§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. LOCKE
, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said that its object was to allow persons who might have a scruple as to taking an Oath, with the leave of the Judge, to make an Affirmation instead. That was the whole of the Bill; and it was confined to criminal cases, because the law in civil cases was precisely the same as he wished to make it in criminal. By the Common Law Procedure Act, 17 &c 18 Vict., if any person was unwilling from alleged conscientious motives to take an oath, the Judge, if satisfied of the sincerity of such declaration, might permit him to make an affirmation. That alteration of the law was made after the greatest consideration on the part of the framers of the Bill, and with the sanction of the law officers of the Crown, and of all the Judges of the land. The form of affirmation was transferred from the Common Law Procedure Act to the present Bill, and was as follows:—I, A. B., do solemnly, sincerely, and truly affirm and declare that the taking of any oath is, according to my religious belief, unlawful; and I do solemnly, sincerely, and truly affirm and declare, &c.By the present state of the law a Quaker, Moravian, or Separatist, was allowed to make an affirmation, both in civil and criminal cases; but as there were many persons not belonging to those denominations, who, on religious grounds, entertained objections to the taking of oaths, he thought it was only right that the same relief should be extended to them. The Bill contained three clauses. The first he had explained, the second made the punishment for making a false affirmation the same as for taking a false oath, and the third simply stated when the Bill was to come into operation. The Bill was entirely different in its object and character from that which had been introduced in the course of the Session by the hon. 602 Member for Tavistock, and he hoped the House would consent to read it a second time.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be BOW read a second time."
§ MR. SOTHERON ESTCOURT
said, as the hon. and learned Member for Wexford (Mr. McMahon), who had given notice of an Amendment to reject the Bill, and as the law advisers of the Crown and the Home Secretary were not present, he thought they were hardly in a condition to discuss the Bill at present, and he, therefore, moved the adjournment of the debate.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."
§ MR. CONINGHAM
said, he understood that the law officers of the Crown had been consulted and were favourable to the Bill, and he, therefore, regretted the right hon. Gentleman should oppose it.
§ MR. LOCKE
said, that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Sotheron Estcourt) had read the Bill and had no objection to it himself, but was only waiting to see if any one else had. He had, in point of fact, already introduced this Bill in the early part of the Session, and read it a second time, with the title of the "Common Law Procedure Act (1854) Extension." The Solicitor General had approved of the principle of that Bill but had objected to the form in which it was drawn, namely, by way of recital instead of direct enactment. He (Mr. Locke) had redrawn the Bill to meet that objection and submitted it to the Solicitor General for his approval before it was printed. He thought it very hard that he should be compelled to postpone the Bill after all the trouble he had been at for the last six weeks in getting a day to bring it forward.
SIR GEORGE LEWIS
said, the object of this Bill was to assimilate the law with regard to the affirmation of witnesses in criminal proceedings with that now existing with regard to civil proceedings. He believed that the Quakers and Moravians had the benefit of a special enactment, allowing them to make an affirmation instead of an oath; but persons who did not come under those denominations, though they might have a conscientious objection to taking an oath, were obliged to take it, or their evidence was rejected. He did not think that any great danger was likely to arise from extending the law to criminal proceedings, as regarded that very limited class of persons. He had had 603 some communication with the Solicitor General, and the remark he made was that the law had hitherto shown great jealousy as to substituting affirmations for oaths in criminal cases; but he did not understand him to say that he entertained any decided objection to this Bill, though he expressed some doubts as to its policy. Under these circumstances perhaps the right hon. Gentleman might be inclined to withdraw his Amendment, and allow the Bill to be read a second time, on the understanding that the Solicitor General would be present when the Order was taken that the House go into Committee on the Bill.
§ MR. SPOONER
said, his right hon. Friend (Mr. Estcourt) did not object to the Bill, nor did he; but he objected to the Bill being taken in the absence of the law advisers of the Crown and of the Home Secretary, who at that time was not in the House.
§ MR. HENNESSY
said, he intended to divide the House against the second reading of the Bill. The effect of this Bill and that of the hon. Member for Tavistock was the same, and both would take from the proceedings in our Courts the sanction of religion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Original Question again proposed.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."
SIR GEORGE LEWIS
said, the Bill merely extended to criminal cases the principle already followed in civil actions. It could not, therefore, be said to ignore the religious sanction of an oath.
§ MR. ROEBUCK
could not see why, if exceptions were made in favour of the conscientious scruples of persons wearing peculiar garments, such as the Quakers, others who did not belong to distinctive denominations, but equally objected to take an oath, should not be as unfettered in their action.
§ MR. LONGFIELD
said, there was a great difference between relaxing a rule in favour of a body of persons belonging to well-known and defined sects, one of whose fixed principles it was not to take an oath, and is favour of any person whatever who 604 might choose to say, perhaps for the first time, that he had an objection to swear to the truth of his statements. It appeared to him perfectly reasonable to establish a distinction in that case between criminal and civil proceedings, for the life of a human being was a matter of far more importance than any mere question of property. The criminal law of the country was in general well administered, but there were not as many opportunities of correcting mistakes as in civil proceedings, and it was consequently most desirable that any safeguard at present existing should not be removed.
§ Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 65; Noes 31: Majority 34.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read 2°, and committed for Wednesday next.