HC Deb 16 May 1823 vol 9 cc360-6
Mr. Wynn

brought up the Report of the Select Committee on the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Conduct of the Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, he had, two years ago, submitted to the House a motion on this, subject. The proposition he had then brought forward was, that the papers on the table of the House contained grave charges against the high law officer alluded to. Those papers were referred to a committee, who had affirmed his proposition; and the labours of the committee which had recently examined the subject had terminated in the same result. He hoped the report would be seriously examined by the House and by the member of his majesty's government, and that such steps would be taken as the justice of the case might require.

Mr. Secretary Canning

observed, that if, by what the hon. gentleman had said, he meant to affirm this proposition, that when a member of the House of Commons made a charge against an individual, which charge was afterwards made good, he was at liberty to abandon it, and that it must then be taken up by the executive government, he asserted that which was neither parliamentary in practice nor in principle. He had never heard, when Mr. Burke had made his charge against Warren Hastings, that he had brought it to throw the ulterior proceedings on the executive government. He had never heard it argued, when Mr. Whitbread succeeded in his charge against lord Melville, that he had done all which he had a right to do, and that it was for his majesty's ministers to follow up the proceedings. If the case before the House was that of a removable officer, then he perfectly admitted that, as members of the executive government, not as members of the House of Commons, ministers would be bound to deal with that removable officer. But certainly it was not for them to proceed with charges which honourable members had originated, and pushed to a certain extent. There were two ways of proceeding in cases like the present—by an address of that House, or by impeachment; and he thought that either mode was better in any other hands than in those of ministers. He would tell the hon. member, therefore, distinctly, that in this case he certainly would not move a step; and he would advise none of his hon. colleagues to do so. If the hon. member would not come forward, he must reconcile himself to the circumstance in the best manner he could.

Sir J. Newport

contended, that, as these proceedings grew out of the investigation of a commission appointed by the Crown, in consequence of an address of that House, his majesty's minister sought now to take the business up. His hon. friend had sufficiently shown that he did not shrink from responsibility, since he had originally moved for a committee. A second committee had now reported; and both of them bore him out in the charges he had made.

Mr. Wynn

said, there was not a single instance in which the executive government as such, had been called on to originate criminal proceedings. No case could be imagined that would excite more opposition. An individual would complain, that it was a party proceeding, and that the whole weight of government had been brought to bear on him, for the purpose of subverting justice. But this was not the first time when an individual member proceeded on charges which originated in a parliamentary commission. The case of lord Melville was exactly in point. A commission was appointed to inquire into the state of certain offices, and their report disclosed matter of charge against lord Melville, which ended in impeachment. In his opinion, proceedings of this nature had always better be placed in the hands of individual members. It was most desirable in this case, that all appearance of party feeling should be avoided, and if his majesty's government took up the business, perhaps it would be treated by gentlemen opposite, as a party question.

Mr. Abercromby

said, that in this case a commission had emanated from the Crown, which had for its object to protect the administration of justice. That commission had discovered certain things which had a direct tendency to pervert justice, in the proceedings of a learned judge. Charges had been exhibited against him, and those charges had been affirmed by two different committees. The question then was, by whom were the further proceedings to be carried on? The right hon. president of the Board of Control said, "If this business is taken up by government, it will be viewed by the gentlemen on the other side of the House as a party question." Now, that was his (Mr. A.'s) case. He thought it unfair, that the individual accused should be supported by the weight of government, and that only the opposition should be left to oppose him; because, although the right hon. secretary had stated that government would take no part in the business, yet every man's experience must tell him, that even when such a declaration was made, the influence of government was likely to operate against a particular party.

Mr. Secretary Canning

positively denied this. He declared, upon his honour, that he knew nothing of the individual, or of the facts of the case; and he also declared upon his honour, that if the hon. accuser determined to proceed, he would diligently attend and give the inquiry a fair and impartial hearing. But he could not allow the onus of such a proceeding to be thrown on his majesty's government.

Mr. Wynn

called on the hon. member for Limerick to say, whether he had shrunk from his duty in the committee, or had evinced any unfair or improper bias. The learned member for Calne would have known this if he had not absented himself from the committee: any accusation of neglect of duty came with a very bad grace from that learned gentleman.

Mr. S. Rice

said, that the right hon. gentleman's attention had been zealous and uniform, and had only been equalled by the candour which he had displayed. In answer to what had fallen from the right hon. secretary, he must observe, that making a charge was one thing; but when that charge was confirmed, the prosecution of the case was another. He never did nor would shrink from his duty, however painful; but he must enter his protest against the fairness of casting a proceeding like this on an individual.

Mr. Abercromby

said, he had cast no reflection on the right hon. president of the Board of Control. What he had said he had used as a general argument. He had, however, heard one thing which he did not expect; namely, that the right hon. secretary was a favourer of this proceeding, provided it was in the hands of an individual.

