HC Deb 03 July 1821 vol 5 cc1484-6
Mr. Hobhouse

rose to present a petition from W. Benbow, late a bookseller in the Strand, but know a prisoner in the King's-bench prison. He stated, that the petitioner was arrested on the 21st of May last, on a warrant issued on the finding of two indictments for alleged libels; which indictments were preferred against him by a body calling itself, "The Constitutional Association." It seemed that the judges now thought themselves justified, in cases of libel, in holding the defendant to bail, not only for his appearance, but for his good behaviour also. The petitioner stated, "That on such arrest he was required to give bail, not only for his appearance to answer such indictments, but also for his good behaviour until the same should be tried. That the petitioner's friends, though perfectly ready to answer for his appearance, were unwilling to bind themselves for the indefinite and undefinable good behaviour of the petitioner; especially as it has been industriously circulated by the attorney for the prosecution, that their recognizances would be forfeited by the mere finding of a true bill against the petitioner for any other political offence, though such bill might be found upon false and ex-parte evidence, and though the petitioner might be ultimately acquitted of the charge." Now the words of the statute certainly did not require the judges so to hold to bail. They merely declared that it should be lawful for them so to do. "That the petitioner's trials must have come on in the course of last month, had not his prosecutors made them special jury causes. That, inconvenient and harassing as it was to be detained in prison, he flattered himself with the hope of being restored to liberty at the sittings after the present Trinity term; but, to his inexpressible astonishment, he is now credibly informed that his trial cannot take place until the middle of October; and the assigned reason appears to the petitioner, most unsatisfactory and unwarrantable, namely, that the place where the Court of King's-bench now holds its sittings is to be occupied far some purpose connected with the approaching coronation." It was possible, in the case of this petitioner, that he mighty be confined thus for six months before his trial, for an offence, of which the punishment, even upon conviction, might be only three months imprisonment. "That previous to his arrest, the petitioner was, by industrious application, gaining a comfortable maintenance for himself and family; but owing to the death of his wife, and to the tender age of his children, having no one to whom he could confide the management of his business, during the long imprisonment which he must now undergo previous to his trial, his creditors have made sudden demands upon him; he has been under the necessity of shutting up his shop, and his affairs are already in a state of insolvency." The petitioner expressed a hope that the House would take into consideration his aggravated sufferings.

The Attorney-General

said, he had no doubt that, with respect to the bail required, the judge had exercised a sound discretion. With respect to the postponement of the sittings after term, in consequence of the coronation, he did not suppose that notion was well-grounded. If, however, it should appear to be so, he would willingly exercise his authority to shield the petitioner from any additional inconvenience on that account, by obtaining his discharge upon such security as he could give.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that what had occurred was quite sufficient to show the inexpediency of taking such prosecutions out of the hands of the attorney-general, and committing them to the care of a common attorney. Under the existing law, booksellers were constantly liable to prosecutions for libel in cases in which their innocence of intention was completely manifest. The persons employed by the Constitutional Association might go and purchase, or order a book from a bookseller wholly ignorant of its contents; but who would nevertheless thereby render himself subject to a criminal prosecution. The time was sufficiently distant to allow of the calm consideration of a case of that kind which occurred in the early period of the French revolution. He alluded to the case of Mr. Johnson, who had been prosecuted and punished for selling a seditious libel. Mr. Johnson was a publisher of classical and other elegant; works. Mr. Gilbert Wakefield wrote a political pamphlet, which he tendered to Mr. Johnson to print, but with which Mr. Johnson refused to have any thing to do. Having been printed else- where, a person went to Mr. Johnson's shop and desired to have a copy. Mr. Johnson happened not to be at home, but his shopman sent for a copy to the publisher's, and it was sold in Mr. Johnson's shop; the consequence of which was, that Mr. Johns on was prosecuted and punished. This was an example of the way in which booksellers were exposed if the law were enforced with rigour. Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that any man should find it difficult to prevail on his friends to become security for his good behavour.

Ordered to lie on the table.