HL Deb 18 December 1920 vol 39 cc583-4

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill and, as I shall subsequently do if it receives a Second Reading, in asking you to pass it through its remaining stages to-day, I feel that some apology is due to the House. It is unusual that a Bill should be introduced in this House one evening and passed through all its stages on the following day, before your Lordships have had adequate opportunity of considering its provisions. Not only is it unusual but in normal circumstances it would be a course greatly to be deprecated, and it is one which I myself should never adopt were I not compelled by the necessities of a serious emergency.

The Bill deals with a curious and very technical difficulty. The Juries Act, 1825, prescribes with great minuteness how lists of jurors are to be made up and who are to be placed upon those lists. For many years it has been supposed that the main provisions of that Act did not apply to certain Assize towns which are counties in themselves, and that in those towns the matter was regulated by Section 50 of the Act, which in effect substitutes the burgess list for the jury list made out in accordance with the provisions of the other sections.

Owing to accidental circumstances the construction of the Statute has lately received minute consideration, in the course of which it became necessary to take the advice of the legal advisers of the Crown upon the construction of Section 50. The advice given was to the effect that the doctrine which I have already described was erroneous, and that in those towns as elsewhere the law requires that the jury lists should be made up in accordance with the general directions of the Act of 1825. The results are two-fold, and but for the fortunate fact that Parliament is now sitting they would be most alarming. In the first place, there does not exist any list of persons qualified to serve as jurors at assizes in the towns affected. Assizes will begin next month, and it is impossible that any such list should be constituted in time. In the second place some doubt is cast upon verdicts given by juries in the past, whether in civil or in criminal cases, and it is essential that those doubts should be allayed immediately.

I should like to make it clear to the House that the sole question at issue is purely technical. The Bill, in order to deal with the matter, proposes that the burgess list, which of course exists and is in the hands of the appropriate authority, should be marked so as to indicate those persons who would have been included upon the jury list had such a list been made up. The result would be, therefore, that exactly the same people will be eligible as jurors as would have been eligible had the law been obeyed. All that the Bill does is to make it possible that the service of those persons should be available.

The Bill further validates verdicts given by juries constituted under the mistaken belief which I have already described and any judgments or sentences imposed as a result of those verdicts. Your Lordships will understand the great urgency of the matter. As I have said, I am about to ask your Lordships to pass the Bill through all its stages to-day. I greatly regret that I am forced to do so, although the pressure of business upon the printer prevents us from even having a copy of the Bill in our hands. The Bill was drafted by myself in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice. Its form is purely technical, and in the unfortunate circumstances in which we are placed I am compelled therefore to ask your indulgence and to move now that it be read a second time.

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

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Then (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended) House in Committee: Bill reported without amendment.

Bill read 3a and passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at five minutes past one o'clock.