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THE ENGLISH INQUISITION.
“MY Lord,” said an eminent Irish counsel, some forty-odd years ago, “if there be any principle embalmed in the glorious constitution of this realm—if there is any right which we claim distinctively as British—it is contained in those noble words, the strongholds against tyranny, the refuge against oppression, ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’—~No man is bound to criminate himself.”
Now, whether the distinguished authority was perfectly correct in his translation, is not the question I desire to raise here. I simply desire to ask if the great privilege of which we are told we should be so proud avail us much, or indeed avail us anything at all, in presence of the system of cross-examination that is now practised in our law-courts.
Much has been said and written about the licence of the Press—and unquestionably there is a certain tyranny in the expression of opinion so ‘haughtily delivered, so severely conveyed, as we occasionally see it—but what is the most slashing leader, what the most cutting review, to that mauvais quart d’heure a man passes in the witness-box when the examining counsel desires to disparage his veracity?
You are sued in some trifling action. It is a question of some garden-seeds or a hearth-rug, the payment for which, for reasons of your own, you dispute. You believe your case a good one; and though the defence may prove more costly than a submission to the demand, your sense of self-respect requires resistance, and you make it.
Now, I am willing to believe that from your earliest years you have been trained to habits of virtue and order; that, good as a child, you grew better as a youth, and became best as a man; that, so circumspect had you been over your conduct through life, it would be next to impossible to find an instance in which your behaviour could have been altered for the better ;—in a word, that you have ever shown yourself equally zealous in the pursuit of virtue as strong in resisting every access of temptation. Get up now into the witness-box, and see what that eminent counsel will make you. Sit under him for five-and-forty minutes, and tell me if five-and-twenty years will erase the memory of the miseries you endured, the insinuations you could not reply to, the insults you were not permitted to resent?
In the first place, you are presented to the world of a crowded court as a species of human target, a mark which Serjeant Buzfuz is to fire at as long as he likes, with his own ammunition, and at his own range. He may be as obtuse, as stupid, as wrongheaded, and as blundering as the crier of the court ; he may mistake his facts, misstate his brief: but there is one thing he will never forget—that you are there for his own especial torture of you, and that, whether he worried you “ for plaintiff ” or “ defendant,” out of that box you don’t come till he has blackened your character and defamed your reputation, and sent you back to your home outraged, injured, and insulted.
Is there a bishop, arch or simple, on the bench, who in his school-days, or his college-days, or in his after life as tutor, either by word or deed, by something he uttered, something he wrote, some advice he gave, or some advice he did not give, has not in some shape or other done “that thing he ought not to have done,” or left undone that which he ought? Is it not very possible that this same error, of whatever kind it may have been, has acted upon his nature either as warning or corrective? Is it not likely that much of his conduct through life has been traced with reference to experiences, bought dearly, perhaps, and that he has shaped his course with the knowledge of these shoals and quicksands which once had threatened him with shipwreck? I take it there must be men amongst us who have learned something from their own errors, and whose example is not the less striking that their manhood is in strong contrast with their youth. I take it that the number of those who could say, I have nothing to secrete, nothing to recant, nothing to unsay, nothing to undo, must be small; and I am strongly disposed to believe that the influence of the very best men would be seriously prejudiced if a. perpetual reference were to be made to some circumstances or opinions, or some accidents of their early lives.
Cross-examination rejects all this reserve, and revels in whatever shall display the man in the witness-box as something totally unlike the character he now wears before the world.
Once ingeniously place him in contrast with himself, and he is stamped as a hypocrite ; and there is not a man on the jury who will listen to him with any respect.
“ I will now ask the witness, my Lord, if the Poem which I hold in my hand, and from which I purpose to read some extracts, was not written by himself. Take that book, sir, and say are these lines yours T’
“ My Lord, when I wrote that—J’
“ Answer my question, sir. Are you the author of this production?”
“My Lord, I humbly entreat your Lordship’s protection, and I desire to know if I am bound to answer this question ?”
The Court blandly, almost compassionately, assures him that if he deems any admissions he may make will have the effect of incriminating him, he is not bound to reply; on which the examining counsel, with the leer triumphant towards the jurybox, rejoins, “ I will now repeat my question, and the witness will use the discretion which his Lordship informs him is his privilege.”
“I was a youth of nineteen, my Lord, when I wrote those verses!” stammers out the confused and almost overwhelmed witness, turning with a human instinct to the one living creature that seems to look pitifully on his sufferings.
“ Address yourself to me, sir,” shouts out Buzfuz, “and tell me if it was at this same irresponsible period of your life you made the acquaintance of Matilda Gubbins ?”
“ She was children's governess in my uncle's family,” stammers out the blushing martyr, who has