HC Deb 12 June 1811 vol 20 cc596-606
Lord Folkestone

rose to make his promised motion for the production of the criminal informations against Mr. John Drakard and Mr. John Collyer for libels, and he was happy that at length he was enabled to do so while the Attorney-General was in his place. The sentence that had been passed upon those persons appeared to him to be of a most cruel and severe kind; and he would shortly state the circumstances of the prosecutions to the House, which he thought would abundantly prove that he was correct in his designation of the punishment. The libel for which Mr. Drakard had been prosecuted appeared first in his own paper, The Stamford News, from which it had been copied into a London newspaper, the Examiner. Against the editor of this latter paper a criminal information had been filed by the Attorney-General. The matter came on for trial at Westminster Hall, and the accused had been acquitted by the jury. It was not his intention to go into the details of the prosecution against Mr. Drakard at the present time; but from the complaints that had been made, that there were persons who wished to overturn all establishments, and especially the judicial establishment, he should have thought it politic not to try a man for such an undefined offence as that of libel, when another who had published the same libel had been acquitted. These, however, it appeared, were motives which did not actuate the law officers of the crown, and Mr. Drakard was tried at the assizes and found guilty. At the trial he had been charged not only by the lawyers against him, but by the judge on the bench, with partiality to France, and a desire of exalting the advantages of the government of that country, in comparison with that of England, When Mr. Drakard was brought up for judgment, therefore he produced an affidavit, containing various extracts from his paper, disproving in the most convincing manner this charge; and shewing, that so far from being actuated by any favour to the government of France, he had on many occasions written with the utmost earnestness against the mode of government which prevailed in that country. It was most extraordinary however, that these extracts, which were a complete answer to charges alledged at the trial as an aggravation of the libel, should at the time of pronouncing sentence be held out as an aggravation—and that all the advantage Mr. Drakard derived from having refuted the charge of partiality to France was, to be told that it was no excuse for a libel against the government of this country, to have libelled that of France. The sentence of Mr. Drakard was, that he should be imprisoned 18 months, fined 200l. and give security for his good behaviour for three years. He would not at present consider the nature of the libel, or whether the punishment was at all proportioned to the offence; but he would take in this light—was it fitting to subject. one man to so very severe a punishment for an offence of which another, who had published the same libel, had been acquitted by a jury of his countrymen? The criminality of a libel, it was said, consisted in its tendency to produce a breach of the peace. One jury had pronounced that the publication in question had no such tendency,—another jury had decided that it had; but when opinions were so nearly balanced, it was too much, he thought, to inflict a punishment which would have almost been excessive, if all mankind had been agreed that the publication was really criminal. It was on this ground that he called the attention of the House to the case of Mr. Drakard.

The other case was, in his opinion, a much more grievous one. It was that of Mr. Collyer, a dyer, at Manchester, who had been surcharged for the Income tax. He appealed against this surcharge, and being put to his oath before the Commissioners, swore that his income was no more than 160l. whereas the charge was for 300l. This, however, had only been reduced to 250l which Mr. Collyer, conceiving to be unjust, refused to pay. His goods had, in consequence, been distrained, and a horse and cart had been sold. Mr. Collyer found himself injured by this proceeding in two ways. In the first place, many of his neighbours began to consider him as a man in bad circumstances, and by this means his credit in trade had materially suffered: others, again, put a very injurious construction on the matter, and were disposed to consider him as a perjured man, the Commissioners having refused to believe him on oath. He therefore resolved to publish a vindication of his own conduct) but, being an illiterate man, he did not know how to draw it up, and applied to the editor of one of the Manchester papers, Mr. Cowdroy, stating the circumstances, and desiring him to make up a a statement and publish it in his paper. This was to be paid for as an advertisement: but Mr. Collyer particularly cautioned Mr. Cowdroy to avoid all libellous matter, or any thing that might bring him into difficulty. The editor promised to do this; and the paper being drawn up, Collyer, not being very capable of judging whether it contained improper matter or not, signed his name to it, paid the money, and it was inserted. Some alterations were made in it afterwards, and it was then carried by Mr. Collyer to the editor of another paper in Manchester, who also inserted it. From this it found its way into a London evening paper, the Statesman, for which the proprietor, Mr. Lovel, was now suffering imprisonment for twelve months. An information was filed against Mr. Collyer for this offence—he was convicted, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. The whole of the circumstances which he had stated, appeared in court as he had taken them from an affidavit which must have been read there. Suppose the defence of this man had contained offensive matter—still it might have been a question, whether he ought to be prosecuted, when it was considered that his only reason was to do away the injurious impressions among his neighbours, that he was a man in low circumstances, or that he had been guilty of perjury—but when it was found that he was really not the author of the libel; that he had even strictly cautioned the person who drew it up not to insert any libellous matter, nor do any thing against law; it was surely an extreme measure of justice I to punish him with imprisonment for twelve months. He had on a former occasion stated, that at the Old Bailey, persons convicted of felonies, for which by law their lives were forfeited, were sentenced to imprisonment for one, two, or three months, and yet this man, under such circumstances, had been condemned to a year's imprisonment!

