HL Deb 07 April 1910 vol 5 cc602-7


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I need not trouble your Lordships with any speech in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. Its object is, as I explained in introducing it to your Lordships [†], to consolidate and simplify the law relating to perjury and kindred offences. I am very glad to know that the Lord Chief Justice is going to extend his assistance, not only in the passing of this Bill but with the other Bills which I hope will follow for the consolidation of the criminal law. His support will give great authority to the steps we are taking in this direction, and will give confidence, no doubt, in both Houses of Parliament.

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


My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has been good enough to refer to me, I hope your Lordships will allow me to make a few observations on this matter, which I conceive to be one of great importance. I wish, in the first place, to congratulate my noble and learned friend on his great industry in taking up this matter again, and I hope he will bring it to a successful issue. He told the House, when moving the First Reading of the Bill, that he and others had been giving much consideration to this matter; and though I have been working during the last few days under strict medical orders, I have been able to give some time to this Bill. The drafting I think extremely good. It is not a consolidation Bill in the strict sense of the term. It is more than an ordinary consolidation Bill and puts into plain and simple language a large number of Statutes. That is of great advantage to the Judges, for if Parliament will put its enactments into simple language a great deal of our labour will be saved.

But the criminal law does not depend on Statutes alone. It depends to a large extent on the decisions of eminent Judges which have been given in the past, and which are embodied in the text-books that we have to consult. Some of these matters are not absolutely free from discussion, and it is essential that in a consolidation Bill of this kind there should be some form of amendment. This is a Bill to deal with the law of perjury. It has long been a matter of discussion whether the question of the materiality of a corrupt statement should be for the Judge or the jury. All I can say is that, after a considerable amount of experience, I think the Bill has adopted a wise course in making the question of materiality one for the Judge. It is extremely difficult to explain to a jury what materiality is, and as it must be dealt with by a trained mind I think this is an important improvement in the law.

I do not propose to go through the various clauses in the Bill, as they will be discussed by the Joint Committee of both Houses to whom I hope the Bill will be subsequently referred. In the other House I had a great deal to do with endeavouring to pass Bills which my noble and learned friend below me (Lord Halsbury) sent down to the House of Commons. I did my best, not unfortunately with much success, to get the House of Commons to pay attention to those measures. I cannot help thinking that amendment and consolidation should not be combined in one Bill. That was brought to my notice by Mr. Gladstone, who was good enough, in his great kindness, to point out to me the difficulty in the House of Commons of amending and consolidating at the same time; and he strongly recommended me in connection with any proposed measure to prepare a short Bill of the amendments in the first instance and let it be discussed, and then bring in the consolidation Bill. The result is that you get the Government draftsmen framing the consolidation Bill when the amendments have been made. I do not say that by way of criticism of this Bill. I do hope that these labours will not be thrown away, and I am glad that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack is proposing to deal with this matter by referring the Bill to a Joint Committee of the two Houses. I hope that may to a certain extent lubricate the friction which might otherwise occur in another place, and thus tend to the passing of the Bill into law.

This Bill is an object-lesson as to what I would call the waste of time that takes place in our public life. I refer to the way in which work is done by Commissions and Committees and embodied in Blue-books and nothing more ever comes of it. Let us take this particular case. In 1894 a Perjury Consolidation Bill was brought in by Lord Herschell, who was one of the pioneers in one sense of the modern consolidation Acts. That Bill was referred to a Committee consisting of Lord Herschell, my predecessor Lord Russell, Lord Halsbury, and Lord Ashbourne. They worked at it for a considerable time, and produced a Bill which I am sure contained most valuable suggestions, many of which I daresay appear in this Bill. That Bill went down to the House of Commons in 1895. It may be that it did not become law then because of the Dissolution, but when my noble and learned friend below me attempted to get time for that Bill in subsequent sessions it was found to be hopeless. I am not saying this from any Party point of view, for my observations apply to both sides. But it is regrettable that when these attempts are made by distinguished lawyers to improve the law nothing further should happen, and I hope that this effort on the part of my noble and learned friend will be successful.

I only desire to say that as far as I am concerned, compatible with my other duties, and so far as my learned brothers are concerned, we shall be only too glad to render every assistance in our power. I do not make this observation in connection with this Bill alone. I have long desired to see the mass of Statutes on the criminal law put into some shape so that they can be understood generally instead of being a sort of puzzle which the Judges have to construe. Of all branches of the law it is most important that there should be simplicity in connection with the criminal law, whatever you may leave of doubt for the real property lawyer or for those who have not got the liberties of our fellow subjects to consider. I have detained your Lordships in order to express my hearty satisfaction at the step which my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack has taken, and I hope that the result of the reference of this Bill to a Joint Committee will be that his labours will not be thrown away, because I am quite certain that there is no more useful thing that can be done than to endeavour by a series of steps to reduce the criminal law of this country into some shape so that it can be understood generally by the unlearned.


My Lords, will you allow me to thank my noble and learned friend for his support of this Bill, and to say a very few words with regard to the subjects that he has raised? The Bill is intended not to alter the law, but to simplify it. I am not one of those who believe that there is any mystery at all about the law of this country. The only mystery is in the inexplicable confusion caused by Statute on Statute and decision on decision. The law itself is perfectly simple when it is explained by a man who understands it, or when it is put into a simple form in the shape of a Bill. This Bill is in the form which people can understand. I hope that this will be the first step in the consolidation of the criminal law as well as of criminal procedure. If we can get forward this Bill and the others which are to follow, we intend to proceed with the matter until we have a code, not only of the criminal law but also of the criminal procedure of this country, couched in such simple language as to be understood by the public at large. That is our purpose.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chief Justice has suggested that amendment and consolidation should not be combined in one Bill. I will tell him the procedure which we have adopted. In preceding years we have had Joint Committees of both Houses to which four or five Bills of a consolidating character have been referred. I had the honour of being selected by the Joint Committee as Chairman in each case. What happened was this. We examined the Bills very closely to see, that they were strictly in accordance with the law as it is. We had two schedules, which were recommended by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, one of which contained those cases where there might be a point of difference though it might not be a substantial one, and the other contained any amendments which the Committee thought fit to recommend, and which might be called of a substantial, though not controversial, character. Beyond that we did not go. Both Houses of Parliament had the certificate of the Committee that the Bill represented the law as it was, and in the case of any amendments proposed they were set out and the reasons for them given in the two schedules. There was on no single occasion any difference of opinion in the Committee either as regards the actual contents of the Bill or the amendments made, and without discussion and upon that explanation both Houses accepted in each case every amendment to the Bills. That is the method I propose to adopt with regard to this and the following Bills—in other words, to avoid all controversy, to simplify and clarify the law and nothing further. Whether we shall be equally successful in the future I cannot predict, but so far as I am concerned I have done my best in that direction.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Then it was moved to resolve, That it is desirable that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament (The Lord Chancellor); agreed to: Ordered, That a message be sent to the Commons to communicate this Resolution and to desire their concurrence.