Mr. Canning

disclaimed being a favourer of this proceeding. He felt neither favour, affection, nor partiality of any kind respecting it.

Mr. Denman

described the proceedings which bad taken place under the commission of inquiry, and asked whether, after a report was laid upon the table respecting them, the business could stop there. And yet, before that report was read, before its contents could be appreciated, the right hon. secretary volunteered a declaration, that government would institute no ulterior proceedings thereupon. Suppose it should prove a case of an officer of high judicial rank acting in a manner utterly derogatory from his station and dignity, were they to be told that government would not then take some step in the business, and that it must drop, unless some private member undertook the ulterior course, of moving for parliamentary impeachment?

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that he understood the hon. member for Limerick entertained doubts himself of the pro- priety of calling for a parliamentary impeachment. Why, then, should he call upon the government to take it up. There was no inconsistency whatever between what his right hon. friend had said, and what had been done by his noble and lamented friend, lord Londonderry. When his noble friend gave the assistance alluded to, it was merely to clear away some obstructions which then impeded the inquiry; but he still left the whole matter in the hands of the hon. gentleman who had originated it. It would be a most dangerous principle to establish, that the government were bound to take up any matter which went to criminate a public officer, instead of leaving it in the hands of the person who had instituted the inquiry. He could not at all assent to the distinction attempted to be taken between the two commissions.

Mr. S. Rice

denied that any change had taken place in his opinion upon the subject, or that he thought the case in the least less clear than he did on the first day of his mentioning it. Directly the reverse was the fact; and it was on that ground that he considered it the duty of those who were bound to watch over the administration of justice, to take steps to vindicate the purity of that administration on the present occasion.

Mr. Peel

said, he was really ignorant of the merits of the case; for, owing to the part which his duty had compelled him to take in Ireland, respecting an office held by the chief baron's son, he had, from delicacy, absented himself from the committee which sat to make this inquiry.

Mr. R. Smith

entertained a notion, that there might be a mode of obtaining the ends of justice in this case by another form of proceeding. The chief baron of the Exchequer, like all the other judges, held his office, quamdiu se bene gesserit, which showed that he might lose his office if se male gesserit. The dismissal, however, must be founded on an address from both Houses. Our annals presented no instance of such a proceeding with regard to a judge. On reference, however, to Croke's Reports, it appeared that, on the 11th November, 1630, John Walter, knight, chief baron of the Exchequer, who had fallen under the displeasure of Charles 1st, but who was a man of great learning and courage, declared that he would not resign unless a writ of scire facias was issued, to show the cause of his removal. Now, he strongly recommended the nature of this writ of scire facias to be inquired into, as it might possibly assist in settling the mode of proceeding, should any ultimate step be deemed necessary.

Mr. Wetherell

entertained doubts, whether the act of the late king respecting the judges, did not virtually repeal all previous powers which the Crown might have possessed over judicial offices. With respect to the call upon government to institute an impeachment, he thought it most unconstitutional. He was glad that the right hon. secretary had discountenanced it; for if there was any case in which the House ought to be considered as dispersed into individuality, it was that of impeachment, where every member had the right to exercise his judgment firmly and singly. He meant to pronounce no opinion upon the merits of this case.

Mr. Hume

was astonished at the doctrine of the right hon. secretary, that government ought never to be called upon to proceed against individuals charged with crime. Suppose a judge were reported by a commission to have acted corruptly, and suppose that report were substantiated, and nevertheless no member was disposed to bring it forward, was it not the duty of government to consider what ought to be done? Was such an individual to remain in the seat of justice with such a charge hanging over his character? It would be monstrous to affirm such a proposition.

Dr. Lushington

maintained, that if any judge or other officer were proved guilty of peculation and abuse, and his majesty's government had the means of bringing him to justice, they ought to do so. He could not make up his mind, however, to say that government ought to originate a proceeding in parliament; because, undoubtedly, that would be calculated to produce a bias on the minds of honourable members. With respect to the affair under present consideration, it was evident that it could not rest where it was. Under all the circumstances of the case, he thought it the duty of his hon. friend to bring the subject under discussion, and to leave the House to dispose of it at their own discretion; When it was considered what must be the general feeling, when an officer of so high a rank as the chief baron of the Exchequer had a suspicion thrown on his character and how injurious such a state of things must be to justice, it would be clear that sortie proceeding or other must take place.

Mr. Canning

begged to repeat, that all which he had said went upon the assumption, that a parliamentary impeachment was expected on the part of the government. With respect to the process by a writ of scire facias, he would leave the question to be inquired into by more competent persons than he was; but he confessed, if such a course were open, it would completely alter the view which he had been taught to entertain of the independence of the judicial character.

The report was ordered to be printed.