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Home Secretary's Statement

Volume 155: debated on Tuesday 13 June 1922

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(by Private Notice) asked the Home Secretary whether he had any statement to make in regard to his action in ordering the detention in a criminal lunatic asylum of Ronald True?

I understand that my action in the discharge of the most painful and difficult duty that any Home Secretary has to perform has met with considerable criticism, and excited controversy, and I feel that it would be in accordance with the wishes of the House that I should deal with the matter at some considerable length, and in some detail. In the first place, I hope to show the House that the course taken by me was in every essential that which would have been taken, and could only have been taken, by any Home Secretary, and is in entire accordance with the practice in other cases in the past for very many years.

I understand that my action is criticised on two grounds; first, that I need not have instituted any inquiry into the mental condition of True, and, secondly, that having received the report certifying him insane, I need not have acted upon that. Dealing with the first point, that I need not have instituted any further inquiry, it is said that I was in some degree re-opening an issue which I should have regarded as having been closed by the findings of the jury before whom the case was brought. It is said, I understand, that I have flouted the verdict of.a British jury, and the decisions of the High Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. I have really done nothing whatever of the kind. Let me quote the words of the Section under which I acted—Section 2 (4) of the Criminal Lunatics Act, 1884:
"In the case of a prisoner under sentence of death, if it appears to a Secretary of State, either by means of a certificate signed by two members of the Visiting Committee of the prison in which such prisoner is confined, or by any other means, that there is reason to believe such prisoner to be insane, the Secretary of State shall appoint two or more legally qualified medical practitioners, and the said medical practitioners shall forthwith examine such prisoner and inquire as to his sanity, and after such examination and inquiry such practitioners shall make a report in writing to the Secretary of State as to the sanity of the prisoner, and they, or the majority of them, may certify in writing that he is insane."
It will be observed that the Section is peremptory in its terms. If the Home Secretary has reason to believe that a prisoner under sentence of death is insane he shall order an inquiry. What were the grounds for such a belief in this case? I had the reports of two prison doctors who had the prisoner under close observation for nearly two months. Those doctors gave evidence at the trial, as did two other medical men, to the effect that in their judgment the prisoner wag certifiably insane. I had that evidence, and I knew also that no rebutting evidence was called during the trial for the reason that the prosecution found themselves unable to obtain any such evidence.

This does not mean that the jury were wrong, or that there was a miscarriage of justice at the trial. There were, in fact, two issues which are quite distinct. Was the prisoner at the time when he committed the offence insane within the limits of the doctrine of criminal responsibility as laid down by the courts? That is the question to which the jury had to give an answer.

The further question, which arises under the Act which I have quoted, is whether the prisoner at the time of the statutory inquiry—being then under sentence of death—was insane within the meaning of the ordinary law so that he could be certified and removed to an asylum. The question is left by the Statute to the unfettered judgment of two or more medical men; and in instituting such a medical inquiry I was in no way running counter to the views of the judges. On the contrary, the learned judge who tried the case in the first instance, in reporting to me, according to custom, that he had passed sentence of death, drew my special attention to the medical evidence as affording matter for consideration, while, at the conclusion of the appeal which was dismissed, the Lord Chief Justice used these words:
"In these circumstances and for these reasons the appeal will be dismissed. It only remains to add, as has been pointed out by Sir Richard Muir, that, apart altogether from any question of appeal, there are certain powers in the Home Secretary which in a proper case are always exercised."
So that, if I may recapitulate, the reason which I had to believe that the prisoner was insane was first of all the reports of the prison doctors, who had had him under observation, that at that time they considered him certifiable as insane. There was the request of the learned Judge who tried the case that I should carefully consider the evidence as to sanity given at the trial, and there was the very plain hint of the Lord Chief Justice. If in these circumstances I had neglected to put the provisions of the Statute into operation by directing a medical inquiry, I should have been guilty of a flagrant breach of public duty, and, when challenged, as I undoubtedly should have been challenged, I should have had no defence.

