HC Deb 03 February 1818 vol 37 cc134-42
Mr. William Smith

said, that at present he did not conceive it necessary for him to go into a minute detail of the circumstances connected with the motion which he had announced. He should content himself with moving, that an account be laid before the House, of the sum received from Mr. Hone at the crown office for copies of the various informations filed against him, in order to form the grounds of proceedings which he intended hereafter to bring forward. He took that method of procuring the necessary information, as he thought it best adapted for bringing that information before them with the greatest degree of authenticity. At the same time he thought it proper to mention, that the case of Mr. Hone was rather the incidental occasion than the reason of the motion now proposed for their consideration. He had for more than twenty years been of the same opinion respecting the expediency of reform in this department; and he now took shame to himself that he had been so remiss in bringing it under discussion. Had the subject been repeatedly agitated, it was impossible but some amelioration should have taken place. As to Mr. Hone, he had never known any thing of him till the time of his trial, but he was ready to confess, that in considering the recent prosecutions instituted against him, he could not help admiring the intrepidity, sagacity, and skill, with which he had conducted his own defence. He had since had an opportunity of conversing with him in private, and he must declare that he discovered nothing that could tend to give him an unfavourable impression of his character, nothing unbecoming the man- ners of a gentleman. As for the parodies published by Mr. Hone, his opinion perfectly coincided with that of the public in general, that they were highly censurable; and it was not the least honourable part of Mr. Hone's conduct, that immediately on finding that such was the public impression respecting them, he used every means to prevent the circulation. But those parodies, however censurable, were not a fit subject to be animadverted on in a court of justice. It appeared to him that the free operation of public opinion was the only adequate and proper check to their popularity. He said he had little more to trouble them with on the subject, and disclaimed any intention of complaining of any party. He had the authority of Mr. Hone to state, that the conduct of the attorney-general towards him was that of a man of urbanity, politeness, and justice. If any blame could attach to the conduct of that gentleman, Mr. Hone conceived it was in not including the three informations in one: in every other respect he had shown himself a gentleman and a man of humanity. It was of the law itself, as it at present stood, that he had to complain. From the officers of the crown he had received every attention. Neither did he mean to reflect on the conduct of the learned lord on the bench, in refusing to furnish copies, as he found that, according to law, he could not have acted otherwise. It was in the law itself, therefore, that reformation was required, and the motion he was about to make had occurred to him as the proper parliamentary mode of bringing the subject under their notice. He should therefore move "That there be laid before this House, an account of the sum received at the Crown-office from Mr. Hone, for the copies of the informations filed against him by the attorney-general, with the authority on which the same was demanded, and the use to which the same was applied,"

The Attorney General

said, he saw no reason for acceding to this motion, as it did not appear that any thing was done towards Mr. Hone, different from that towards other persons similarly circumstanced. This, indeed, the hon. mover had admitted, that nothing more was exacted by the crown office from Mr. Hone, than would have been demanded from any body else in the same situation, and that he (the attorney-general) wished to be distinctly understood; for as Mr. Hone had not suffered a different mode of treatment as to the fees of office, from that experienced by others in his condition, he saw no reason why his case should be made the particular ground of any general measure of regulation. Such a measure appeared to be the ulterior object of the hon. mover. But if such were the case, why not, instead of selecting any specific case, move rather for a general return of the fees received at the Crown-office for copies of informations filed by the attorney-general, with a statement of the authority upon which such fees were demanded, and the purpose to which they were applied? Such a motion would bring the whole question fairly forward, and it would then be for the wisdom of the Mouse to consider whether a practice sanctioned by immemorial usage required any alteration or amendment. It ought to be known that the master of the Crown-office, or the chief judge of the court of King's-bench, had no right to order that Mr. Hone, or any person in his situation, should have a copy of any information filed against him free of expense, because such expense was but the remuneration to which the clerks in the Crown-office were entitled for their trouble in drawing up such copy. If it appeared that the remuneration obtained from Mr. Hone had exceeded that required from any other individual, there would be some ground for this motion; but as such excess was not alleged, the motion struck him to be totally unnecessary for any parliamentary purpose. If it was the object of the hon. mover to ascertain the amount of fees received at the Crown-office, he could find a record upon the Journals explanatory of all fees exacted for copies of informations filed by the attorney general, as well as of indictments found by grand juries; for the expense for copies and subpoenas was the same upon both. The exaction of those fees had been a practice of very ancient date: he could not say how long the practice had existed before, but there was a distinct record upon the Journals stating the amount of those fees, in a return to the House in the year 1693, and the fees were still the same, with the addition only created by different stamp acts. Under these circumstances he repeated that the present motion was quite unnecessary, because the information which it professed to have in view might be had from the return which he had already mentioned. On these grounds he felt it his duty to oppose the motion. All the information for which it sought being already notorious, and apprehending that from the adoption of such a motion, it might be concluded out of doors, as he himself was indeed led to fancy from the hon. member's notice, that there was in the case of Mr. Hone something different from that to which all other persons were subjected against whom an information was filed, or an indictment found. As all the information which the hon. mover could desire with a view to any legislative measure upon the subject of those fees gene- rally was to be found in the Journals of the House, he could not see the necessity of pressing the motion, and would therefore move the previous question.

