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THE two statutes passed in the last session, which it is the object of this little work to edit and illustrate (“ The Conspiracy and Property Act," and “The Employers and Workmen Act,") have effected a very great, and, it may be hoped, a very salutary alteration in the law.
Such an alteration has been called for by the general voice of the working men of the United Kingdom, who have been dissatisfied with the operation of the Master and Servant Act of 1867, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871.
A commission was appointed in March of last year to inquire into the working of these Acts, and, after a long investigation, they made their final report in February of the present year. In this masterly and exhaustive document, the Commissioners have not confined their attention to the two statutes particularly submitted to their consideration, but have gone fully into the history of the laws affecting labour in general.
The most important portions of that report will be found in the following Introduction.
The main object of the two Acts is, with certain exceptions, to exclude all mere breaches of contract from the operation of the criminal law, and to bring them under the cognizance of civil tribunals.
The first-mentioned statute enacts that, as between Employers and Workmen, no combination to do an act, which if done by one person only would not constitute an offence in law, shall amount to a conspiracy. This provision will for the most part be applicable to combinations among workmen to break their contract of service; that is, as between them and their employer.
But a further important alteration has been made in the interests of the public. Henceforward, where a breach of contract is likely to de. prive the inhabitants of a place of a supply of gas or water, or to endanger human life, or to cause serious injury to person or property, such breach will be punishable as an offence. This was not so formerly, as in questions of breach of contract the ulterior results of such breach as affecting the public were not taken into consideration, because the public were no parties to the contract. (See the Gas Stokers' case, R. v. Brown and others, p. 85, post.)
Several acts of violence or intimidation are made offences, or rather are retained as such, for they do not materially differ from those that were made punishable under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871.
Another important alteration in the law is that in offences of a graver character which may be dealt with before justices, the accused
may elect to be tried on indictment in a Superior Court. And again in such more serious cases the parties to the contract and their husbands or wives are made competent witnesses (a).
The Employers and Workmen Act gives larger powers to the county courts in respect of disputes between employers and
(a) This seems a startling innovation in the principles of English criminal law, according to which, as is well known, a person accused of any crime or offence is not permitted to give evidence in his own behalf. Strictly speaking, though it is not quite new; as there was a similar provision under the “Master and Servant Act, 1867,” s. 16; and by the Licensing Act, 1872, (35 & 36 Vict. c. 94,) a person charged with any offence under it may be heard on oath (see sect. 51 (4),) so that it seems persons charged with drunkenness and disorderly conduct under sect. 12, may avail themselves of this salutary relaxation in the law of evidence. By the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of last session (38 & 39 Vict. c. 63, s. 21), " The defendant may, if he think fit, tender himself and his wife to be examined on his behalf, and he or she shall, if he so desire, be examined accordingly.”