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The Consolidation of Criminal Laws

Robert Peel, 22 February 1827. Hansard (XVI [N.S.], 632-42)

Sir Robert Peel came to represent the leadership of the criminal law reform movement in 1823. Previously, much effort for this reform had been expended by Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir James Mackintosh, who were anxious to alter the laws that filled the prisons and were not unmindful, therefore, of the related movement of prison reform itself. The names of John Howard, Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry will always remain incised in the mind of a public concerned with the developments of this latter movement. But criminal law reform - the more important of the two movements - depended on the public's understanding that security for neither life nor property had resulted from extreme penalties, such as was implied by punishment by death for some two hundred offenses. Hence, Sir Robert's approach to the problems described in this speech is the kind of approach which engendered confidence in his leadership and which permitted him to reduce ultimately the number of offenses calling for capital punishment to a mere half dozen.

Mr. Secretary (Secretary for the Home Department) Peel rose to bring forward his promised motion. He had now, he said, agreeably to that motion, to apply to the House for leave to bring in four bills, having for their object the simplification and consolidation of the statutes relating to the Criminal Laws. The first of those bills was intended to consolidate and amend the laws relating to theft, and the various offences connected therewith. The second was to amend the law relating to another class of offence against the subject, namely, a wilful and malicious injury of property. The third bill for which he should move, would be to consolidate and amend the laws relating to remedies against the hundred. And the fourth bill which he should submit to the notice of the House, would have the effect of repealing such statutes as would be superseded by the three first bills, in order not to encumber the Statute-book, by the introduction of separate acts of parliament for the attainment of that object. By this means, the three bills which he had already named would not be impeded in their operation by clauses and enactments contrary to their spirit.

He had entered last session so fully into the policy and necessity of amending the criminal statutes, that he was not sure whether it was at all necessary to enforce the reasoning which he then used, or to trouble the House with a repetition of his views, notwithstanding some of the members whom he had now the honour to address were not in parliament on that occasion. Indeed, it required no very powerful reasoning to show the necessity and policy of consolidating the criminal laws of this country, and of simplifying, as much as possible, those statutes relating to crime and misdemeanour, which had hitherto created so much error and confusion in our courts of justice. Such a course as that of revising and consolidating confused and unintelligible statutes appeared so consistent with reason and common sense, that he scarcely thought it necessary to adduce any arguments in its favour, where all whom he had the honour to address must agree in the necessity of the measure. He was therefore quite satisfied that the House would sanction the part which he had taken, and confirm the support which his predecessor had given to the subject.

The House, however, was not called upon to give a blind judgment: on the contrary, he wished and expected that honourable gentlemen would reserve to themselves the power of expressing an opinion on a subject of such vital importance. Although, however, he had suggested many changes, he had not, after all, proposed any very important alterations in the criminal statutes; because he was desirous of proceeding gradually in the course of improvement, and to avoid as much as possible the use of rash experiments. What he wished was, to collect all that was valuable from existing statutes, and to preserve from a mass of contradiction and confusion, various clauses and provisions introduced at different periods into our criminal laws. He was desirous of selecting all that was worthy of being preserved, in order to present to the House a useful and efficient statute, and thus to place as it were in juxtaposition all the law connected with the criminal jurisprudence of the country. It was his wish to abolish every part of the criminal statutes that could not with safety be acted on, and to accommodate the laws relating to crime to the present circumstances of the country, and the improved state of society.

Feeling, therefore, that the House would agree, least, in principle at to the measures which he intended to propose, he did not think it necessary to trouble them with any further arguments, but would proceed at once to explain the present state of the law relating to theft, which was the subject of his first bill. It was the practice, in criminal courts of justice, to distinguish between grand and petty larceny, and to award different punishments for each crime. It appeared, however, that the only difference between them consisted. in the amount of the property stolen; for thus the law stood on the subject. If a man was convicted of stealing an article under the value of one shilling, it was simple larceny, punishable at the option of the magistrate before whom the case was heard; but, if the property stolen exceeded one shilling in value, the crime was called grand larceny, to which a capital punishment was attached.

Now, after giving to the subject his best consideration, he could not see the necessity of retaining the distinction which the law laid down in these cases. There were many inferior courts spread throughout this country, which had power to take cognizance of, and to try persons charged with, the crime of petty larceny, but who had not power to try for the crime of grand larceny. The consequence of this was, that both courts and prosecutors, feeling the great expense and inconvenience of sending persons charged with these offences to be tried by the higher tribunals, agreed to evade the law, by stating in the indictment, that the value of the article stolen was less than one shilling. These instances, it was true, were not very creditable to the parties concerned, but they furnished ample reasons for abolishing all distinctions between grand and petty larceny.

He would, therefore, unite the different species of the crime of larceny under one general law; and he would fix, as the maximum of punishment, a sentence of transportation for seven years. It was hitherto the custom to mitigate the sentences affixed to the crime of grand larceny; but he owned he could not see the reason why, if the power existed, a criminal convicted of this crime should not be transported for stealing to the value of two shillings. There was a material difference between grand and simple larceny, when a prisoner was twice convicted, A man who repeated the crime of grand larceny, was liable to a sentence of death, without benefit of clergy. He meant to propose, that the capital punishment should be dispensed with in this instance.