Now I come to the second ground of criticism. That is to say that, having received a report in due form that the prisoner was insane, I was not bound to act upon such report. Those who take that view are under a complete misapprehension. The principle that an insane man should not go to execution has been enshrined in the law of this country for at least 300 years. If the House will allow me, I will quote a few of the authorities. Sir Edward Coke, in his "Institutes," in discussing an Act passed in the reign of Henry, says:
"It was further provided by the said Act of 33 Henry the 8th that if a man attainted of treason became mad that notwithstanding he should be executed; which cruell and inhuman law lived not long but was repealed, for in that point also it was against the common law."
Sir Mathew Hale, in his "Pleas of the Crown," says:
"If a man in his sound memory commits a capital offence.… and after judgment becomes of non-sane memory, his execution shall be spared, for were he of sound memory he might allege somewhat in stay of judgment or execution."
Sergeant Hawkins, in his "Pleas of the Crown," says in Chapter 1, Section 3, page 2:
"And it seems agreed at this day that if one who has committed a capital offence becomes non-compos before conviction he shall not be arraigned, and if after conviction that he shall not be executed."
Blackstone in his Commentaries, volume 4, page 465, says:
"Another cause of regular reprieve is it the offender becomes non-compos between the judgment and the award of execution, for regularly, as was formerly observed, though a man be compos when he commits a capital crime, yet if he becomes non-compos after judgment he shall nut be ordered for execution."
In the reign of William III, Sir John Hawles, the Solicitor-General, said in one of the State trials:
"Nothing is more certain than that a person who falls mad after a crime is committed shall not be tried for it, and if he falls mad after judgment he shall not he executed."
And Stephens, the well-known legal writer, in his "Commentaries," entirely approves of those statements as to the legal position. That is the position with regard to those two points. Clearly in the circumstances it was my duty to set up a committee of inquiry. The committee consisted of two most highly experienced official doctors who had had long experience. One had been for many years superintendent of Broadmoor Asylum, and the other is now a Prison Commissioner, and both are men who for years have had the complete confidence of judges when they gave evidence as to sanity or insanity in criminal cases. It was my statutory duty to set up that committee of inquiry, and when they reported to me that True was insane, and certified him to be insane, I was bound by the law of the land to reprieve him. The third doctor was a very well known specialist, Sir Maurice Craig, who is well known to all medical men.

The third criticism which I have seen, a criticism which, if made lightly and without good grounds, was the cruellest criticism that could have been made, was that I was influenced by some undue, high-placed, aristocratic pressure in this matter. I assure the House that I know nothing of who True is or who his relations are. I had not any communication from anyone about him except from the learned judge. Until the Committee was set up and had begun to function there had been no communication of any kind from his solicitor to the Home Office. Alter it was set up the solicitor for the prisoner presented, as they generally do, a petition for his reprieve. Subsequently Dr. Dyer saw a relative of the prisoner, and took evidence with regard to the circumstances of his youth and his antecedents, but, with those exceptions, I have had no representations of any sort or kind from any living soul about this case. I hope that the House will believe me that I was actuated in this as in all other cases by nothing but the pure merits of the case.

In view of the impossibility of debating the Home Secretary's statement by means of supplementary questions and answers, may I ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, "the action of the Home Secretary in instituting an inquiry into the sanity of Ronald True?"

Before I put this matter to the House, I must make it quite clear that no question of the Adjournment can arise on the subject of the advice tendered to His Majesty by a Home Secretary with regard to a reprieve, or the converse, of a criminal who has been convicted. That is maintained by a long series of decisions by my predecessors. I will put the question to the House on quite other grounds than that. The question can only be, whether the Home Secretary acted rightly under the powers entrusted to him in this matter.

The pleasure of the House not having been signified,

Mr. SPEAKER called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and, fewer than 40 Members having, accordingly, risen, the House proceeded to the Business of the Day.