lords, in taking exception to the transfer of certain cases to Quarter Sessions, it is not so much that I object to the delay in the trial by Judges of those prisoners who are proposed to be tried at Quarter Sessions. I do not so much insist on the prolongation of the imprisonment which must necessarily take place. I agree with my noble and learned Friend that, on the whole, it is better for the prisoner that he should be tried at Quarter Sessions. But, My Lords, I wish to say that I do not like any measure which increases in any degree the liability of prisoners to be tried at Quarter Sessions. It is better that Sessions cases should be tried at Sessions; but, at the same time, I look with some jealousy upon a measure which would increase in any great degree the number of cases tried at Sessions instead of Assizes. It by no means follows that what appear to be insignificant cases may not involve difficult points of law; and all Sessions are not alike in being presided over by men who command confidence. A great many Quarter Sessions are not tribunals which anybody might desire with satisfaction to try prisoners who might equally as well be tried by the highest tribunals in the land. Still, it is rather on the score of the punishments imposed than on the difficulty of the cases which I feel it necessary to protest against too complete a relegation of cases to Quarter Sessions. I should be sorry to be obliged to lay down a principle on which sentences should be passed; but, making every allowance for differences of opinion, I affirm that, in many parts of England, sentences are passed which are enough to make one start back with amazement; and, therefore, it is necessary that rules of some kind should be laid down, not as to the character of the offence, but as to the amount of punishment which shall be ordered by such tribunals. It is a very complicated question, and one upon which differences of opinion may very fairly exist. For my own part, I should be very sorry to lay down principles, but I do say that the sentences which have been passed at some Sessions are so startling as to justify a doubt whether it should remain possible to increase the number of such sentences, or whether it is advisable to withdraw in any degree the suggestive guidance of the more equal and reasonable sentences passed by the Judges. It is rather in reference to the punishment inflicted for offences that I should not like to see any extension of the jurisdiction of Quarter Sessions. They try their cases with rapidity, and there is no reasonable objection on that ground; but I do say again, that the sentences passed at Quarter Sessions are such as, I am certain, if they were brought before your Lordships, would startle you very much. It is a useful thing that Quarter Sessions should occasionally have the opportunity of seeing what Judges do who are entrusted with the administration of justice. Perhaps the trial of Sessions cases at Assizes might be reckoned as depriving the higher Courts of the services of one Judge, by the amount of extra labour which would be imposed upon them, but that will be a less serious matter when the Special Commission ceases sitting.


My Lords, I must bear my testimony in favour of the Bill. I think the disadvantages and inconvenience of the present system have been somewhat undervalued by my noble and learned Friend. I have inquired as to the proportion of Quarter Sessions cases and Assize cases tried at recent Assizes. They are not perfect at present, but I will read some of them. Among the figures in the Return I have received are the following: East Riding of Yorkshire, prisoners tried at February Assizes, Sessions cases, 38; Assize cases, 48; Durham, Sessions cases, 8; Assize cases, 14; Newcastle, Sessions cases, 10; Assize cases, 10. I have a large number of cases, but those are specimens. The figures with regard to other places are much to the same effect. A very considerable number of cases are tried at Assizes which, in the ordinary course, would be tried by Quarter Sessions. Undoubtedly a great deal of inconvenience is caused by Judges being occupied in trying these Quarter Sessions cases and being kept away from duties more proper for them to discharge. At present, whether cases are tried at Quarter Sessions or at Assizes depends entirely on the date which happens to be fixed for the Assizes. It depends upon when the gaol delivery takes place, because, if the Sessions happen to come before the Assizes, they are tried there. That distinction exists at present by law. I think there are a great number of inconveniences at present, not the least of which is that, if they are tried at Assizes, they occupy the time of Her Majesty's Judges. There have been, more than once, complaints of Judges being compelled to go to different parts of the country simply because of their Assizes having been fixed earlier than the trials would have taken place at Sessions. There is no principle upon which Sessions cases would attach to the Assizes except by reason of the point of time. My Lords, I am also unable to concur with my noble and learned Friend in what he has said as to the inequality of sentences. I do not deny that a great many sentences strike one as some what distressing. The noble and learned Lord appears to consider that this present system is desirable as conducive to securing a greater uniformity of sentences, but I am bound to say that the same feeling arises in regard to sentences passed by Her Majesty's Judges. Even among Her Majesty's Judges there often appears to be great inequality in the sentences in cases apparently of the same character—and inequality not merely between the sentences of different Judges, but even between the sentences of the same Judge at different times. Sentences are passed disproportionate to the gravity of offences. But the nature of each case depends on a large number of different circumstances which make up the moral culpability of the Criminal Act, and different minds must be expected to somewhat differ on questions of this kind. So it is impossible to proceed upon any definite principle that shall be applicable to particular cases. I do not think that this point as to sentences affords any valid argument against the Bill. If a tribunal of appeal existed, greater uniformity of sentences might be induced, but it is impossible for minds of Judges not to differ as to the degree of moral culpability and the punishment to be inflicted for offences. My Lords, I think it only right to add that I thoroughly approve of the principle of this Bill, and I should have thought it right to myself to bring in a Bill of this character; but upon appealing to Her Majesty's Judges upon a subject with which they were so much more familiar than myself, I found that among the Judges themselves there existed great difference of opinion on this matter as to the trial of Quarter Sessions cases, and I did not, therefore, bring in any Bill myself dealing with it; but, now that this measure has passed the other House, I see no reason why I should place any obstacle in its way.


