HC Deb 03 February 1817 vol 35 cc183-90
Lord Folkestone

said, that he held in his hand a petition from an unfortunate youth, complaining of a most serious violation of the liberty of the subject. He had that morning had from the petitioner a most intelligent statement of his sufferings — that he had been, on the warrant of a police magistrate, committed to the New Prison of Clerkenwell — had been there immured in a dismal dungeon for twelve days,; with no other subsistence than bread and water. The noble lord said, he had also been enabled to obtain a view of the warrant of his committal, which alleged that he was imprisoned as a vagrant, without any visible means of support. In contradiction, the petitioner stated, that at the very moment he was arrested, he Lad property to the amount of three shillings and sixpence, in money, in his pocket—that he had resided for above three months in the lodgings he then occupied, and obtained an honest livelihood by the sale of religious and moral tracts. Indeed, the boy had written from the prison to his landlady, for the purpose of assuring her, that he had not absconded from his lodgings, accompanied with a request that she would bring him some money of his which remained at her house. On the last day of the sessions the boy was brought up to Hicks's-hall, with twelve other persons, tied together with a rope, and was there discharged. Such a statement would call for the most serious and prompt investigation at all times; but when it was recollected, that during the last year the most nefarious crimes were brought home to police officers, and strong suspicions to police magistrates, and that no notice appeared to be taken of that conduct by the department of state, under whose superintendence these police magistrates were, he sincerely trusted, that the House would feel the present a case of an enormous invasion of the right of the subject, that loudly demanded its interference.—The following petition was then read:

"To the honourable the Commons of the united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in parliament assembled. The petition of Thomas Dugood of the parish of St. Paul, Covent-garden, in the city of Westminster,

"Humbly sheweth; That your petitioner is a parentless and friendless boy, seventeen years of age, who, until lately seized by two police officers, and sent to prison by the police, obtained the honest means of living by the sale of religious and moral tracts, which he used to purchase of Mr. Collins of Paternoster-row.— That your petitioner has, for more than four months last past, lodged, and he still lodges, at the house of Keeran Shields,' who lives at No. 13, Gee's-court, Oxford-street, and who is a carter to Mr. White of Mortimer-street, and who is also a watchman in Marybone parish.— That your petitioner has never in his life lived as a vagrant, but has always had a settled home, has always pursued an honest and visible means of getting his living, has always been, and is ready to prove that he always has been an industrious, a peaceable, sober, honest, and orderly person.—That, on the 10th of January 1817, your petitioner, for having pulled down a posting bill, printed by J. Downes, who is the printer to the police, and which bill was intituled 'Mr. Hunt hissed out of the city of Bristol,' was committed by Mr. Sellon to the New Prison, Clerkenwell, where he was kept on bread and water, and compelled to lie on the bare boards until the twenty-second of the same month, when he was tied, with about fifty others, to a long rope or cable, and marched to Hicks's-hall, and there let loose.—That your petitioner has often heard it said, that the law affords protection to the poor as well as the rich, and that, if unable to obtain redress any where else, every subject of his majesty has the road of petition open to him: therefore your petitioner, being unable to obtain redress in any other manner for the grievous wrongs done him by the magistrate of the police, most humbly implores your honourable House to afford him protection and redress, and to that end he prays your honourable House to permit him to prove at the bat' of your honourable House all and several the allegations contained in this his most humble petition. And your petitioner will ever pray."

Lord Folkestone then moved, that a committee be appointed to inquire into the matter of the said petition, and report their opinion thereon to the House.

Mr. Addington

assured the House, that he knew nothing of the case described by the noble mover and brought forward in the petition, than what he had read in the public papers. None of the facts or allegations had come to him through any other channel. He had seen the exami- nation of the boy stated in a report from one of the police offices, and had afterwards read, that one or two individuals who had taken up his cause had said, that he meant first to have laid the case before parliament, but that upon subsequent consideration he had altered his mind, and meant to make a representation on the subject to the secretary of state for the home department. In consequence of this intimation he had expected such a representation as would have laid the facts before him in such a shape as would have warranted inquiry. No communication, however, had been made to the office of the home secretary; if there had, he could assure the House that every attention would have been paid to it, and that the fullest and strictest investigation of all the circumstances would have taken place in the most prompt and zealous manner.

