Page images
PDF
EPUB

have been improved; but the court of the English cadi yet exists in all its detestable absurdity.

The quarter-sessions tribunal in 1860 is one of the disgraces of the country. The mode of exercising its immense power, which thirty years ago made Lord Brougham shudder, is still the same; but that jurisdiction has since been extended to a great number of other matters. The quarter sessions, however, remains irresponsible for its acts, of whatever nature they may be. The speech that has been quoted thus marks the difference of responsibility between the quarter sessions and one of the superior courts :-—“In the Queen's Bench, the name of the judge who pronounces the judgment is known, and the venerable magistrate stands before the country in his own proper person, always placed at the bar of public opinion. In the other case it is merely quarter sessions, which is nobody's name. The individual magistrates composing it are not thought of: their names are not even published. It is a fluctuating body. If the same individuals always sat in the court, there might be some approach to responsibility. At present there is none; and where there is no responsibility injustice will occasionally be committed as long as men are men.”

Though in very many instances gentlemen are made chairmen of quarter sessions because of their peculiar fitness, both by intellectual qualification and social standing, this is not always the case : the office has been conferred as a compliment on some sprigs of nobility, whose high birth was their only visible qualification. Sometimes the choice seems whimsical. Not very long ago the magistracy of a county elected a PARSON for chairman, and, with a similar display of practical wisdom, refused to make a Queen's counsel the deputy chairman! Perhaps they ought, as a matter of just consistency, to have made the Queen's counsel their county chaplain; for there can be no valid reason why parsons alone should be permitted to poach on the preserves of others, and no other profession be allowed to enter upon theirs, especially as it is supported at a cost of five millions a-year to the public. If there are parson

judges, reverend commissioners, and clerical chairmen, why should there not be medical canons, legal deans, and military bishops ? Unless parsons desire to have their nice preserves thrown open, they had better refrain from poaching! The chairman of quarter sessions ought to be an experienced lawyer, thoroughly unbiassed by local prejudices or partialities, and not a tertium quid, who may be strongly imbued with professional bigotry and narrow-minded prepossessions. Clearly, if he were good for any thing, he would attend to his own profession, and eschew matters so utterly inimical to it. But, however competent and unbiassed the chairman may be, he forms only one member of the sessions court: he has colleagues whose incompetency may sadly detract from and mar his official fitness. There is another evil attending the trial of prisoners at quarter sessions. Very generally the committing magistrate attends ; he very often brings to the bench a personal knowledge of the prisoner's antecedents. If the accused has been a poacher, or has in any manner made himself obnoxious to the squire or parson of the parish, and is convicted, the sentence is not strictly a punishment for the offence then tried, but a making it quits for other matters-a paying off of old scores ; hence the severe punishments at quarter sessions for apparently trifling offences. On the other hand, if the accused is the pet of the parson or Justice, the fact operates the other way, and a bad offence brings only a light punishment; in either case, the convicted does not get the penalty due to the offence which he is proved to have committed. Unquestionably, for the above

reasons,

and
many

others which might easily be adduced, there ought to be a duly qualified chairman of quarter sessions, paid for his services, and entirely free from party bias, and local or personal prejudices. It is often alleged that the magistracy ought not to be responsible because it is not paid. The noble reformer from whose speech so much has been taken, thus answers the quibble, about administering the law for nothing—“He ought not to forget that, as gold itself may be bought too dear, so may economy: money may be saved at too high a price. But is it often all a gratuitous

service? Although they have no money they may have money's worth. Cheap justice," said the illustrious speaker," is a very good thing; but costly justice is much better than cheap injustice.” Whether the office of magistrate be unremunerative or not, it clearly enables its possessor to put nice pecuniary things into the hands of clerks and other dependants. We often see a person fined sixpence for some very petty offence, and the Costs, which mean the clerk’s perquisites, ten shillings. It may be questionable whether a large number of convictions for very trifling matters, do not take place quite as often for the sake of remunerating the clerk as for the benefit of the community; at any rate, a penalty of sixpence or a shilling, and expenses amounting to eight or ten shillings, are very disproportionate to each other. If the clerk finds the law, he does not supply the bench for nothing

With respect to magistrates as the irresponsible imposers of county rates, and the unanswerable disposers of the impost, the power invested in them is utterly anomalous and indefensible. This topic was ably discussed some time ago in a pamphlet headed, “County Reform.—The Magistracy of England, its Abuses, and their Remedy in popular Election; by J. H. Palmer, Esq., Barrister at Law;" and also in a larger work, “On the Magistracy of England, and the Origin of Expenditure of County Rates; by Edward Mullins, Solicitor.”