He would propose also to do away with a term which had long been mixed up with the criminal law of England. He meant the "benefit of clergy." It was extremely difficult to apply the term "without benefit of clergy" to any particular crime and, to say what was a clergyable offence. It appeared to him, that the law in this particular should be simplified. Instead of saying, therefore, that the man who commits grand larceny a second time was guilty of a capital offence, without benefit of clergy, he proposed to substitute the punishment of transportation for life. This would serve to make the law more clear and intelligible; and he was sure that the House would go with him in every alteration he proposed, whereby the number of capital crimes might be lessened. Thus, the man convicted of grand larceny a second time would no longer be subject to death. In proposing this alteration he was aware, however, that it was not very material; as it rarely occurred that the penalty of death was put in force when a man was convicted of grand larceny a second time; but it was right at the same time, that the law in this particular should be clear and determinate; for it was one of the just objections brought by foreigners against the criminal laws of England, that we condemned men to death for crimes, who were never executed, and whose sentence was, in fact, never intended to be carried into effect. It would therefore be a material improvement, if, in every available instance, we could erase capital punishments from the Statute-book, and provide milder punishments, and thereby avoid the mockery of condemning men to death, merely because that penalty was attached to the crime which they had committed.

He proposed also to mitigate the penalty for stealing in a dwelling-house to the value of forty shillings. According to the law, as it now stood, the penalty of death was attached to that crime. A distinction, however, he conceived should be made; and there were cases in which the punishment of death might be considered harsh and unnecessary. He therefore meant to propose, that the sum of forty shillings should be raised to a higher amount; by which means the number of capital convictions for this species of crime would be considerably diminished.

He was not prepared to say whether or no it might not be necessary to go further in the plan of reducing the number of capital convictions. Much had lately been done, and much remained to do; but he thought he might claim some credit to himself for having done more towards the great and important object of improving and consolidating the criminal statutes of this country, than any other individual who had gone before him. He never was an advocate for the infliction of capital punishments, and he thought it would be found, on comparing the executions for the last five years, in which he had presided at the home department, that they had not increased in number, as compared with those that had taken place in former years. Willing as he felt, however, to reduce the amount of capital convictions, he advised the House not to be led away too far by mistaken feelings. If parliament were to proceed too rapidly to overthrow the existing enactments, a strong prejudice might arise in the country against measures that were intended for the public good; and thus the great object of justice and humanity might be defeated.

With respect to the law relative to malicious injuries to property, which his second bill was intended to embrace, he conceived that it might be beneficially altered, and confined within proper limits. He conceived the punishment attached to the crime of cutting down hop-fences, stakes, hedges, etc., was neither clearly nor properly defined; and therefore he proposed to abrogate the law altogether, and try the effects of a milder punishment. Without entering more fully into the particular clauses of each bill, of which the committee, whose appointment he anticipated, could best judge; he would now only refer to the general principles upon which he came forward to claim the countenance and support of the House. Notwithstanding the very able assistance he had had, he felt considerable difficulty in drawing up the bills which he hoped to be allowed to introduce; owing to the number of abstruse and unintelligible phrases which he found it necessary to use, in compliance with the usage of the law in this particular. The endless repetition of words; the confusion of the singular and plural number; the frequent use of the words "party or parties," "defendant or defendants," "corporations," or "persons," had always, he confessed, puzzled him beyond measure, whenever he had occasion to refer to an act of parliament. He had, therefore, in the bills which he had framed, avoided as much as possible the confusion arising from the frequent introduction of words and phrases; and at the commencement of each bill, he had defined the precise punishment for each particular crime, adding to the end of the bill, in order to remove any doubt occasioned by the ambiguity of the language, that the word "person," when mentioned in the body of the bill, should be taken to mean the party accused, whether man, woman, or child, and that the same should hold good, with regard to owner, defendant, or defendants, or by whatever term the accused party might be designate. ...

He must also say, that he had another motive for proceeding gradually and slowly in this matter. It was necessary to carry along with him all the instruments engaged in the administration of justice; for if too many changes were suddenly made in the laws of daily and ordinary occurrence, and if what was declared law was not executed well, no advantage would result to the country. He was aware, that a more splendid fame might be acquired by attaching his name to the introduction of a new code of law, as had been done elsewhere; but greater advantage to the country would be gained by convincing the people, who were justly attached to their ancient institutions, that the circumstances which had given rise to them, were either altered or gone by; that they could be amended and improved; and that the rust and impurity which they had acquired, by the lapse of time and carelessness of legislation, could be removed without injuring their substance or impairing their strength. The House would confer greater benefits on the people by reconciling them to the improvements which it sanctioned, and by showing them that those improvements could be made without any practical inconvenience, than by attempting too much at once in the shape of innovation, and by leading them away by splendid illusions of general improvement. He would be content, if by his humble efforts, a gradual reform could be effected in our criminal law, without leading to any great practical inconvenience: and be trusted that, so far from dissatisfaction being excited by the attempts of the House to accommodate ancient usages to the necessities of modem times, the attachment of the people to those usages would be increased, by their being convinced that the foundations of those usages were only widened to receive additional strength, and that it was wiser to amend them where they were defective, than to maintain them steadily because they were antiquated imperfections. He would now move, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for consolidating and amending the laws in England, relative to Larceny, Burglary, and Robbery."

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