HL Deb 13 May 1895 vol 33 cc1024-7

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, that under the Municipal Elections (Corrupt Practices) Act an inquiry might be held into a municipal election by a Barrister Commissioner appointed by the election Judges. If the commissioner reported that any person had been guilty of a corrupt practice, then the consequence was that the person became incapable for seven years to be registered as an elector, or to vote in any election, or to hold a judicial office; and if he filled such an office it was vacated. That decision of the barrister, appointed as a Municipal Election Commissioner, was absolutely without appeal. In order to show the necessity and expediency of the law being amended, he would call their Lordships' attention to a case which had drawn his attention to the present unsatisfactory state of the law. There was an election petition in Wigan. In the course of the evidence in support of the petition, a gentleman who had filled many public offices had been guilty of treating. All the witnesses were out of court at the hearing of the petition. After the hearing of the petition was over, this gentleman was called upon by the Commissioner to say whether he should not be reported as having been guilty of treating on a particular occasion. The gentleman asked that he might be allowed the assistance of Counsel, but the Commissioner was not able to permit that. The decision arose out of a rather curious circumstance. A controversy arose between the solicitors and the Bar as to whether a barrister had exclusive audience, or whether solicitors could also appear; and the question was raised before the courts. It was argued both by the Bar and by the solicitors, and the court decided that neither the Bar nor the solicitors was entitled to be heard; the party interested could only be heard by himself. This was the decision followed by the Commissioner. The gentleman who was charged had heard none of the witnesses; he learned from the newspapers the nature of the evidence that was given. He had no legal assistance; he called his own witnesses, but beyond that he was practically unable to do anything. The Commissioner reported him as having on this occasion been guilty of a corrupt practice. The gentleman was disqualified for seven years from fulfilling any public office. At the time the gentleman was a Justice of the Peace of the borough of Wigan, a Justice of the Peace of the county of Lancaster, a member of the Town Council of Wigan, and a member of the County Council of Lancaster. All those offices were vacated, and the gentleman was incapable for seven years to hold any judicial or public office. Proceedings were taken against him by prosecution for the offence, and the case was tried at the Assizes by Judge and jury. The jury without hesitation found the gentleman not guilty, and the Judge expressed his concurrence with the verdict. The gentleman was acquitted, but there was no means of reversing the effect of the finding of the Election Commissioner. All the statutory disqualifications continued. He made an appeal for pardon, and for some time that was under consideration. The Legislature had provided, in the case of a Parliamentary election, that those penal consequences could not follow in any case, unless the matter had been heard by two Judges, and they were agreed that the offence had been committed. This was a great protection, and a very important safeguard. If the three Commissioners appointed to inquire into corrupt practices, schedule a person as having been guilty of corrupt practices, the Legislature gave him the right of appeal to the assizes, and the matter was open to review. But probably through some oversight in transferring to the Municipal Acts the provisions of the Parliamentary Act without foreseeing all the consequences, this tremendous power was given to a barrister, and there was no mode of re-trying the case. He therefore proposed by this Bill to give the same right of appeal to the Judges of Assize, as existed in the Parliamentary petition, and any person who had been tried and acquitted of corrupt practice, in respect of which disability had ensued, the disability should cease, and the man should on that account be free from the incapacities which the Legislature had imposed as the consequences of the report of the Commissioner. It was open to consideration, in Committee, whether it might not be advisable to make another change in the Bill. He thought it might be feasible in Committee to settle the question whether a person called forward and charged with offences carrying such very serious consequences should be allowed the assistance of counsel to cross-examine the witness and to put his case before the tribunal. It seemed to him an anomaly that a person so charged should not be allowed to have the assistance of counsel in endeavouring to clear himself from so serious a charge. He thought that this might well be considered in Committee. His present purpose, however, was to give the appeal to which he had alluded.


had nothing to say against the second reading of the Bill, but he was somewhat doubtful whether the amendment suggested by the Lord Chancellor to be made in Committee was within the ambit or title of the Bill, though he hoped that it was. He could not help thinking that some matters incidental to the trial of a Parliamentary Election were open to one or two of the objections raised by the Lord Chancellor. He remembered what happened with reference to a gentlemen against whom the Commissioners made a Report with the consequences mentioned, the fact being that the Commissioners were under a very strong impression, and would not consequently call the gentlemen himself to state the facts, because he would not then have been liable to prosecution. Nevertheless, by their Report they disqualified him, though they had not called him as a witness. He had taken a different view of that case and its result, and, shortly afterwards, the principal witness upon whom the Commissioners had relied was indicted for perjury and convicted in connection with the same election. He quite thought that some further provision ought to be made for the protection of an accused person in the direction of what the Lord Chancellor had suggested, but he was afraid this would not be within the ambit of the present Bill. As he had said before, he should be very glad if it were.

Bill read 2°