The new police has more than doubled the county expenditure; still this worst of tyranny-taxation without representation —is permitted to continue in this land of vaunted liberty!

However, the present article is only intended to discuss the magisterial system in reference to the administration of the law; and the main point meant to be insisted on has been, that every man invested with the power of acting as judge on the liberty and property of his fellow countrymen, ought, as a preliminary step, to give some proof that he knows the law which he has to administer. In the present state of things no such commonsense rule exists. The candidate for the bench is not only placed on it without the least inquiry as to his knowledge of the

law; but, in numerous cases, that knowledge is deemed an insuperable objection to its possessor's being made a Justice-ofpeace. Attorneys and barristers are carefully excluded, perhaps lest their fitness for their duties should damage the chance-work of the Dogberry decisions, or tend to diminish the all-important clerk's influence.

Almost every part of the law which formed the subject of comment and censure in the speech from which so much has been cited, has since been amended or abolished--a large number of them by the indefatigable Lord Brougham himself, to whom the nation is deeply indebted for legislative reforms of all descriptions. The noble lord's brilliant career is gemmed with legal measures of the highest importance to the community, which he has devised and carried into law, almost single-handed. His labours as a law reformer have been as immense as they have been publicly beneficial. Looking at them in all their comprehensive vastness, it seems almost a species of cruelty, which ought to make one amenable to the penalties of Martin's Act, even to wish his lordship still to do more. Nevertheless, there is yet remaining an enormous social evil which his lord ship alone can eradicate. The magnitude of the evil is quite appalling. Almost every legislator, noble and not noble, is a Justice-of-peace, and prepared to battle for the system. Hundreds of consequential men may truly attribute their social importance to their being placed on the bench. The large purse of these created magnates will desperately contend on behalf of the system that has made them what they are. To overcome these obstacles, and to vanquish such force, would be a performance worthy of Lord Brougham's prowess.

Strange as it may appear to any one who duly considers the present state of the magistracy, scarcely a session passes without the legislature's conferring additional powers on Justices-ofpeace. For example, the Juvenile Offenders' Act handed over to Justices at petty sessions a very large number of the cases hitherto tried at quarter sessions. The general scope of that measure was praiseworthy; for clearly small offences, like small

;

debts, ought to be settled as nearly on the spot as may be, and with the least possible expense and trouble to the parties and the public. Up to the time of passing this act, youthful and petty offenders had to be sent to the county prison, sometimes forty or fifty miles ; and at the sessions, prosecutors, witnesses, constables, &c., had to be taken that distance, and paid by the public, all for an offence, perhaps almost venial, at all events one that did not always deserve the defilement of the jail, much less the enduring stigma which imprisonment in a jail always leaves. Whether the Juvenile Offenders' Bill was intended to remedy this state of things, or merely to add more power to irresponsible Justices, is not quite clear. At any rate, the measure might have been made to act beneficially to the country, if care had been taken to have competent judges at petty sessions. As it is, nothing can be more monstrous than to vest such powers in the hands of a couple of country Justices—the usual tribunal at petty sessions-very often the parson and the squire of the parish, unrestrained by the bar or any other check whatever. Suppose a person, suspected of poaching, or of any other offence equally heinous in the sight of country Justices, happens to be brought for trial at such sessions, is he likely to be tried and punished simply for the offence of which he is accused ? It is true, in many cases it is optional whether he will be tried by them or not; but what, under such circumstances, is a country bumpkin likely to do when confronted with such judges and their clerks ? Bewildered, ashamed, and bamboozled, he pleads guilty, and a long reckoning is made up with him; he is made a jail bird for a lengthened period, and he leaves that contaminating academy duly qualified to become a distinguished member of the hulks, or a successful candidate for the gallows.

Instead of investing two unqualified and untutored Justices with such powers over their countrymen's liberties, a properly qualified judge should have been appointed, free from personal bias or local prejudice; and in lieu of sending juvenile and petty offenders for their first transgression to jail, thus defiling them for life, a punishment which their small offence does not deserve

« PreviousContinue »