HL Deb 18 February 1892 vol 1 cc665-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, I have a difficulty in suggesting to your Lordships anything new to say upon the subject of this Bill; it has been so completely before your Lordships, and, so far as I know, the universal opinion has been in its favour. I do not think I remember any dissentient voice upon the general principle of the Bill, given the conditions of the law of evidence as it at present stands. As your Lordships are aware, in a certain number of offences the law at present is that a person may give evidence on his own behalf if he elects to do so; and I am bound to say that, since your Lordships passed this Bill last year, one or two cases have occurred which certainly give a very strong illustration of the mode in which the present law of evidence may be worked. There was one very striking case, in which I think an hon. Member of the other House was engaged as counsel, in which a man was charged with one of those offences about which he could be examined. He gave evidence, and, by reason of the evidence that he had given, he was acquitted before a jury. For some reason or another that I am unable to understand, which I suppose may or may not have been the act of the prosecutor, he was indicted for perjury given on the occasion upon which he was examined as a witness, and I need not tell your Lordships that under those circumstances (although the jury had acquitted him when they heard his story, and he was indicted afresh for perjury for saying the same thing) on that occasion of course his evidence was not receivable. Fortunately, as I think, he was again acquitted; but, had he been convicted, I really do not know what would have been the condition in which any Home Secretary would have been. That condition of things seems to me almost to speak for itself. The other case occurred during last year after the discussion in your Lordships' House. There was an old gentleman, I think 80 years of age, who had been tried and convicted, and had suffered punishment for an offence in respect of the sale of a vessel. The same question was raised by an action, and he was then, but he could not have been on the previous occasion, examined as a witness, and, by consent of counsel on both sides, and with the full opinion of the learned Judge, who tried the case, in his favour, it was admitted that he had actually proved his innocence, and there could have been no doubt that the former conviction, under which he had suffered imprisonment, was wrong, and that, had he been capable of giving the same evidence on the criminal trial, the result would have been different. These, my Lords, are two out of many cases; and I confess myself I am a little startled to find that when the opinion has been so all but universal, and so many times the Bill has passed your Lordships' House to enable all persons to have what most person's sense of justice must regard as the right to give evidence in their own cases, for some reason or other this Bill has been unable to pass the other House. I do hope, my Lords, at all events, that this Session an effort will be made that it should pass, and that that right should be given which the universal sense of justice assents to, I think, as being the right of every person who is now accused. The only argument, my Lords, that I have heard against the Bill is one founded, as it appears to me, upon the notion that no person ought to be examined as a witness who is charged with any criminal offence. Whether rightly or wrongly, that is not the view of the Legislature. All the arguments appear to me now to be absolutely inconsistent with the action of the Legislature, which in, I think, 20 or 30 classes of offences has now distinctly admitted persons to be examined. Under these circumstances, my Lords, I do not think I can add more to what has been said on the subject. I can well remember a very great Judge, Lord Campbell, on one occasion adopting an expedient which I thought at the time exhibited a zeal a little beyond the law. There were cross indictments between two persons for assault, neither of whom, of course, was admissible as a witness in the case in which he was himself indicted. Lord Campbell swore both juries at once; and the result was that both the accused then became capable of being examined as witnesses. And I remember well thinking—it was when I was very young at the Bar—that, if that was right which Lord Campbell said was to be done, it was rather an indirect expedient for doing that which the law now would permit to be done universally. My Lords, I have only one more observation that I wish to make. The substantial provisions of the Bill are the same as those which your Lordships have more than once passed through the House. There are the safeguards to which I have referred, of the consent of the husband and wife, respectively, being required as the necessary condition of either being examined against the other. And, my Lords, I have to-day received a very singular communication from a very able County Court Judge, who tells me that in, I think he says, four cases this singular condition of things has arisen—which might perhaps throw some doubt upon the propriety of the provision with reference to the consent of the husband and wife respectively. I only throw it out with reference to the passing of the Bill, and whether some provision might be made in Committee. It appears that an adulterous wife has procured a person to personate her husband and forge his signature, and the wife has been incapable of being prosecuted for forgery—the actual forger having escaped. The wife cannot be prosecuted, inasmuch as she certainly would not consent to the husband being examined to prove that the document in question, a promissory note, was a forgery; and the result is that she is perfectly independent of the law, and able to forge as many times as she can get the adulterer to aid her. Under those circumstances, my Lords, it may be a question whether there ought not to be some provision to meet such a case as that with regard to the consent being essential for the husband and wife, respectively, being examined. I think, with that exception, my Lords, I have nothing further to add, and I have now to ask your Lordships to read the Bill a second time.

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


My Lords, I need hardly add anything to what the noble and learned Lord has said in favour of this Bill, because I have already on many occasions expressed my view to your Lordships' House that this measure ought to be passed into law. I only rise for the purpose of expressing the hope that the Government will now press forward this Bill, so that it may pass into law. So far as I know, the Bill might have been on the Statute Book by this time if it had not been for the apprehension with regard to its provisions which exists in the minds of some of the Irish Members, who do not desire it to be extended to Ireland. Now, of course, if the Government have time to deal with the question so as to pass it into law, nothwithstanding opposition, well and good; but I would earnestly urge this: that, if that be found impossible, on account of difficulties of time, at all events a measure which is desired for England, and which everybody feels to be desirable for England, should not be delayed; because, if it passes into law here, and works, as I believe it will, satisfactorily, that will greatly diminish, and not in any way add to, any difficulty of hereafter extending it to Ireland.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a (according to order) and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Monday next.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before Five o'clock.