Sir Francis Burdett

thought, that no objection whatever had been raised against the adoption of the motion by the learned gentleman who had just sat down. For the upshot of all the learned gentleman had said, was merely this, that all the information which the motion had in view, was quite notorious. But if notoriety were admitted as a valid reason against the adoption of motions, how few would be carried in that House. For that was generally notorious which it was the object of a motion to bring before the House in a regular and authentic shape. The production of information in this shape was, indeed, deemed generally necessary, to form what was called a parliamentary ground for subsequent proceedings. But the great grievance in the case now before them, was the absolute refusal of justice to the poor, by means of the enormous expense imposed on its administration. He should like to know of what avail the best political and legal institutions could be, if they were thus rendered inaccessible. The great grievance therefore was, that the insatiable thirst of taxation had made the administration of justice a cruel insult and mockery to the people. The hon. mover proposed to bring forward some legislative remedy for this grievance. The reason on which he wished to found this measure was no reason, according to the attorney-general, because it was perfectly notorious to the whole world! The grievance was indeed notorious; the greater the notoriety of this oppressive system, the more peremptorily was its reformation called for, at the hands of the representatives of the people.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, that if the mo- tion which he had proposed were even negatived, that would not serve to defeat the ulterior object which he had in view. His hon. and learned friend (for so he must always call him) had stated, that the motion was irregular, because it referred to a particular case, and that he should rather have brought forward an abstract motion with respect to the fees of the Crown office generally. But to this remark he should make a clear, short, and specific answer. He had particularly referred to the case of Mr. Hone, because that case afforded peculiar reason for the course which he meant to pursue—because that case presented the strongest illustration of the intolerable injustice of the practice which prevailed at the crown-office; for Mr. Hone had told him that he could not obtain copies of the three informations filed against him, without paying fees amounting to nine pounds, which, from the state of his circumstances, he could with difficulty afford to pay. In order to raise this sum, he was obliged to sell some articles of his property considerably under their real value. Many persons who heard him, would no doubt deem nine pounds a very small sum, especially contrasted with a man's safety, a desire of preparing his defence against a charge likely to subject him to long imprisonment; but this sum was considerable to a man in Mr. Hone's situation, with a large family, with a wife and several children to provide for, and with many debts to discharge. It was, therefore, a great aggravation of the treatment which Mr. Hone suffered, that he should have been compelled to submit to such an exaction. Mr. Hone was obliged to sell various articles of his little property, under their prime cost, in order to meet this demand, because the independence of his mind would not allow him to apply for the assistance of friends, while, from the nature of his situation, it was necessary for him promptly to examine the grounds of the accusation against him, in order to prepare for his defence. If the general motion alluded to by the attorney-general were adopted, the return to such a motion would not state the sums paid by Mr. Hone, and he wished to have something distinct and specific before the House-But if the hon. and learned gentleman would move for a return of the fees usually received at the Crown office, stating how much was paid by Mr. Hone, he would not object to such a substitute for his motion. But unless such a substitute were proposed, he could not see the propriety of abandoning the motion, by which he merely wished to have information laid before the House in an authentic parliamentary form, upon which he proposed to rest ulterior proceedings. But whether this information, which the attorney-general alleged to be notorious, were laid before the House or not, he should feel it his duty to persist in his ultimate object for the removal of what appeared to him a most iniquitous system of exaction. Such being his resolution, he was indifferent to the fate of the motion, unless with a view to comply with the forms, and to satisfy the judgment of the House.