My Lords, I must express my strong objection to this Bill. It is said to be intended to relieve the Judges from trying a certain class of cases. But they have no right to be relieved. They have undertaken to administer the law, and they have no right to complain. These cases do not in general take up any appreciable portion of their time. I may say that I have had some experience of going circuit, and, except on the Northern Circuit, as is known to my noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, the trial of Sessions prisoners takes up very little time. The Judges, therefore, are not injured by having to try them, and if they were injured they ought not to complain. And they do not complain. I venture to say that if the opinions of the Judges were asked there would not be a majority of them who desire that this change should be made. That it is a great change cannot be denied. By the Constitution of this country, from the beginning of the time when the Judges went circuit, it has always been the rule that the Judges have been bound to deliver the gaol, and that every prisoner awaiting trial should be tried at the Assize. The only persons who can be benefited by this Bill are those leading members of the circuits who have to wait when there is only one Judge taking cases until they can get their civil business brought on, and I cannot help suspecting that this Bill which has been brought into the other House has been brought in for the benefit of those gentlemen and of nobody else. Now, with regard to the prisoners, this Bill would break the rule which has always existed, because it would keep prisoners longer in prison than, according to the present system, they are. You will be taking away the opportunity which prisoners who are in gaol have of being tried. It is the constitutional practice that the Judge of Assize shall deliver the gaol, and that every prisoner awaiting trial shall be tried at the Assize. But this Bill would deprive the prisoners of this right. If this Bill passes, then, if the prisoner is committed for trial immediately after one Quarter Sessions, he will be kept in prison and will have to wait until the next Quarter Sessions, though in the interval there might be an Assize held. The rule of delivering the gaols which exists at the present moment, therefore, will be broken. This Bill would also deprive the prisoner of the right of being tried before a Judge of the High Court. It is said that Judges ought not to waste their knowledge and skill in trying such cases. I absolutely and entirely repudiate such a principle. There is nothing derogatory to a Judge in having to try cases which, though of no intrinsic gravity, are of extreme importance to the prisoners, and as a matter of fact Judges do not complain of having to do so. It is of the greatest importance to a prisoner who is being tried, perhaps for the first time, however slight the evidence against him may be, to have all a Judge's skill and powers of mind to determine whether they are, or not, to be branded with a conviction. It is of especial importance in such cases where prisoners tried for the first time may have a stigma cast upon them. The only people I believe who would be benefited by the Bill are the members of the circuit, not the prisoners, and that I say is a thing which ought not to be.


