HL Deb 18 June 1931 vol 81 cc292-4

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The object of it is to do away with the necessity of passing sentence of death upon a woman who is pregnant. It was introduced in another place as a private member's Bill by Miss Picton-Turber-vill, who is member for The Wrekin Division, and the Government decided to take the Bill up as a Government Bill. They had already prepared a Bill of similar effect after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice. The result was that the Bill passed through all its stages in the House and, I think I may add, with acclamation. Under the existing law, a woman who stands convicted of an offence punishable with death is sentenced to death, but if, immediately after sentence, it is alleged in stay of execution that she is quick with child, the Court may act upon suspicion that she is so quick with child. That is the old procedure. The Court then orders the empanelling of a jury of 12 matrons and if that jury should find that she is quick with child the Court respites the sentence of death. That merely means that the sentence is postponed.

The sentence having been postponed, there is no reason in law why it should not be executed after the woman has delivered the child, but your Lordships are well aware that the practice has been for very many years for every Home Secretary to advise the exercise of the Royal Prerogative to commute the sentence of death to penal servitude for life. The result is that the Judge and all present have to go through the trying ordeal of formally sentencing the woman to death although everybody in Court knows that the sentence will never be carried out. If I may be allowed to say so from experience, the proceeding is a solemn farce and brings no credit on the administration of the law. If your Lordships desire a precedent—if indeed precedents were needed for taking this step—your Lordships will recollect that in the Children Act, 1908, and the Infanticide Act, 1922, provision was made by which the substitution of another sentence for the death penalty was enacted by Parliament. There was a recent case—and I think that it was that which led to the bringing in of this Bill—where a woman who was with child and had a small baby of eight or nine months, being absolutely destitute and starving, and the child starving too, put the child's head into a gas oven. The result was that the baby died. That drew attention to the fact that the sentence of death had to be passed upon the woman in such cases, although, as I say, everybody knew that it would not be carried out.

I should not be justified in detaining your Lordships for any length of time. I will merely say that Clause 1 provides that sentence of death is not to be passed upon a pregnant woman. It says: Where a woman convicted of an offence punishable with death is found in accordance with the provisions of this Act to be pregnant, the sentence to be passed on her shall be a sentence of penal servitude for life instead of sentence of death. Then the procedure is altered. Clause 2 does away with the empanelling of a special jury of twelve matrons to try whether or not the woman is with child. I have no doubt that in the past such a procedure had a purpose, but it is really unnecessary nowadays. It dates from a time when it was not usual for an experienced medical official always to be present in Court. As your Lordships are well aware, in modern times a doctor is always in Court. Clause 2 simply carries out certain consequential changes, and there is a proviso to the effect that— if any member of the trial jury, either before or after the conviction, dies or is discharged by the court as being through illness incapable of continuing to act or for any other cause, the inquiry as to whether or not the woman is pregnant shall proceed without him. Clause 4 gives a right of appeal by the woman to the Court of Criminal Appeal in case it should be found that she is not pregnant, and Clause 5, which I need not quote, makes consequential provision for the change of procedure, which I think everybody wants, that necessitates doing away with the jury of matrons. I think probably nobody would be more glad of that than the unfortunate ladies who from time to time are called upon to perform this function.

I should like to add a brief word from a personal point of view, if your Lordships will allow me to detain you for a moment more. For many years I was a Judge of the King's Bench Division, and I have often discussed this subject with my brother Judges. As I have said, the system of pronouncing a sentence of death in such circumstances has seemed to us a solemn farce, and I can assure your Lordships that it is a painful task either to perform or to listen to. It brings no credit to the law, and I am very glad that it has fallen to my lot to have the privilege of moving that this Bill be now read a second time.

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


My Lords, I rise to say only one word. This Bill was passed, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said, with the assent and approval of all Parties in another place, and I feel sure that it will meet with equal unanimity here. The pronouncement, of the sentence of death is a painful as well as a solemn proceeding for every member of the Court, including the Judge who has to pronounce it, and it is, in my judgment, very undesirable that the sentence should be pronounced in a case where it will certainly riot be carried out. The unfortunate woman in the dock is put to the pain of hearing that sentence pronounced, and the Judge is compelled to pronounce it. This Bill provides that the sentence of penal servitude, which invariably is the sentence which is going to be inflicted upon the person so convicted, should be pronounced at once. I hope your Lordships will approve of this Bill.


My Lords, I should not venture to detain the House, particularly at this late hour, if my name had not been associated with this Bill on the Order Paper. Under the impression that it was a Private Bill, I was asked to move the Second Reading, and I can only say that, having regard to the nature of the Bill, I very gladly consented to do so. I am still more glad to think that the task has fallen into the much abler hands of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at a quarter past seven o'clock.