He would row, with the leave of the I House, read this terrible libel, which had called down so heavy a punishment. [His lordship here read the whole of the letter so pronounced a libel, of which he conceived the only passage that could be considered approaching to a libel was, when talking of the hardship the of income-taxitself, it added, "How doubly oppressive must it be in the hands of commissioners who seem to take a pleasure in taking from the burdened and almost broken down manufacturer, more than he could spare.]"—It appeared, then, that this offence was really of so slight and trifling a nature, that it was hardly possible even to be angry at it. The Commissioners themselves fell no resentment for it; and so little was it thought of, that one of the persons who inserted it was a friend of the commissioners. They themselves told this man that they had no enmity towards him, that they would do every thing in their power to get him out of the scrape, but that the thing was in the hands of his Majesty's government; and yet the Attorney-General, knowing all these circumstances, on a former occasion told him (lord Folkestone) that he had the satisfaction to have prosecuted this man to conviction! He hoped one of the privy council or some person about his royal highness the Regent, would represent this case to him, when he had no doubt, from the generosity of his mind, that he would do in it what was proper. When he and others, thinking the press hardly used, and that there was even a systematic effort to subdue it, had on a former occasion thought it right to bring the subject of informations for libel before the House, he had employed a solicitor to procure him copies of the informations. The solicitor found it more convenient to apply to those who were employed for the several parties, than to get them from the office. He got them all, except the case of this man; for, finding that the copy was wanted for lord Folkestone, the attorney for the party expressed his fears, lest if the matter came to the Attorney General's ears, the punishment would be more severe. He did not mean to say that the re was any foundation for this fear; but this shewed the state of intimidation in which the press was placed. By the negligence of the solicitors, the instructions had not been delivered to the counsel till a few minutes before Collyer was brought up for judgment. The counsel therefore applied to the Attorney General to have the matter put off, when the Attorney General asked them whether they would answer that lord Folkestone would not accuse him of not having prosecuted their client? He would ask the Attorney-General whether this was not correct? Did the Attorney-General act differently From what he other wise would have done, on account of any tiling that he (lord Folkestone) might say? The better way would be to act even upon his own notions of what was right. But he denied that he had ever blamed the Attorney-General for not prosecuting. He had only blamed him for his partiality in having prosecuted those who opposed the politics of government for smaller offences, while he suffered those who supported the politics of government to publish the grossest libels with impunity. It had been ruled by the court, that even putting a letter in the postoffice containing libellous matter was a publication. What man, then, would dare to complain of the conduct of men in office even in this way, if a punishment so severe as a year's imprisonment were to be inflicted for offences so slight as that of Collyer? Was he not justified, then, in calling it a most severe and cruel punishment? The noble lord concluded by moving for copies of the informations for libel filed ex officio by the Attorney General against John Drakard and John Collyer, with copies of the record of the conviction and sentence.

