HC Deb 27 February 1824 vol 10 cc504-25
Mr. Denman

rose to present a Petition, which he deemed to be one of very considerable importance, especially when he considered the vast powers which had been conferred on magistrates by a late act of parliament. The petition was from a Mr. Charles Flint, complaining of the conduct of a magistrate of the county of Stafford, acting as chairman of the court of Quarter Sessions in that county, who was also a member of that House; and he must say, looking to all the circumstances of the case, that the conduct of that magistrate appeared to call for a considerable degree of inquiry. He had felt it right to communicate to that hon. gentleman (Mr. Chetwynd), the contents of this petition; and, though it was not without pain that he brought forward an imputation on the conduct of any member of that House, he certainly thought that the statements made by the petitioner required to be rebutted by strong circumstances of justification, be- fore the conduct of the hon. member I could be reconciled to what was due from a magistrate of the country, in the correct and impartial discharge of his duties. The petition was of very considerable length, and contained a great variety of allegations, which could not, perhaps, have been compressed into a shorter compass. All these allegations the hon. member opposite had had an opportunity of seeing. Some reflections were cast by the petitioner on the supposed motives of the hon. member, on which he should abstain from making any observation; the facts of the case he should state to the House as briefly as possible. It was a circumstance well known in the county of Stafford, that certain disputes had, for some time, existed respecting the property of sir George Jerningham, a claim having been set up, by a person of the name of Cooke, to the title and estates of that baronet. These disputes had been carried on with considerable asperity in the neighbourhood; one of the tenants of sir George Jerningham had been actually turned out of possession, and an individual named John Wilkes had been put into possession, by virtue of a grant from the opposite party. John Wilkes having obtained possession, a person named Figgin, came shortly after to recover forcible possession, and he (Mr. D.) must say, that the legality of the means by which this was attempted was extremely questionable. The circumstances attending the forcible re-entry took place under the supposed sanction of an Act passed in the first year of the present reign, called the WilfulTrespass act, which, in cases of wanton and malicious trespass, empowered constables, and indeed all other persons, to arrest and imprison the parties supposed to be guilty of such trespass. Now, he did not conceive that it had ever entered into the contemplation of the legislature, that this act could by possibility be applied to cases of disputed right. It could never have been intended by the legislature, that this act should apply to cases where possession had actually been obtained, and where the right of possession could be tried by the ordinary modes of procedure. Mr. Figgin, however, proceeded to recover possession under this act; he took several constables with him, and broke the locks which Wilkes had put on the gates. The constables then took into custody Wilkes, Hammersley, and other persons who were concern- ed with them in obtaining possession. Now this proceeding was, to say the least of it, exceedingly questionable, and the extraordinary construction which had been put on this recent act of parliament, entitled any steps which might be taken to question it to favourable consideration. In consequence of the arrest of these individuals, a number of persons, amounting to three or four hundred, collected round the constables; some strong and indignant expressions were used, but no violence was offered to the constables; ho attempt was made to rescue the prisoners; nor was any assault committed except perhaps in the strict legal sense of the word. Mr. Flint, the petitioner, the legal adviser of Wilkes, and an assistant of his brother, who was an attorney at Uttoxeter in the same county, happened accidentally to be staying at an inn in Stafford on business relating to the corporation, when he heard that his client was being conveyed to prison. Mr. Flint proceeded to the spot, and repeatedly asked the constable to shew his authority. The constable replied that he had his authority in his pocket; but when the man was lodged in gaol, Mr. Flint went to the house of the constable to ascertain this fact, and found that he had no specific warrant for execution, but simply a warrant appointing him as a constable to keep the peace. It appeared from a full and correct report in a provincial newspaper, that there was no attempt whatever to resist the authority of the constable—nothing like personal interference, on the part of Mr. Flint, to rescue his client, or to excite others to rescue him. Even supposing, however, that there had been such a resistance of authority, it was extremely doubtful, under all the circumstances of the case, whether any of the party could be properly convicted of a riot; for if the Trespass-act was, improperly put into execution, they could not have been legally convicted of a riot, for having resisted such an unwarrantable exercise of authority. It appeared, however, that the part which Mr. Flint had taken on this occasion was perfectly unpremeditated; he happened to be at Stafford on business; he heard of the forcible arrest of his client; and, on coming to the spot where the transaction took place, he merely protested against the illegality of the proceedings, and took no part whatever in any acts of violence, if indeed acts of violence were committed by other persons. It certainly appeared to be a case in which the hon. member for Stafford (Mr. Chetwynd), the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, was bound to direct the jury to acquit Mr. Flint, when he was indicted with the other parties for the alleged riot. But instead of taking this course, however, the Chairman had told the Jury, that it did not appear that Mr. Flint was an attorney, although this fact had been admitted by the counsel for the prosecution, and that if he was an attorney, his conduct was not justifiable. He declared, that in his opinion the case was made out equally against all the defendants, and that there was no distinction between the case of Mr. Flint, who had merely come forward to give advice to his client, and the other parties, who had assembled for the purpose of resisting the law. The jury hardly turned round, but almost immediately returned a verdict of Guilty against all the defendants [hear! from the Ministerial benches]. This conclusion might naturally be expected, after such a summing-up from the chairman. When sentence was to be pronounced, some more evidence was produced to show that Mr. Flint was engaged in examining the charter of the corporation at the time he was first informed of his client's arrest—a fact which had been admitted by the Chairman in summing up the case to the jury. There were only two justices in court, the hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Chetwynd) and a reverend magistrate of the county. It was said, indeed, that the other magistrates were consulted about the sentence, but they were not present, and