06 January 2010

Should criminal law be revised every hundred years?

The Legislature's Duty:

In proportion to the importance of the criminal law, ought also to be the care and attention of the legislature in properly forming and enforcing it. It should be founded upon principles that are permanent, uniform, and universal ; and always conformable to the dictates of truth and justice, the feelings of humanity, and the indelible rights of mankind : though it sometimes (provided there be no transgression of these eternal boundaries) may modified, narrowed, or enlarged, according to the local or occasional necessities of the state which it is meant to govern. And yet, either from a want of attention to these principles in the first concoction of the laws, and adopting in their stead the impetuous dictates of avarice, ambition, and revenge ; from retaining the discordant political regulations, which successive conquerors or factions have established, in the various revolutions of government ; from giving a lasting efficacy to sanctions that were intended to be temporary, and made (as lord Bacon expresses it) merely upon the spur of the occasion ; or from, lastly, too hastily employing such means as are greatly disproportionate to their end, in order to check the progress of some very prevalent offence ; from, or from all, of these causes it hath happened, that the criminal law is in every country of Europe more rude and imperfect than the civil.

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[E]ven here [in Great Britain] we shall occasionally find room to remark some particulars, that seem to want revision and amendment. These have chiefly arisen from too scrupulous an adherence to some rules of the ancient common law, when the reasons have ceased upon which those rules were founded ; from not repealing such of the old penal laws as are either obsolete or absurd ; and from too little care attention in framing and passing new ones. The enacting of penalties, to which a whole nation shall be subject, ought not to be left as matter of indifference to the passions or interests of a few, who upon temporary motives may prefer or support such a bill; but be calmly and maturely considered by persons, who know what proditions the law has already made to remedy the mischief complained of, who can from experience foresee the probable consequences of those which are now proofed, and who will judge without passion or prejudice how adequate they are to the evil. It never usual in the house of peers even to read a private bill, which may affect the property of an individual, without first referring it to some of the learned judges, and hearing their report thereon. And surely equal precaution is necessary, when laws are to be established, which may affect the property, liberty, and perhaps even lives, of thousands. Had such a reference taken place, it is impossible that in the eighteenth century it could ever have been made a capital crime, to break down (however maliciously) the mound of a fishpond, whereby any fish shall escape ; or cut down a cherry tree in an orchard. Were even a committee appointed but once in an hundred years to revise the criminal law, it could not have continued to this hour a felony without benefit of clergy, to be seen for one month in the company of persons who call themselves, or are called, Egyptians.

It is true, that these outrageous penalties, being seldom or never inflicted, are hardly known to be law by the public : but that rather aggravates the mischief, by laying a snare for the unwary. Yet they cannot but occur to the observation of any one, who hath undertaken the task of examining the great outlines of the English law, and tracing them up to their principles : and it is the duty of such a one to hint them with decency to those, whose abilities and stations enable them to apply the remedy.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Yes "The Law" needs to be revisited and analyzed very often until there is no more partisan "politicking" with regard to the law. When the true spirit of "The Law" is jeopardized, you obviously need to do something to remedy it.