HC Deb 10 April 1823 vol 8 cc808-12
Mr. Hume

rose to move for two returns connected with Crown priso- ners: the first, a return of the number of persons now confined as Crown debtors, distinguishing the amounts of their debts, and the terms during which they had been imprisoned; the second, a return of the number of persons confined in the Fleet prison for contempt of Court; specifying whether for offence against the Court of Chancery, and Exchequer, or against any and what civil or ecclesiastical court; and an account of all persons who had died in prison under confinement for contempt of Court, between July, 1820, and the present time. In moving for these papers the hon. member said, he only moved for the continuation of documents which, up to the years 1819 and 1820, were already before the House. By the return of crown debtors, furnished in 1819, it appeared, that at that time, more than 200 persons were confined for debts due to the Crown, principally upon claims on the part of the board of Excise. By the return of prisoners for contempt produced in the year 1820, it would be found that at that period, 31 individuals were in confinement; some of them having been seven, fourteen, and one so long as thirty-one years in prison. He could not but consider the whole law regarding crown prisoners as most harsh and unequitable. He saw no reason why a man, indebted upon a claim from the Excise, or upon any claim arising with the government, should not have the same relief open to him which he might resort to against a private debtor. As the law stood, men were subject to, and endured, imprisonment for years, under penalties or security bonds as low as 25l. The punishment so inflicted upon a man for being poor was unreasonably severe, and the source to which he must look for any remission of that punishment was the last in which, fairly, that power of remission ought to be vested. At present, the degree of imprisonment which a crown debtor had to endure depended upon the degree of favour which, in the proper quarter, he could command. It would be infinitely better if the liberation of crown debtors was to rest solely within the will of government, that the scale of punishment should be definitely declared, and that it should be fully understood, when a man was sentenced to a fine, for how much imprisonment that fine (in case of inability to pay it) might be commuted.—After urging the policy of putting debtors to the Crown, as to all points of advantages, upon the ssme footing with private debtors, the hon. member proceeded to the point of imprisonments for contempt of court. The power of committal for contempt, as it stood at the present day, was a power unfit to be held by the lord chancellor, or by any judge in England. Instances would be found, upon papers already before the House, of no less than twenty persons having died within a few years, under sentence for contempt, after fourteen, twenty, and, some, thirty years' imprisonment. One individual had died in 1820, who had been in prison ever since 1789, for refusing to pay a sum of 400l. No doubt offences against the authority of a court, or failures in the respect due to it, ought to be punished; but not by imprisonment for thirty years, or for life. The power of committal, too, ought not to rest solely with the judge. For every other offence which a man might be guilty of, he was entitled to have the question of his innocence or guilt, tried by a jury of his country; and why should it not be so in cases of alleged contempt? Why was a man who happened to displease the lord chancellor to be put out of the pale of those laws and principles to which, under any other circumstance of difficulty, he would look confidently for protection?

The Solicitor General

thought the hon. member was incorrect in his view of the law as it existed. All persons confined for non-payment of money pursuant to an order of court, were already entitled to their discharge under the insolvent act. Persons who remained in prison for contempts of court, were commonly persons who refused to do some act, within their power, which the court had ordered them to do: For instance, a case came before the lord-chancellor.—Upon investigation, it was decided that one of the parties ought to do a particular act; such as the execution of a deed or instrument. Under such circumstances (and the case was a case of every day), the court had no power to compel the execution of the deed or instrument in question: all it could do, was, to imprison for refusal. To deprive the court of the power to imprison was, in effect, to nullify its jurisdiction; and surely the party suffering had no right to complain of a confinement to which he could put an end when he thought proper. As for cases of persons committed for disrespect to a court, it could not but be within the knowledge of the hon. member, that such individuals were always, after a reasonable infliction of imprisonment, liberated upon their apology and submission. With respect to putting crown debtors generally upon the same footing with debtors to private individuals, the thing was impracticable. The great mass of crown debtors consisted of persons confined for non-payment of penalties which they had incurred by violations of the law—chiefly by offences against the Excise laws. Now, the enabling such persons to get their liberation under the insolvent act, would absolutely destroy the revenue of the country. Every man of desperate fortune would at once strike into the illicit trade; sure of enormous gains if he escaped detection, and quit, at the worst, for a term of three months' imprisonment. Besides, the situations of the crown debtor and of the private debtor were not alike. One of the main arguments for liberating a man from imprisonment, at the suit of a private individual, was the possible existence of irritation or vindictive feeling on the part of the creditor. On the part of government, there could be no such feeling; and the general practice of the Lords of the Treasury, with respect to petitions addressed to them for liberation, would be the best answer to any charge like severity towards debtors who were liable to the Crown.

Mr. Secretary Peel

begged to disclaim any idea, of apportioning certain quantities of imprisonment to the liquidation of certain penalties. The lenity of the Crown would always be freely dispensed, but it could be dispensed only with a due regard to the circumstances of particular cases. Some portion of imprisonment, where a fine was not paid, became absolutely necessary; because, if fines were not exacted, they would of course cease to be paid altogether.

Dr. Lushington

thought the present course, where persons refused to obey an order of court, inconvenient and ineffective. It frequently happened, that a man, under sentence for contempt, spent his money in prison, defrauding the party who was entitled to it. He thought it would be better where a man refused to execute any deed or settlement, that the judge should have power to execute it in his name.

Mr. Ricardo

objected to the imposition of a fine by a judge, afterwards to be remitted by a secretary of state. A judge might as well pass but one sentence—say death—for all crimes, and leave the government to inflict the quantity of chastisement it thought fit. The judge who tried the case was the fit person to decide what penalty the offender should endure.

The motions were agreed to.