The object of this Bill is to introduce a reform which was introduced in England in the year 1898. Previous to that time, a defendant was not a competent or a compellable witness at any stage of criminal proceedings, and that principle was extended to cover this: that the wife or husband of a defendant was not a competent or a compellable witness. In the year 1898 an Act, entitled the Criminal Evidence Act, was passed in England, enabling a defendant to give evidence in his own defence if he so choose. Previous to that Act, there had been some minor exceptions made in the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, and in the Evidence Act of 1877. But the first substantial exception applied to this country was in an Act of 1903—the Motor Car Act. In relation to prosecutions under that Act the principle was extended that the accused person could give evidence on his own behalf.
This reform has been for some time back demanded from all quarters of the legal profession, by barristers and by solicitors. I do not know of any other country in which the defendant is precluded from giving evidence on his own behalf. There were reasons why the Act was not extended to Ireland in 1898, and why the Parliamentary Party of the day opposed its extension to Ireland. At about that time political prosecutions were common, and the suggestion was that the administration of the law was unfair in its dealings with people charged with political offences. It was considered better that accused persons could not be subject to cross-examination, and should not be entitled even to go into the witness-box. Conditions have changed, and it is now rather a hardship that a person charged with an offence may not himself give his own version of things and his own account of his whereabouts and of the relevant circumstances in connection with the charge.
There are, as Deputies know, many cases in which the evidence was mainly circumstantial and Deputies who ever served on juries are familiar with the plea put up that the only person with a real knowledge of the facts is precluded by law from tendering evidence. This Bill removes that disability. It does not make the accused person a compellable witness, but it provides that at his own selection he may give evidence in connection with the criminal charge. Deputies will note in Section I, the conditions or provisos attached to the general principle that an accused person may give evidence:—
(a) a person so charged shall not be called as a witness in pursuance of this Act except upon his own application:
(b) the failure of any person charged with an offence, or of the wife or husband, as the case may be, of the person so charged, to give evidence shall not be made the subject of any comment by the prosecution:
(c) the wife or husband of the person charged shall not, save as in this Act mentioned, be called as a witness in pursuance of this Act except upon the application of the person so charged:
(d) nothing in this Act shall make a husband compellable to disclose any communication made to him by his wife during the marriage, or a wife compellable to disclose any communication made to her by her husband during the marriage:
(e) a person charged and being a witness in pursuance of this Act may be asked any question in cross-examination notwithstanding that it would tend to criminate him as to the offence charged.
It is considered desirable now to apply here that principle which has existed in England since 1898, that an accused person may, if he so wishes, give his own version of the occurrences revelant to the charge. This is an appropriate time to make these reforms in the administration of the law. I think the principle embodied in the Bill will be one that will be generally approved by the public at large, as it is generally approved by the legal profession.