The Attorney-General

hoped, when his I conduct was called in question, that the House would indulge him while he gave an account what that conduct had been. He begged the noble lord not to believe that he could have talked disrespectfully in another place of any motion made by the noble lord in that House. He might, no doubt, have expressed himself in the terms retailed to the noble lord, and, when an application for delay was moved, might, turning to those near him, have said in an under tone, "what will such a person say, if I consent to any postponement." He verily believes he had said so, and that, too, just in the way in which he had described it, and that some busy person had thought it worth his while to retail it to the noble lord. He was satisfied, however, that the noble lord was incapable of supposing that he could have been actuated in any thing he did by the conduct of the noble lord in bringing the subject under the consideration of the House, or that he could ever have allowed such a circumstance to act on him in such a way as to cause him to deviate from the line of his duty, which, he was conscious, he had never transgressed on any occasion. If the noble lord could suppose him capable of visiting the offence of any man with greater bitterness because he had communicated with the noble lord, he did him great injustice. He should feel mortified could he believe that the noble lord supposed him capable of such a violation of duty.—He then proceeded to consider the two casts brought under the notice of the House by the noble lord. First, as to the case of Drakard, the noble lord seemed to conceive that after the Hunts, the Proprietors of the Examiner, had been acquitted, he (the Attorney-Ge- neral ought to have been contented, and should have thought the cause of justice satisfied. Though there were many unexceptionable answers which might be given to this observation, there was one short one, which he thought was sufficient, and that was, that the noble lord must have been misinformed, for the two publications were not alike: Hunt's was not an exact copy of Drakard's, but there were many grossly offensive passages in Drakard's libel which had not found their way into Hunt's publication. He did not agree, however, that the acquittal of Hunt was a sufficient reason for staying the proceedings against Drakard, even had the publications been exactly the same. One would suppose, however, from the statement of the noble lord, that he (the Attorney-Gerneral) bunted down these persons from a pleasure which he took in oppressing them. If he did use the word 'pleasure' when he communicated to the noble lord the fact of Collyer's having been convicted, his using that expression did not proceed from any pleasure he felt at the circumstance itself, but, simply, from finding that he was correct in what he had stated on a former night, merely on recollection. With the sentence imposed on Drakard he had no concern. For that he could not answer; but at the same time he must say, that it could not at all be affected by the acquittal of Hunt. The court of King's Bench had to look to all the circumstances of the libel itself, and to apportion the punishment to the enormity of it, without regard to any extraneous circumstances. They were to say, what was a just punishment for the libel as it appeared before them. This they had done, and the noble lord had not thought proper to enter Into an investigation of the libel for the purpose of shewing that the punishment was disproportionate to the offence. He now came to the case of Collyer; and here the House would please to consider who the persons were, against whom the libel was published. They were gentlemen who undertook a laborious and invidious office for the sake of the public, and if they were not to be protected against calumny in the exercise of their duty, the office must remain unexecuted. He did assure the noble lord, that never in any case had more pains been taken to ascertain what were its real merits, than he had taken in this very case. He had not confined his inquiries to the consideration of the libel, but he had also exerted himself to ascer- tain if Collyer had any real ground of complaint. Though that would not have operated as an excuse, still he had satisfied himself on this head before he filed an information against him. The libel did not, in fact, apply to an appeal on oath made by Collyer at the time, but he had gone on withholding part of his income for five years. So far, too, from the Commissioners being satisfied without prosecuting Collyer, it was only on a complaint from them that they could not go on in their office, if the matter was allowed to pass, that he was prosecuted. The two printers were first prosecuted, and the Commissioners agreed to wave the prosecution against them, if the author was given up. This he (the Attorney-General) disapproved of, thinking the printer or publisher often as mischievous a character as the author; but he did not think himself warranted in refusing to accede after such an agreement had been made. So far, therefore, from originating with him, the prosecution against Collyer had been under-taken at the express desire of the Commissioners themselves. It was to be observed, however, that after the libel in question had been printed by Cowdroy, Collyer himself took it, and paid 15s. for giving it still farther publicity. That these circumstances must have had some effect with the court, no man could deny. It was impossible for any dispassionate man to look at the publication, and not to see that it imputed to the Commissioners, that they acted from corrupt motives, or from the very worst of passions. These being the circumstances of the two cases, alluded to by the noble lord, he submitted to the House, that there could be no ground for imputing any thing improper to him; certainly there was nothing improper in the court who had pronounced the sentences in question.