Mr. Bennet

was surprised that the right hon. gentleman had not made one observation about the motion for a committee. Was he against it? [No, no! from several parts of the House.] He could not help, since he was up, making one remark on the place where this poor boy was confined. He thought it utterly disgraceful to the country. No gentleman would keep his hounds in such a wretched place, and with such wretched accommodations, as these poor creatures were confined to.

The Attorney General

would ask the House whether it was proper that this case should be examined in parliament in the first instance, or whether it would not be better to adopt a different course, and apply to a court of law for a legal remedy? The petition complained of false imprisonment—of an illegal act. The petitioner stated, that "he had often heard it said, that the law afforded protection to the poor as well as the rich;" and when he had heard it so said, he had heard what was in this country practically true. Let, therefore, a legal remedy be first sought, and if unable to obtain redress in the regular manner, let him then exercise his right to petition the legislature. If this petition was received, the application of no person who complained, in similar circumstances, of personal restraint, could be refused, and the functions of parliament would thus be confounded with those of courts of law. Objections might be started against bringing an action for false imprisonment in this case, but they did not appear to him so strong as to warrant a departure from the usual course. The boy, it might be said, was young, but could he not sue by his guardians? He was poor, then let him sue in forma pauperis. It appeared to him that it would be the better mode of proceeding to bring the subject of this petition before a court of law.

Mr. Addington

submitted to the noble mover, whether it would not be more correct and becoming to postpone his motion for a committee for a day or two, in order to allow time to inquire into the circumstances. If the noble lord did so, he would pledge himself to enter fully into the investigation, and inform the House of the result.

Lord Folkestone

said, he had no objection to postpone the appointment of a committee till a previous investigation of the circumstances had taken place by the home secretary, provided no delay intervened. Thursday was then suggested as the time when information might be expected, and his lordship consented to postpone the appointment of the committee till that day.

Lord Castlereagh

would not consent to consider the question for a committee as carried, but suggested that the regular course would be for the noble lord to withdraw his motion, and bring it forward afterwards, as he should see meet.

Lord Folkestone

said, there was only one alternative in which he would consent to withdraw his motion, and that was in case the learned attorney-general, who had recommended the petitioner to apply for a legal remedy and to sue in forma pauperis, would consent to direct the proper steps for obtaining redress, and pledge himself to be his advocate. [Hear, hear! and a laugh]. On no other condition could he agree to the course recommended. This was a case peculiarly demanding the interference of parliament. The petitioner was poor, and could not gain admission to the courts of justice in such circumstances as would excite attention to his sufferings, or obtain legal advice. There was another reason why it should be considered by parliament. The act complained of was done, and the boy was committed, not by the ordinary magistrates of the country, but by police magistrates, almost new to our constitution, appointed by the crown, paid by the crown, and removeable at the pleasure of the crown. The act for which the boy was committed was one connected with political principles. The conduct of these magistrates should therefore be narrowly watched.

The Attorney General

observed, that he was placed in a situation by the noble lord that no member of parliament was ever placed in before, if it were necessary for him to make the pledge required, in having thus within the walls of the House a retainer proposed to him as a counsel in one of the courts of justice. In his capacity of law officer of the crown he could not be the advocate of the petitioner, and in any other capacity he could not be required to support his cause by any parliamentary application. He could say, however, that if the course he had recommended were followed, there would be no want of legal advice and assistance. If it were stated to the court that he applied to sue in forma pauperis, it would not be difficult to find counsel at the British bar, the most eminent and learned in their profession, who would plead his cause, with as much zeal, perseverance, and ability, as if he were the richest subject in the kingdom. The noble lord, he was convinced, would, upon mature deliberation, withdraw his alternative, and place the cause of the petitioner in any hands sooner than his.

Mr. Brougham

said, that though his hon. and learned friend could not be called upon, as law officer of the crown, in the present stage of the proceeding, to be counsel in supporting the cause of the petitioner, he might subsequently be required to be so by a vote of the House. He did not wish to prejudge the case, ignorant as he was of the circumstances. The prima facie view he allowed was bad, and demanded the most serious consideration and the most minute inquiry. It was a matter of the utmost importance to the country and the individuals implicated. The only question at present was, could there be any inconvenience in letting the appointment of the committee lie over for a few days, till the promised investigation was made by the home department; it being understood, that in the event of the result being unsatisfactory, the fullest inquiry would take place by the committee J There was a standing committee of grievances to which the petition might be referred.

