HC Deb 02 July 1823 vol 9 cc1422-8

Mr. Spring Rice moved the order of the day for going into a committee on the Conduct of the Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. On the question being put, "That the Speaker do now leave the chair,

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that whether the proposition he was about to support was or was not agreeable to the House, he alone was responsible for it. He had had no interview with any member on the subject. He had no connexion whatever with the Chief Baron of Ireland, nor with any of the friends of that learned indivi- dual: in fact, he did not know that his opposition to the Speaker's leaving the chair would be supported by any member. He, however, thought it would be grossly unjust to proceed to a measure of condemnation, before they had the fullest evidence on the subject. There were, it was true, two reports of the commissioners of inquiry, and also two reports of committees of that House relative to the conduct of the Chief Baron; but it did not follow, when the whole of the evidence should be heard, that he might not differ from those authorities. Indeed, the opinions entertained in that House with reference to this question were so various, that it would be wrong to proceed with it until the fullest evidence should be obtained; and above all, he conceived that he would be a very daring man who should proceed to judgment without hearing the chief baron himself. Those persons who had not heard that learned judge, and heard him fully, on the matter of accusation, could not be competent to act either as jurors or judges.

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, he did not see how they could avoid proceeding on this occasion. The hon. member had alluded to the inconvenience which must result, if this charge were left pending over the chief baron. Now, in some shape or other, charges more or less modified must be understood as having been preferred against him; and if he were to point out the most favourable and the least culpatory shape in which they could be placed on the Journals, it was by pursuing the course proposed by the hon. member for Limerick. How did the matter stand? The charges came founded on the reports of the commissioners. If the House rested where they now were, the interval between the time of accusation and of trial would not be the less long; and the inconvenience to which the chief baron would be subjected must be aggravated rather than lessened, because he would not have the advantage of knowing exactly on what points, growing out of those reports, he was hereafter to defend himself. On the other hand, if the charge went on, and resolutions of fact were agreed to in the committee (resolutions stating that such and such charges were made in the reports, but neither negativing nor affirming them), that proceeding would not affect the character of the chief baron, and would afford him more ample means for his defence.

Mr. S. Rice

defended the course which he had taken in this proceeding. It had been said that they, could not fairly go on unless the chief baron was heard; but the question was, whether he had not been heard? Allusion had been made by the hon. member for Cork, to two reports of the commissioners, and two reports of the committees of that House, but he had totally forgotten to mention two letters written by the chief baron himself, relative to the conduct which had been complained of.

Mr. Wetherell

opposed the going into the committee, as an act that would be useless to the public, and unjust towards the individual accused. The learned gentleman then alluded to the case of the earl of Macclesfield, against whom articles of impeachment were carried up to the Lords. In this case, owing to the form of the hon. gentleman's proposition, such a course could not be adopted. He thought it a great injustice to the learned judge that it should be proposed to leave his character, for the space of eight or nine months, under such an imputation as the entry of these resolutions would cast upon it. On the grounds he bad stated, he was compelled to differ from his right hon. friend as to the steps which the House ought now to take; and, anxious as he was to secure the pure and impartial administration of justice; and desirous as he felt, that every offender in the way that the lord chief baron was said to have offended in, should be severely punished, he could not consent to that House clothing itself with a criminal jurisdiction, even in such a case, if that was to interfere with the criminal jurisdiction, exercised by the courts of law of this country.

Mr. Wynn

would consent to the House going into a committee, not for the exercise of a criminal jurisdiction, but in order that it might act as a grand inquest in the matter. Certain charges, however, had been made against the learned individual in question; and he (Mr. W.) would have preferred that those charges should have been exhibited at their bar, and that the House might then have either decided such charges to be proved or have at once repudiated them. He concurred with those who considered that the learned chief baron had, in fact, been heard once already, by the course he had adopted of writing letters containing a defence of his conduct, and especially by writing a letter to the Speaker, expressive of his readiness to meet the inquiry. On the principles he had now stated, he would give his vote for going into the committee, conceiving that the door of parliament ought always to be thrown wide open to such investigations.

Mr. Bankes

said, he had not been apprised of the nature of the resolutions.

Mr. S. Rice

observed, that he had always stated, that the preliminary resolutions were resolutions of fact; the final one was one of inference. He would read that and the one by which it was immediately preceded;—"That it is because it has been stated in the reports of the commissioners appointed by this House, and confirmed by a subsequent report, made after a special reference to them by his majesty's government, that the emoluments of the chief baron of Ireland have been increased by the invention of new, and the extension of ancient, fees, on the sole authority of the chief baron himself." A subsequent vote of the House in committee, had confirmed the substance of this resolution. The inferential resolution, which might or might not be agreed to, was to this effect—"That the power of creating and extending fees thus reported by the commissioners of inquiry to have been exercised—if proved to have been exerted in their increase by the lord chief baron, in the manner stated in the reports of these commissioners, at his sole discretion, and he being himself interested therein, is inconsistent with the laws and constitution of this realm."