Mr. Whitbread

begged to say a few words, not respecting any thing improper on the part of the hon. and learned gent. who, he had no doubt, had acted most fairly and constitutionally, but simply to make a general observation, that he had remarked for some time, that the punishments inflicted on offences of this kind were most exceedingly severe. He had occasion some considerable time ago to present a Petition on the part of White and Hart, whose period of imprisonment was now nearly expired. There the imprisonment was for three years; a punishment infinitely beyond what could be sup- posed adequate to any offence of the kind. He had since heard of another charge of a similar kind, against White, for a libel inserted in his paper at a time when he could have no inspection of it; but he hoped after so long an imprisonment, it would not be persevered in.—As to the case of Drakard, he could not judge, not having read the publication, but after one person had been acquitted for a similar publication, he could not but think the punishment allotted to it was severe indeed.—As to Collyer, it was admitted that he was an illiterate man, and that supposing himself injured, he, in a stale of irritation, employed another person to write out a statement of his case, desiring him at the same time to guard against every thing libellous. He agreed with the Attorney General in thinking that the person who composed the libel was the more proper object of punishment. He thought that the commissioners might have been satisfied with conviction merely, without sentence; but if sentence was necessary, he was decidedly of opinion that twelve months imprisonment for an offence of the kind was such an excess of punishment, that it ought to be mitigated in that quarter alone from whence mercy' could now flow:—an exercise of the prerogative which, he was convinced, would give satisfaction to the public, and to the Attorney-General himself.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, if in the case of the libel published by Drakard, one jury had acquitted and another had convicted, it was for the judges, when called on to pronounce sentence of the person convicted, to satisfy their own minds which of the two verdicts had been founded on mistake, and to pass a mild or severe sentence accordingly. If the noble lord contended that the court had erred in their judgment on this point, why had he not given the publication to the House. The fact however was, that the publication for which a verdict of acquittal had been obtained, was not a copy of the whole of the publication which another jury had declared to be a libel. As to any application at the fountain of mercy, in the case of Collyer, he begged the House to consider what was the nature of that case. It did not depend on the particular words of the publication, but on the mischief likely to be produced by it, and the effect it was calculated to produce on the minds of those against whom it was addressed. It was to be considered that they were persons who served without reward, and that they lived in a populous neighbourhood, whose indignation against them such a publication as the present was peculiarly calculated to excite, they being here held up as persons who felt delight in oppression. The court could not but have had these circumstances in view, and influenced by all the merciful considerations which ought to govern their minds, corrected, however, by a regard to what the public service required, they had passed the sentence now complained of. He must therefore oppose the motion.

Mr. W. Smith

, though he did not think that the question was with out its difficulties, yet was of opinion that sufficient ground had been laid for the production of the required informations. He admitted that it was necessary support those who undertook the duty gratuitously discharged by the commissioners, and that if any man libelled those commissioners, he ought to be brought to justice: but be contended against carrying this principle to such a violent extent as that to which it seemed to have been carried in the case under consideration. To consent to the motion would certainly be to imply that the House of Commons thought there had been some harshness in the administration of justice; but as he did not conceive that such an implication would be as detrimental to the public interests, as a refusal to inquire into the subject, he should support the noble lord's motion.

Mr. Lockhart

was surprised that the premises of the hon. gentleman should have led him to such a conclusion. The hon. gentleman allowed that such public officers as the commissioners alluded to, ought to be protected in the discharge of their duty. Now, it was impossible that Mr. Collyer could have made a worse charge against the commissioners than that which he had done, except indeed he had accused them of corruption. He had charged them with taking a malignant pleasure in oppressing the manufacturers, already half borne down by the various evils which they were enduring. He could not conceive a more serious imputation than this; nor one which more distinctly required the interposition of the law. The hon. gentleman allowed that if the motion were carried, it would imply an imputation on the court of King's Bench. Unquestionably it would do so, more especially when coupled with some of the observations which had, been made in the coarse of the debate; and he should therefore oppose it. He never had been a friend to severe punishments; but he confessed that having attentively considered the various punishments for libel, which had been inflicted by the Court of King's bench during the last twenty or thirty years, he did not see that they had departed in the cases before the House, from the sound discretion which they appeared uniformly to exercise in such cases. If Mr. Collyer were entitled to lenity, that was a consideration which ought to arise elsewhere. It ought not to originate in that House, as it would throw a slur on the administration of justice, which, he believed, was perfectly improper.

After a short reply from lord Folkestone, the motion was negatived without a division.