Lord Castlereagh

felt himself bound to give his negative to the motion, because its professed object was different from the real one. The professed object was to lay a foundation for some legislative remedy as to fees paid in the Crown office. This object would be effected by a general motion on the subject. The information thus obtained would, by the rule-of-three, at once show the charges in any particular case! But the real object was to give the public an exaggerated view of the question, by connecting it with Mr. Hone. The trial of Mr. Hone having now taken place, and the attorney-general having confessedly displayed all the qualities which belonged to him in the discharge of his duty, he would say nothing now on the subject; but he must give his negative to the motion for the reason which he had assigned.

Mr. Brougham

defended the mode adopted by the hon. mover. His object was merely to obtain a foundation for a legislative proceeding. He said, in. effect, "give me certain documents, and I will show you the foundation of such a measure." "No," said the noble lord, "but we will tell you how much is charged per sheet." After such information should be laid before them, they would remain quite ignorant of the sum paid by each individual. The knowledge of this could not be obtained but by such a motion as was stated by his hon. friend. Let the amount paid in the case of Mr. Hone be given, and, if they chose, in the case of five or six others, in order to avoid attaching the question to any particular case, and they would then have a proper foundation for further proceedings.

Mr. Bathurst

said, that according to his understanding any person against whom a criminal information was filed might, if he did not think proper to purchase a copy, consult such information at his leisure. Where, then, was the grievance? for if the accused could not, or would not pay the clerks at the Crown office for the trouble of copying the information against him, he was at liberty to read that information at the Crown office whenever he thought proper. He did not wish to express any opinion upon the trials alluded to. He could not, however, forbear from noticing the observation now so very general, that although the publications which gave rise to those trials were objectionable, they ought not to have been made the subject of prosecution, but that the cessation of such publications ought to have been left to the moderation and subsequent reflection of the individuals with whom they originated. Upon this observation he would state no opinion, but leave it to the judgment of the House and the country. But as to the professed object of the hon. mover, why, he would ask, should the hon. member direct his views solely to the expense upon criminal proceedings? Was not the hon. member aware of the expense of bills in chancery and upon civil actions? Then why confine himself to a special case, but too likely to create a particular impression? The hon. mover had stated, that Mr. Hone's circumstances were so limited that he could not conveniently raise the sum of nine pounds, because his independent mind would not allow him to avail himself of the assistance of friends. But he apprehended the hon. mover had not. asked Mr. Hone, what was his profit from the publications for which he was brought to trial, and which were known to have been very extensively circulated. As to the information which the hon. mover professed to seek, on the subject of fees, he might obtain it with ease from the recent reports of the commissioners for inquiring into the fees of courts of justice. If, however, it was desired for any general purpose of legislation to obtain precise information for any given period, including ten or twelve cases,' the motion might be so worded, but he saw no reason for acceding to a motion which implied a particular predilection for the case of Mr. Hone.

Lord Folkestone

declared, that he could not hear, without surmrise, the objections which had been made to this motion on the other side of the House. For what was more reasonable in any hon. member proposing to amend an existing law, than to point out a particular grievance arising out of that law, and to move that the proof of that grievance should be laid before the House in a regular and authentic form? Yet such was the course of proceeding objected to by those very gentlemen, who, when any remedial measure was proposed, uniformly flung in the teeth of the proposer a challenge to show a particular grievance. On this occasion, however, these gentlemen felt it expedient to alter their course. He agreed with the right hon. gentleman who had just sat down, that it would be better to move for the production of several cases, than to confine the motion to one particular case, because, by adopting the right hon. gentleman's motion, the House would obtain more information. But as to the statement of the right hon. gentleman, that any person against whom a criminal information was filed, might, if he could not or would not purchase a copy of such information, go to the Crown-office and read it there at his leisure; it was to be recollected, that Mr. Hone was, at the time referred to, a prisoner in the King's-bench; for by a modern statute, of which sir Vicary Gibbs was the parent, any one against whom a criminal information was filed, might be committed to prison, if he did not find bail, or did not think proper to give bail, or had it not in his power to procure bail to satisfy the crown solicitor. Yet the House was told, that any one against whom a criminal information was filed, was at liberty to read that information at the Crown-office. But how was a man in gaol to avail himself of that privilege? and such was the condition of Mr. Hone. So much, then, for the statement of the right hon. gentleman, which he appeared to think quite a triumphant answer to the complaint of Mr. Hone. How, he would ask, was a man of humble means in such a situation to procure a copy of the information against him, the close examination of which must be so necessary to the preparation of his defence. The case referred to by the hon. mover was obviously one which called for legislative regulation.

The motions were, with the leave of the House, withdrawn, and Mr. Smith gave notice, that he would to-morrow submit to the House another motion, on the general question of filing criminal informations.