"I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time." This is a short Bill, which to a large extent implements the recommendations of a committee of judges which, at the request of one of my predecessors in the office of Minister for Justice, considered and reported on the law and practice relating to capital punishment. The committee consisted of the then Chief Justice (the late Hon. Timothy O'Sullivan), the President of the High Court (who is now the Chief Justice), Mr. Justice O'Byrne and the late Mr. Justice Hanna. The committee recommended, amongst other things, that the crime of infanticide should be dealt with by legislation in similar terms to the British Infanticide Act of 1938.
While the Government have accepted the judges' recommendation in principle, they have not, in the Bill which is now before the House, followed the British legislation in every particular. I shall have a word to say later about this departure from the literal recommendation of the judges, but I think it best to give, first of all, a brief outline of the present law and practice in this matter.
Under the existing law an unmarried mother (to take the most usual type of case) who wilfully kills her child is guilty of murder and liable to be sentenced to death, unless she establishes a defence on the ground of insanity. Modern medical opinion strongly favours the view, however, that a woman, although not insane in the sense that would enable her to establish a defence on that ground to a charge of murder, might suffer from such disturbance of mind in the circumstances attendant or following on the birth of the child that she would not be fully responsible for her actions. I understand that in the majority of these cases the charge of murder is reduced to one of concealment of birth and in the few cases in recent years in which women have been convicted of the murder of their infants the sentence of death has been commuted. For many years now no woman has been hanged, either here or in Britain, for the murder of her infant child.
Now, everyone will, I think, be agreed that it is desirable that the law should be altered so as to eliminate all the terrible ritual of the black cap and the solemn words of the judge pronouncing sentence of death in those cases where a woman, if not technically insane, was undoubtedly not sane at the time she killed her infant—in those cases, in short, where it is clear to the Court and to everybody, except perhaps the unfortunate accused, that the sentence will never be carried out. But, in dealing with the situation, we must, I submit, be careful to avoid any suggestion that the Legislature of this country has become less conscious of, or less concerned about, the sanctity of human life. Accordingly, the wilful killing of a human being, whether that human being be a newly-born infant or a man or woman in the prime of life, must remain an offence that will, prima facie, constitute murder and will be capable of being punished as such by the infliction of the death penalty. The Bill has been framed so as to achieve this object. While ensuring that the sanctity of human life is preserved and the seriousness of the offence not lessened, we aim in this Bill at achieving a position in which, in appropriate cases, it will no longer be necessary to subject unfortunate girls to the strain of undergoing all the horrors of the trial for murder and of being sentenced to death.
The main difference between the Bill and the British Act of 1938 is that the British Act contented itself with creating and defining the crime of infanticide and then making the necessary consequential provisions. The Bill, on the other hand, clearly implies that the charge initially against a woman who wilfully causes the death of her infant child will be a charge of murder. Sub-section (1) of Section 1 of the Bill provides that it will be for the District Court in the first instance, on the preliminary investigation of the charge, after having heard all the evidence including the evidence as to the mental state of the woman at the time of the offence, to decide whether or not the accused shall be sent forward for trial on a charge of murder or on a charge of infanticide.
Sub-section (2) of Section 1 provides a safeguard for the case in which the justice may decide to return the accused on the major charge of murder by enabling the jury, at the trial, to return a verdict of infanticide if they are satisfied on the evidence that she is guilty of that offence and not of murder.
Sub-section (3) of Section 1 defines the crime of infanticide and provides that it shall be an offence which may be tried and punished in the same way as manslaughter. This, in practice, will mean that when a district justice, in pursuance of his powers under sub-section (1) of Section 1, alters a charge of murder to one of infanticide, he may return the accused for trial by the Circuit Criminal Court and not by the Central Criminal Court. I do not think that I need dwell on the definition of infanticide contained in sub-section (3), which is, I think, self-explanatory.
Sub-section (4) of Section 1 is a necessary and obviously desirable consequential amendment of Section 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, which at present enables a jury to return a verdict of concealment of birth in the case of a woman charged with the murder of her recently born infant child. The effect in practice of sub-section (4) will be to empower the jury similarly to return a verdict of concealment of birth when the charge is one of infanticide.