HC Deb 19 April 1821 vol 5 cc456-9
Mr. Hobhouse

rose, to present a Petition, to which he requested the attention of the House. It was upon the same subject as that which, some days ago, he had presented, with respect to the power of a judge to fine a defendant in the course of making his defence, and which be had been urged to withdraw, because it was deemed inadmissible, in consequence of an impression that there were some words in the petition which implied an irregular allusion to the speech of a right hon. member of that House. These words were therefore omitted in the petition which he held in his hand, and which was signed by a number of the respectable inhabitants of Westminster and London. This petition did not indeed contain any thing against which the most scrupulous person could make any objection. Upon the merits of the petition or the object which it had in view, he would not then trouble the House with any observation; but seeing the hon. member for Surrey in his place, he thought it right to take that opportunity of correcting the misrepresentation to which that hon. member had called his attention with regard to the remarks imputed to him as to the conduct of the chairman of the Surrey sessions. He had never said, as was alleged, that this magistrate had sanctioned, or had been in any degree concerned in, packing juries, but that he was under a mistake as to the extent of his power to impose a fine upon any person for contempt of court. The conception therefore of the chairman was quite erroneous. The hon. member concluded with giving notice of his intention after the holidays, to make a substantive motion with respect to the power improperly assumed by the judges of fining for contempt.

The petition was then read, setting forth "that the petitioners have heard with deep regret that a petition to the House has been rejected without being brought up, and read; the petitioners will on this occasion say nothing of the right established at the Revolution in 1688, but the petitioners are the more aggrieved at such a determination on the part of the House, inasmuch as they have heard that the said petition prayed for the interference of the House on a subject of the highest importance, not only to the petitioners, but to the whole community; the petitioners beg leave to state, that without entering into the particular case of Thomas Davison they have always been taught to believe, and do believe, that summary fining a defendant during the course of his defence is not sanctioned by any principle of English law, or by any practice; they apprehend that such a power ought not to be lodged in the hands of any judge, it being inevitably liable to abuse, and tending to produce greater mischiefs than those of which it intends to prevent; the petitioners have always understood that even the meanest of the people had a right to apply to the House of Commons, for the purpose of causing to be corrected the errors into which even the highest public functionaries must occasionally fall; and they have also been informed, that, for the especial purpose of guarding the administration of justice from abuses, the House has at this time sitting a committee, to which in their judgment, the petition of the said Thomas Davison might have been wisely and safely referred; the petitioners would press upon the reflection of the House, that if the people of England should adopt the opinion that the House will hear no complaint against any person entrusted with the administration of justice, the House will then totally lose its importance in the eyes of the nation, and will be regarded rather as the encourager than the corrector of the worst abuses; the petitioners are satisfied that no decision of the court of King's Bench can sanction an act which is an innovation upon immemorial' usage, and although they are aware that a judicial appeal lies from that decision to the House of Lords, yet they also know that the House has the means of checking any practice in any department of the executive government which may appear to infringe upon the rights of the subject; the petitioners therefore pray, that the House will be pleased to direct the committee for the administration of justice to institute an inquiry into the claim set up by the judges summarily to fine a defendant during the course of his defence, the said practice appearing to the petitioners to be wholly arbitrary, illegal, and unjust."

On the motion, that the petition do lie on the table,

Mr. Sumner

said, he thought he could not better vindicate the conduct of the chairman of the quarter sessions, than by reading to the House the statement which that gentleman had drawn up, in consequence of the observations which had fallen from the hon. member for Westminster, on a former night. Mr. Harrison admitted, that he told Mr. M'Creery, that if he pursued the line of observations which he was addressing to the Court, he would render himself unfit to serve on any jury, and that if he did not sit down, he would fine him. When Mr. M'Creery afterwards called upon him to explain these expressions, the chairman told him, that in his opinion, he did not possess that temper which was requisite for the proper discharge of a juryman's functions; upon which Mr. M'Creery rudely retorted, that Mr. Harrison stood precisely in the same situation. The hon. member panegyrised the conduct of the chairman, and observed that the county of Surrey was under great obligations to him for his services.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, he had never imputed to the chairman any thing but a mistake as to the extent of the power which he possessed. He begged to observe, however, that he knew Mr. M'Creery, and that his claim to respectability was fully as great as that of Mr. Harrison.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that to assert that a court of civil or criminal jurisdiction could not fine persons for any contempt or breach of order, was a most extraordinary doctrine. He believed the power of courts to fine for contempt Was as indisputable as any point in the law of England; for how could they vindicate their authority, if they had not the power to fine? Undoubtedly there were ceases in which commitment was necessary, but surely the more lenient course was, to fine.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

said, that all courts of record, from the highest to the lowest, had the power both of fining and imprisoning for contempt, and he believed that was the first time the power was ever doubted.

Mr. Denman

admitted, that courts of record had the power both of fining and imprisoning for contempt, but maintained that fining summarily might be the severest mode of punishment which could be resorted to. It might possibly happen, from the pecuniary circumstances of a defendant, that the infliction of a summary fine would have the effect of subjecting him to imprisonment for life.

Ordered to lie on the table.