THE REEL O’ TULLOCH. The Ashburton Guardian. COUNTY AGRICULTURAL & SPORTING RECORDER THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 1880.
“No lawful visible means of support.” When a man drops so far down in the social scale as to have reached the very uncomfortable and therefore unenviable condition that this sentence describes, he becomes a suitable subject for the solicitous care of the constable, the protection of the police cell, and the administration of justice as expounded by the Justices of the Peace or the Resident Magistrate, guided by their own wisdom in reading the Vagrant Act. Hundreds of men have gone down the social ladder till they have reached the vagrant rung, from which they have dropped into the arms of the law and have been conveyed from these arms to the storehouse of crime—the gaol. In most cases no fault can be found with the fate that these men meet, because their worthless and weak characters have been so evident, not only to the police, but to all who have known them, that it was more a kindness than a punishment to the waifs to send them to prison. We presume it was to rid society of such parasites as the genus “ loafer ” that the law was framed, and with the spirit of it no fault can be found. Still, it is by the law as it stands that a criminal ought to be judged, and no undue straining of the law’s provisions should be made to include a case for which those provisions do not, on the face of them, clearly provide. So long as a statute is sufficiently clear in itself to enable an ordinary intellect to comprehend what is forbidden by it, and what is not forbidden, the statute, however unjust, is at least a workable one —inasmuch as only an ignorant man can be at fault as to its provisions ; but it ought to define the offences it constitutes, so clearly in itself as to leave no room for abuse either by the Bench or the police. A recent decision by his Honor Judge Johnston points to a phase of the Vagrant Act which is to us at least a somewhat novel one, and shows that an almost unlimited discretionary power is entrusted to the hands of those equally erudite and shrewdly discriminating administrators of the law in New Zealand, the Justices of the Peace. It will be remembrred that three months ago a man named Charles Ryal, in common repute the keeper of a brothel, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment as a vagrant, “ having no lawful visible means of support.” By no means could he be said to be in the position of a man having no visible means of support, nor could it be said even that those means were not lawful, for he was proved to be the owner of a cab which he let at £2 a week, but a clause of the Act provides that those means, however lawful they may appear in themselves, may be considered “unsatisfactory” by the Justices, and the man may be sent to gaol for three months, or for such period as the statute allows. Ryal, knowing that he had plenty of “ means,” appealed against the decision of the Justices who sentenced him, and this week Judge Johnston sustained the decision. It is interesting to note on what grounds —as showing how large a discretionary power is given to the Magistrates. His Honor was averse to straining the law even against “ loafers,” and in this case he himself would not have given a conviction on the evidence, but seeing that the “Magistrate had chosen to say that he was not satisfied the accused had lawful visible means of support his Honor could not interfere.” “ If,” he further said, “the Act were stretched to the utmost, it would give the police a power of espionage not given in the most despotic countries.” The decision then was upheld simply because his Honor accepted the ipse dixit of the Justices. Now, be it understood, we do not cavil at the riddance to society of a pest like Ryal. We are just as glad to know that that individual will be removed for a time from troubling the township as any one is, nor do we find fault with the particular exercise of discretionary power on the part of the Magistrates who sent Ryal away from his Pandarus avocation for three months. But the
question still arises—ought all and sundry of. the great unpaid army of Justices of the Peace have it in their power to send a man to prison because they are not “ satisfied ” with his means of subsistence? We say No to this, as we contend that some guiding definition of what are unlawful means of subsistence ought to be given by the Act that would relieve the Justices from this exercise of discretion, which, if it must be accepted by the Judge, is simply commuting the liberty of the subject to the hands of the Magisstrate. There is no guarantee that any of the many gentlemen whom the Royal Representative may delight to honor with a Commission of the Peace will be “ satisfied ” with any man’s means of living, and though we ought to feel flattered with the faith the Judge reposes in the Justices who tried Ryal, we cannot feel equally flattered with the way in which his Honor shows to us that the Act may be strained to procure a conviction. We contend that, in justice both to the Magistrate and the community amongst whom he sits, the former ought not to be a legislator, but simply an administrator of the law, and to place any man’s liberty at the mercy of a Magistrate’s personal judgment being “satisfied” as to a means of living, independent of any definition by the Act of what is lawful, is surely not in accordance with an Englishman’s notions of the freedom of his country.