Lord A. Hamilton

little expected, in the present state of the country, and under the pressure of distress which afflicted such numbers of the people, to hear of a warrant of commitment, recording as cri- minality the want of visible means of subsistence. Unhappily, from his own knowledge, and he believed every member who heard him could make the same declaration, there were at this moment thousands of distressed individuals without visible means of subsistence, whose misery neither was nor could be confounded with crime. The statement, in the present case, however, positively denied the fact, on which the warrant was issued.

Mr. Wrottesley

saw no ground for receiving this petition; if they did receive it, they would be inquiring into the conduct of a magistrate, against whom the petitioner had his proper remedy elsewhere, and the boy did not seem to be without friends to assist him in his course. If this mode of seeking redress were to be allowed on every false arrest, a petitioner, without even the formality of an oath, could call upon the House to decide upon the merits of his case. The complainant had his remedy in due course of law. His claim by petition ought to be his last, not his first resource.

Sir F. Burdett

was of opinion that the boy could not procure a real effectual remedy by the legal course recommended. There was a considerable difficulty in sueing in forma pauperis. The petitioner must have counsel to sign an application stating that he was a proper person to sue in that capacity; and it would not probably be easy to find a counsel who would expose himself to suspicion by such a transaction, considering he would thereby be acting against government. He could call the boy's commitment nothing else than an act of the government. The real cause of it was for pulling down a handbill, prepared, as he was informed, and posted up by the police itself, against an individual obnoxious to government. Another difficulty in the way of sueing in forma pauperis was this—that the boy, although he had not means to bring an action in any other capacity, might still have so much property as would deprive him of all title to such a mode of obtaining redress. The question involved in this petition was peculiarly fit for parliamentary consideration, as it affected the liberty of the subject. Although such were his ideas, he would advise the noble lord to wait a few days till the promised investigation took place. If, however, the noble lord pressed his motion for the committee at present, he would support it; as he thought the principle attempted to be laid down was wrong, that because redress of a grievance could be obtained elsewhere, therefore the House should not be applied to.

The Attorney General

said, that there were scores of men at the British bar who would do their duty without any regard to the political opinions of those whose interests they were intrusted with.

Lord Folkestone

would not consent to withdraw his motion, unless he understood that it would appear on the journals of the House.

The Speaker

informed the noble lord, that this and every other motion was entered on the journals of the House, whatever fate attended it.

Lord Cochrane

stated, that the bills pulled down purported to have been printed by Downes, printer to the police offices; that they had been issued under the direction of the magistrates, and that officers had attended the posting up of them, and were afterwards stationed to Watch whether any person would tear them down or deface them, that the person so offending might be dragged before the magistrates, to be treated by them as they thought proper. He felt that unless the subject was examined by a committee, no certain knowledge of the circumstances could be collected; for police officers, and others, might prevaricate and conceal the facts, which they could never venture to do before the House or a committee. He admired the dexterity of those who now argued against having the subject submitted to the House of Commons before it received the decision of a court of justice, remembering that the very same persons, not long since, argued against the interference of the House in cases on which a court of justice had already determined. By such reasoning the House would be precluded altogether from exercising any control over judicial concerns.

Mr. Ponsonby

expressed a wish that the noble lord would withdraw his motion till the promised report was made by the right hon. secretary. He would not be prevented from bringing it forward again, should the result be unsatisfactory. The fullest investigation had been promised, and the noble lord should allow time for its being made. If he would not consent to withdraw his motion, he might move as an amendment, that the consideration of it be deferred till the report of his majesty's minister be received. The matter was of the greatest importance. Justice must be done to all parties. Even if a verdict were obtained in favour of the petitioner in a court of law, such a result might not be thought sufficient to render farther parliamentary proceedings on the subject unnecessary. He did not doubt but that many gentlemen of the bar would be found willing to support the cause of the petitioner; but he was uncertain whether, even though he sued in forma pauperis, stamp duties must not be paid.

The Attorney General

said, that persons sueing in forma pauperis were not liable to the payment of stamp duties.

Lord Folkestone

having finally consented to withdraw his motion, the petition was ordered to lie on the table.