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Sixteenth Century Acts: Prosecutions

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1998

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2.45 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the last prosecution was brought under—
  • (a) Section I of the Treason Act (Ireland) 1537;
  • (b) Section ii of the crown of ireland act 1542; and
  • (c) Section XII of the Act of Supremacy (Ireland) 1560;
  • and what were the penalties imposed.

    My Lords, the three Acts to which the noble Earl refers apply only in Northern Ireland. I have been unable to trace any records of prosecutions brought under these Acts or of the punishments imposed. No prosecution for treason has taken place in Northern Ireland since 1972. The last prosecution for treason in Northern Ireland of which I am aware was in 1966 for an offence under the Treason Act 1842.

    My Lords, I am not in the slightest surprised by the Answer provided by the noble and learned Lord. My reason for tabling the Question is as follows. Bearing in mind that Gladstone disestablished the Church of Ireland and there has not been a prosecution under the Treason Act (Ireland) for a very long time—the Government of Ireland Act changed all of that—is it sensible, even with Cool Britannia and New Labour, to retain on the statute book Acts that carry very serious penalties? Does that not bring the whole of the law into disrepute?

    My Lords, whether or not it is sensible I do not believe that it causes any real problem. As I indicated in my response, there has not been a single identifiable prosecution in any of the records over the years. If anyone thought that he could bring such a prosecution he would first have to convince a magistrate to issue a summons. Following that, the Director of Public Prosecutions of Northern Ireland could take over the prosecution and, if he saw fit, discontinue it. Although it may not be sensible, I do not believe that it causes any real problem.

    My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that if the only reason for the noble Earl tabling this Question is to point out that the Acts are out of date he could have raised the matter in the past 20-odd years?

    My Lords, I see the force of the point just made by my noble friend.

    My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that it was only as a result of the activities of one of his Front Bench colleagues to remove the death penalty for such offences that I raised this matter? It cannot be sensible, however the noble and learned Lord may dress it up, to have on the statute book outdated laws that carry heavy penalties and may be open to misuse.

    My Lords, it was, I believe, my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell, who is not in his place today, who discovered this. Perhaps the fact that it was only that which drew it to the attention of the noble Earl indicates how small the problem is in practice.

    My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that unrepealed statutes like unexploded mines cause no trouble until they are trodden on? Will he take the advice of the Law Commission on the matter?

    My Lords, as to the first point raised by the noble Earl, at least 300 years have gone by without anyone treading on these particular mines. We have been in touch with the Law Commission. The commission considered these statutes and advised in relation to repeal, but it regards the contents of some of them as unsuitable for the commission to look at.