The Right to Affirm

The Right to Affirm  (1889) 
by Charles Bradlaugh

Issued by the National Secular Society.














Instructions to Witnesses, Jurors, and others.

The following is the exact text of the Oaths Act, 1888:—

An Act to Amend the Law as to Oaths.

Be it enacted by the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

1. Every person upon objecting to being sworn, and stating, as the ground of such objection, either that he has no religious belief, or that the taking of an oath is contrary to his religious belief, shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath in all places and for all purposes where an oath is or shall be required by law, which affirmation shall be of the same force and effect as if he had taken the oath; and if any person making such affirmation shall wilfully, falsely, and corruptly affirm any matter or thing which, if deposed on oath, would have amounted to wilful and corrupt perjury, he shall be liable to prosecution, indictment, sentence, and punishment in all respects as if he had committed wilful and corrupt perjury.

2. Every such affirmation shall be as follows:
"I, A. B., do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm", and then proceed with the words of the oath prescribed by law, omitting any words of imprecation or calling to witness.

3. Where an oath has been duly administered and taken, the fact that the person to whom the same was administered had, at the time of taking such oath, no religious belief, shall not for any purpose affect the validity of such oath.

4. Every affirmation in writing shall commence, "I,————, of————, do solemnly and sincerely affirm", and the form in lieu of jurat shall be "Affirmed at————, this————day of————, 18—. Before me."

5. If any person to whom an oath is administered desires to swear with uplifted hand, in the form and manner in which an oath is usually administered in Scotland, he shall be permitted so to do, and the oath shall be administered to him in such form and manner without further question.

6. The Acts mentioned in the Schedule to this Act are hereby repealed to the extent in the third column of the schedule mentioned.

7. This Act may be cited as the Oaths Act, 1888.


Session and Chapter. Title. Extent of Repeal.
17 & 18 Vict., c. 125 The Common Law Procedure Act, 1854. Section twenty.
19 & 20 Vict., c. 102 The Common Law Procedure Amendment Act (Ireland), 1856. Sections twenty-three & twenty-four.
24 & 25 Vict., c. 66 An Act to give relief to persons who may refuse or be unwilling, from alleged conscientious motives, to be sworn in criminal proceedings. The entire Act.
28 & 29 Vict., c. 9 The Affirmation (Scotland) Act, 1865. The entire Act.
30 & 31 Vict., c. 35 An Act to remove some defects in the administration of the Criminal Law. Section eight.
31 & 32 Vict., c. 39 The Jurors' Affirmation (Scotland) Act, 1868. The entire Act.
31 & 32 Vict., c. 75 The Juries Act (Ireland), 1868 Section three.
32 & 33 Vict., c. 68 The Evidence Further Amendment Act, 1869. Section four.
33 & 34 Vict., c. 49 The Evidence Amendment Act, 1870. The entire Act.
This Act, which applies to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, is now the only law affecting Freethinkers as to oath or affirmation. The common law is abrogated and the statute law repealed by the passing of the new Oaths Act. It has had the effect of making persons without religious belief competent to give evidence in Scotland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. It has repealed the enactments of the Evidence Amendment Acts, 1869 and 1870, which in England, Ireland, and Wales required the presiding judge to be satisfied that an oath was not binding on the conscience of the witness.

A witness called upon to give evidence should, when he has entered the box, say quietly but clearly: "I object to be sworn, on the ground that I have no religious belief". He is then entitled to affirm, and the officer whose duty it is to administer the oath to witnesses who are sworn is bound, without further statement, to permit the witness to make the simple affirmation provided by the above Act. Neither the judge nor any officer of the court, nor the counsel or solicitors in the case, have any right to put any question, to the witness as to his views on religion. If any question be put by a judge of the High Court, the witness should say: "My lord, I respectfully submit that, having made my objection in the exact words of the statute, I am now entitled to affirm without any question, and that I am not bound to answer any question". If the presiding officer be a County Court judge or coroner, the words "your honor" should be used instead of "my lord", or in the case of a police magistrate "your worship". Should the judge persist in questioning the witness as to his opinions he should be met by a respectful but distinct refusal to answer. If the witness be before a coroner, and the coroner should—as has already happened—refuse to take the evidence of a witness so claiming to affirm such coroner should be asked: "On what ground do you decline to take my evidence?" and the answer should be carefully noted down. It is not anticipated that any judge of the High Court would so refuse. It is, however, possible that some justice of the peace might refuse, in which case he should be asked the like question. A most careful note in case of any difficulty of any kind arising should be at once sent to Mr. Bradlaugh, so that, if necessary and advisable, immediate legal or Parliamentary action may be taken. In the case of a person summoned as juror he should make the same statement—"I object to be sworn, on the ground that I have no religious belief"—when he is called on to take the book in order to be sworn. The same observation applies, that he is not bound to answer any question.

Should it happen that the judge or coroner should, instead of allowing the affirmation, say "You can leave the box", or any equivalent words dispensing with the juror's service in the suit or inquest, no answer or remark should be made, because it is probably within the competence of the judge and in his discretion to dispense with the services of any juror, and the Freethinker should at once quietly leave the court, and send to Mr. Bradlaugh exact details of what has taken place. Should the judge or coroner say, "Leave the box but do not leave the court", the juror should say: "My lord, I am ready and willing now to perform my duty as juryman in the case in which my name has been called; but if your lordship dispenses with my services as juror I respectfully deny your jurisdiction to detain me in court". The dispensed-with juror should then quietly leave the court. If the judge thereupon orders him to stay in the court, the facts should be carefully reported to Mr. Bradlaugh. Great care should be taken, whilst insisting on the right, to avoid any rudeness of demeanor or want of respect to the court.

The preceding instructions will apply to persons objecting to swear on religious grounds, except that the words to be used must be: "I object to be sworn, on the ground that the taking of an oath is contrary to my religious belief". The whole of the enactments are repealed which required the judge to be satisfied of the sincerity of the objection, when made on religious grounds.

In the case of any person required to take any oath of allegiance, or of office, or other oath, such person is equally entitled to affirm in all places for all purposes and under all circumstances.

To avoid the doubts raised under previous statutes, a simple form of affirmation in writing has been provided under section 4, in lieu and stead of a written affidavit.