Mr. Bankes

said, it was quite clear to him that it was impossible to enter on such a matter at that late period of the session. The hon. gentleman then remarked on the peculiar hardship of the chief baron's, case, pending the prosecution of the proposed inquiry. This learned individual was invested with a high judicial office, which there was no power, even in the Crown itself, to prevent him from discharging the duties of, in the interval that must elapse before the investigation could be brought to a close. Was it fit, then, to leave one of the judges of the land under this cloud of suspicion and imputation from the end of one session to the commencement of another? The hon. gentleman then proceeded to show the inexpediency and injustice of entering those resolutions on their Journals at present, though the matter might be taken up at the earliest period of the next session. Nothing should induce him, at all events, to suppose any thing like an impeachment in the present case. He had seen enough of impeachments carried up to the other House, not to support one on this occasion. Whatever might be resolved on, however, he must again warn the House against any attempt to proceed in the affair this session.

The Solicitor General

observed, that one of the grounds adduced for the propriety of entering these resolutions on their Journals was, some extraordinary delay which was supposed to have taken place in the furnishing the House with the report on the matters under inquiry. The hon. and learned gentleman then shortly stated the proceedings of the commissioners of inquiry, from the date of the 9th report down to their final report. He was very averse to entering into this committee at all; not only in consideration of the late period of the session, but looking also to the character of the several reports made by the commissioners. From those reports, it was clear that no charge was, in fact, established against the chief baron. And if so, was it for a committee of that House to record one against him, arising out of the subject matter of those reports? It had been stated in the House and in the resolutions themselves, that the chief baron, in increasing these fees, had acted contrary to the laws of the realm. This was quite incorrect. When lord Erskine was made chancellor, he, by his own fiat, immediately raised the fees of the subordinate officers of his court. Now, though it might be said, that this case of subordinate officers was not the same thing as increasing the judge's salary by a judge himself, the proposed resolution was still most, erroneous. Gentlemen were bound to look at the language of the commissioners' fifth report. They said "that they would not give an opinion whether judges in Ireland could legally increase their own fees and the foes of their own courts;" but they added that, "such a practice had prevailed in Ireland for a hundred years past, during which period such an increase had taken place in the Court of King's Bench and Common Pleas Courts. Was it not cruel, then, to impute to the chief baron corrupt or improper motives; and, if it was only an error of judgment, would it not be still more cruel to record any such resolutions on their Journals? On these grounds he still opposed the going into the committee." If next session the hon. gentleman chose to persevere, he would, however, give his assistance to the inquiry.

Mr. Abercromby

said, that the question was, whether they should now stand still, or go back? He thought they had no option but to go into the committee. The House now proposed to give the chief baron an opportunity of knowing what the charges were against him, to which he would have to answer. He would have the benefit of the interval between this and next session for the preparation of his defence, and all the advantage would be with the chief baron, in short. He did feel, however, that this was a case of the most extreme difficulty, insomuch that, if he could with any fairness or justice to the chief baron, he would have said tonight, "I will proceed no further." But, after what had taken place, he was bound in justice, to the chief baron, to see him through the affair. Should the case be, unfortunately, proved, he (Mr. A.) thought the next proceeding ought to be by address, rather than by impeachment.

Mr. Hume

, looking to the 5th report, seeing that precedents for what the chief baron had done were to be found within the last century, and adverting to the smallness of the increase which had taken place in those fees, really thought it impossible to impute to the chief baron any corrupt motives of mere personal emolument. In this feeling, he had himself prepared a resolution to that effect, which resolution, the hon. and learned member for, Peterborough had expressed his approbation of, and which, or something equivalent thereto, he (Mr. H.) did conceive that the House was in strict justice called upon to concur in.

Mr. Goulburn

supported the motion for going into the committee.

The House divided: Ayes 50. Noes 19. The House then went into the committee.

Mr. S. Rice

submitted his first resolution. It was declaratory of the fact, that from the reports of the commissioners of courts of justice in Ireland, and from the report of a committee of the House, it appeared, that the chief baron had received fees in certain departments of his court, to which he was not legally entitled.

A desultory conversation ensued upon the fact, whether certain exculpatory circumstances, which, were contained either in the.9th report itself or in some subsequent report, should not be inserted in the resolution. The attorney and solici- tor-general, Mr. Goulburn, Mr. R. Smith, Mr. S. Rice, and Mr. Wetherell, took part in this conversation: as also did captain O'Grady, who complained, that the resolution was unfairly worded.

The Solicitor General moved as an amendment, that the following words be, added to the resolution:—"And that it is further stated in the report of the select, committee on the 5th report of the commissioners of inquiry, that the direction of the chief baron, as stated by Mr. Pollock, to whom it was personally given, that the fee of 2s. 2d. should be charged and received for him on all bills of costs taxed in his office, and had it been so confined in its operation, it did not appear to the committee, from any evidence, that had come before them, that it would have been incorrect, except for the increase under the head of currency, which had been before noticed."

Mr. S. Rice

had no objection to this amendment, if the learned solicitor would agree to add to it the words which immediately followed them in the report from which they were taken.

The Solicitor General

objected to the addition.

On the suggestion of Mr. Canning, Mr. S. Rice consented to omit that part of his amendment which alluded to the opinion of the committee above stairs. After considerable discussion, Mr. S. Rice consented to withdraw that part of the amendment which expressed an opinion, and the amendment with that omission was agreed to. The resolution detailing the charges against the chief baron, contained in the ninth report, with the addition of an extract from the eleventh report was then agreed to. After which, the Chairman reported progress.

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