My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble and learned Lord in his objections to the Bill nor in his argument of the great advantage to prisoners of being tried before Judges, some of whom on their appointment have never held a criminal brief and know much less of the Criminal Law than many Chairmen of Quarter Sessions and Recorders. Judges have plenty of other important work to do, and are not intended to devote their time to lighter work of this character which can be excellently done by others. Now, my Lords, with regard to small offences being tried at the Assizes. It is quite obvious that the Judges have work of a higher character to do, and that they are appointed for that purpose. Why, then, are cases taken away from Recorders and others who are perfectly competent to deal with them on the spot because a Judge happens to come to the Assize town at a particular time? Trial before the Judge in such cases is a mere accident; and this Bill would relieve the country of expense and the Judges from a great amount of business which is thrust unnecessarily upon them. According to my noble and learned Friend, wrong is done to the prisoners by depriving them of the opportunity of being tried before Judges. But they have not always that opportunity. There are always four Sessions in the year for trying prisoners, and generally more than that; I think in West Yorkshire there are eight. Recorders, at least, are well-qualified and regularly trained to the business; and Chairmen of Quarter Sessions have generally both knowledge and experience. Why should not they try cases which they are perfectly competent to try on the spot at much less expense, and do try when the Judges do not happen to hold Assizes before them? Witnesses under such a plan as now exists have to be transferred at great expense from the district where the offence is committed to the Assize town, from a prison and a tribunal on the spot competent to try them, and at less expense than they could be tried before a Judge. It is in no sense a question of principle, and it is not, I submit to your Lordships, for the sake of the prisoners, but for the sake of the public that the practice should be altered, and that the time of the Judges should not be occupied in trying little trumpery cases at Assizes when their presence is required in London or elsewhere. At present you are cutting blocks with razors. Many of the cases which have to be tried by the Judges would be as well tried by a couple of magistrates at Petty Sessions. They are, indeed, generally the same classes of cases which magistrates at Petty Sessions deal with themselves—they do not send them to a jury. I have not had the opportunity of looking at the terms of the Returns to which my noble Friend on the Woolsack referred; but I think there is one instance given where the Judge of Assize was occupied for five days in that way. I think our Judges might be much better employed than in trying cases which Chairman of Quarter Sessions and Recorders are constantly in the habit of trying with satisfaction.


My Lords, I agree with those who think that upon the merits of this Bill it ought to pass. But I also agree with what my noble Friend the Lord Chief Justice has said as to another matter which, though it seems to me not to be germane to this Bill, it is well should be called to the attention of the Legislature, and that is the question of doing something to reduce the severity of sentences. It is obvious that if anything can be done in that respect it should be done in reference not only to prisoners who, but for this Bill, would be tried at the Assizes, but generally with regard to all who come within the law. My Lords, I should be glad to see that matter well looked to. Certainly I can say that when I was in office I was very much struck with many instances of disproportionate severity at Quarter Sessions in the sentences passed. I think the whole subject requires attention, and, perhaps, not as to sentences passed at Quarter Sessions only; but this does not seem to me to be a proper occasion on which to deal with it.


My Lords, I only wish to add that I have no desire to advocate the Bill for the purpose of relieving the Judges of work. It does not matter much to them what work they are doing. They can only occupy a certain amount of time, and whether they are deciding simple cases or difficult cases is to them a matter of small concern. It is no relief to them to say that they should not try easy cases but only difficult ones which involve more trouble. I do not think that is a matter which is at all before your Lordships. In bringing this Bill before you I do so on two grounds—one is the ground of the saving of expense, the other is a ground distinctly referring to the prisoners and their interests. The principle I advocate in this Bill is that the more you can try these small cases on the spot the better it is for the man himself. I would not have advocated it otherwise. A prisoner very often wants to call witnesses to character, and it may often affect the sentence if he does call them with regard to the commission of an offence, and it ought to affect the sentence. Now, if a prisoner is tried at Quarter Sessions, he has his witnesses on the spot; but he has not always the means of bringing them to the Assize town, and as they cannot be called he suffers hardship in consequence. I think therefore on the whole, it is distinctly to the interest of the prisoner that he should be tried on the spot, and that the Bill should pass.


My Lords, there is only one matter to which I wish to refer, and that is the expression of the noble and learned Lord who has charge of the Bill, that what he looks to is the interests of prisoners in this matter; and he has argued that it would be in the interests of prisoners that they should be tried at the Quarter Sessions town.


No, I did not say that; I said I would not have advocated it if I did not believe that, on the whole, it would be to the advantage of the prisoners in these small cases if they could be tried on the spot.


The noble and learned Lord argued that it would be in the interests of prisoners that they should be tried at the Quarter Sessions town. The noble and learned Lord, I am afraid has never paid a visit to Sussex. The Quarter Sessions town of the Eastern Division of that county is Lewes, and cases some from all parts of the division to be tried there. In the Western Division of Sussex Quarter Sessions are held at Horsham and Chichester. If an offence is committed on the borders of Sussex and Surrey, the case would have to be tried at Chichester, and the noble Lord's argument about the facility with which a prisoner would be able to bring his witnesses to character to a Quarter Sessions town falls to the ground, certainly in that instance, because there is a considerable distance between the borders of Surrey and Sussex and Chichester. Then, with regard to the time a prisoner would have to remain in prison. A man might be committed for trial immediately after the Easter Sessions and if the magistrates could not commit him to the Assizes and he could not obtain bail, he would remain in prison from the month of March to the month of July. That would not be in the interest of the prisoner. I think, therefore, the argument of the noble and learned Lord is not sustainable.

Read 2a (according to order), and committed to the Standing Committee for Bills relating to Law, &c.