HC Deb 15 April 1806 vol 6 cc751-3
Sir John Newport

rose to request the attention of the house for a few moments, to a motion which had been appointed for this day, respecting the Sheriffs of Waterford. He hoped, that if it should appear, that what had been done proceeded from ignorance, or inattention, the house would be inclined to pass it over, and that lenity would be shewn to those who had been chargeable with the oversight. But he would also submit to the consideration of his right hon. friend, who had given notice of the motion, that there had been some difficulty in the interpretation of the act on the subject, and that the law as it now stood in Ireland, had been the subject of considerable doubt, and difference of opinion.

M Secretary Fox

said, that he was disposed to pay every attention to what had fallen from his right hon. friend. The act imposed a pecuniary penalty on the sheriffs, unless the return was made within 40 days; but it was not meant to give them a discretionary power, to postpone their return of a member to the utmost limit prescribed by the law. Still, however, as some misconstruction of the act had taken place in Certain instances, he did not wish to bear hard on any individuals, who had not complied with what appeared to him the plain meaning of the act. The only question for the house to consider would now therefore be, whether it would be proper to amend the act, so as to remove every doubt, or whether a resolution of the house would be sufficient to prevent any such irregularity for the future.

Mr. Lee

stated for the information of the house, that the sheriffs in Ireland had a power which was not possessed in this country. In the case of a return for a county member in Ireland, the two attor- neys-general Of the different countries had given opinions diametrically opposite. This was enough to shew that considerable misapprehension existed on the subject of the act.

Sir V. Gibbs

said, it was clear that the penalty could not be levied, if the sheriffs made their return within the period prescribed by the act.—Mr. Fox then agreed to abandon the motion of which he had given notice.

[WITNESSES DECLARATORY BILL.] The Attorney General having, moved, that the house resolve itself into a committee on the Witnesses' Declaratory bill,

Mr. Perceval

said, that though in his opinion there was no necessity for the present bill, yet he would defer his Observations upon it till it had received those amendments which were likely to be made in the committee, and if therefore, he should not oppose it in the present stage of its progress; but he could not avoid making one remark on the bill, which had with him considerable weight. The design of the bill was to enact that to be the law, which was the opinion of a majority of the judges. But it appeared to him, that 6 out of the 8 judges, who approved of the principle of the bill, intended to give a qualified opinion. They seemed to think there might be exceptions from the general principle. The present bill, therefore, seemed to ascribe to them the unqualified adoption of an opinion which they entertained with certain exceptions. This was an objection which he should take an opportunity of urging against the bill, unless certain qualifications of the general principle were introduced into it.

The Attorney-General

said, that since his learned friend had expressed himself dissatisfied with the principle of the bill, he submitted it to him, whether it would not be more consistent to oppose the bill in its present progress, and state fully his objections to the principle, than afterwards to urge those objections, when the house had spent much time and attention on the amendment of the bill, and which, after all, it might see reason to throw out altogether.

The Master of the Rolls

defended the consistency of his learned friend. He could not help considering the present bill as unnecessary, but he would pay every degree of deference to the opinion of those who thought otherwise. If it should come out of the hands of the committee in a shape not very unsatisfactory, it should not then meet with much opposition from him. Had he been called upon to give his opinion on the subject of the bill, he should have given that which was held by the minority of the judges. But since the majority of the judges had given a solemn decision on the point, for the purpose of guiding the opinion of the lords on a bill before that house, he could not help considering the matter as sufficiently set at rest. He should think that no judge would henceforth act upon his own private opinion, in opposition to that of the majority, since it could not fail to be overruled by the majority of the judges. The law, therefore, was already sufficiently declared: there seemed no occasion for any interference of the legislature, and the house of lords had acted on the opinion which had been laid before them. But, as it had been already stated by his learned friend, the majority of the judges had delivered a qualified opinion. They said that, generally speaking, a witness was compellable to answer. This bill, however, converted into a universal proposition, what they only delivered as a general one. But he trusted that certain exceptions and qualifications would be introduced into the bill; and in that case, from the deference which he felt for the opinion of the judges, he should not oppose its passing into a law.—The house having resolved itself into the committee, several amendments were proposed by Mr. Giles, which were agreed to, and the report ordered to be received to-morrow.

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