consequently they must have determined the measure of punishment without any opportunity of judging of the circumstances which might be urged against it. The hon. gentleman opposite, assisted by the reverend divine, came to the resolution, that no distinction ought to be made in the sentence pronounced on all the parties. The attorney who came unexpectedly to his client was to be treated like all the rest; and, accordingly, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment, and hard labour during the period of his confinement; which hard labour, as the House was aware, meant neither more nor less than that he was to be put to the treadmill among all the felons and malefactors of the worst and most disgusting description. The state of the petitioner's health rendered him a very unfit object for this kind of labour, and it was not until this fact was certified by a surgeon, that the punishment was discontinued. He was sorry to say, that the petitioner owed nothing to the humanity of the visiting magistrates. Another statement made by the petitioner was, that his memorial to the right hon. the secretary of state for the home department, representing the circum stances which required some mitigation of his sentence, had been kept back by the gaoler. He was imprisoned in the month of October, and the memorial did not reach the secretary of state until the end of December. He must own that he felt some degree of surprise, that when a case of this nature reached the Secretary of State's office, no inquiry was made into it. The punishment inflicted upon the prisoner was utterly inconsistent with his situation in life, and the circumstances of the case. It might be proper to state, that this case had excited considerable attention in the county, and that on the 31st of January a meeting of the magistrates of the county had taken place for the purpose of taking the matter into consideration. A full bench of magistrates amounting to ten or twelve, met, and having discussed the matter they resolved not to inquire—not to mitigate the sentence—but to do what the House of Commons had done on a late occasion, when the conduct of ministers with respect to the Spanish question was brought under consideration; namely, to pronounce a panegyric on the conduct of the party accused. This they did without inquiry, and without the means of forming a judgment upon the case; for, with the exception of the rev. divine, not one of them was present when the sentence was pronounced.—It had been suggested to him that, as some proceedings had been instituted in the court of King's-bench by the hon. member for Stafford, this petition should not have been presented, until such proceedings had terminated; but he entertained quite a different opinion. He conceived, that the petitioner had a right to come before the House the very first moment he had an opportunity: and he trusted the House would be of opinion that this summary power of magistrates ought to undergo some consideration, and, if deemed necessary, that a part at least of those powers might be repealed, to prevent such an application of them as had appeared from the statement he had made. But how stood the case? The hon. gentleman had applied to the court of King's-bench for a criminal information against some of the London papers for the publication of these statements, accompanied by some observations which he considered libellous. Accordingly, a rule was granted, which was now pending. The publication in question had taken place at so early a period, that the information might have been moved for on the first day of the term: had that been done, the rule would now either have been made absolute or discharged, and the trial might then have taken place the next spring assizes; but the application had been delayed so long, that the rule could not now be made absolute until the next term, and the trial could not come on until the summer assizes; and, according to this course, the petitioner could not have an opportunity to present his petition until the next session. This statement, he conceived, was a sufficient vindication of the course which had been adopted. And besides, in fact, the question of the newspapers was collateral to the present subject. The statements in those papers, and the observations that accompanied them, might have been as gross and infamous a libel as ever was published, for any thing he knew; but it was ridiculous to suppose, that the hon. gentleman, in answering the allegations in the petition (and that was the only objection that could be set up) would let out the case which he meant to make at the trial. In point of fact, all that could be stated by the hon. gentleman had already appeared when the criminal information was moved for. However, he (Mr. D.) had now done his duty: he had stated all the facts of the case, he hoped accurately, and the result of that statement was this, that the act itself, in the first place, was illegal, for the offence did not come within the Wilful-trespass act; in the next place the resistance was not violent; whatever blame was attached to the conduct of some of the individuals, that by no means applied to another individual who happened accidentally to come to the spot and tendered the best professional advice he was capable of giving to his client. He was quite sure that the House, looking to all the circumstances of the case—considering the condition of the individual, and his situation in life—would be of opinion, that it was a little too hard he should have been sent to the tread-mill amongst common felons. He thought it right, in conclusion, to state, that the petitioner concluded by expressing a hope—"That this gross abuse of magisterial authority would receive the serious animadversions of the House, the only redress which the petitioner could receive, and which alone could be given by the hon. House; and the petitioner further intreated the honourable House to take measures for the prevention of a repetition of so gross an abuse of power, by the revision of an act which had been abused for the purpose of gratifying malignant feelings of prejudice and personal resentments." He should not deal fairly with the hon. gentleman, if he did not state that the petition ascribed to him personal motives for the course he had adopted. One of the causes imputed was, an altercation between the hon. gentleman and the brother of Mr. Flint, who practised as an attorney at Uttoxeter. But he should also state, that Abraham Flint, the brother, had been committed three years ago by the hon. gentleman for an assault upon a female. This assault he represented as very trifling; however, he was sentenced by the hon. gentleman to six months' imprisonment, and fined 100l. An appeal was subsequently made to the then secretary of state for the home department (lord Sidmouth), containing a statement of the case, and praying for a remission of the fine. However, lord Sidmouth, just at that period, retired from office, and was succeeded by the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Peel), and one of the first acts done by the right hon. gentleman in his new office was, to liberate the prisoner, and remit the fine. Surely that act afforded a strong presumption that the magistrates had exceeded those just bounds which all persons holding such offices should observe Whether the hon. gentleman himself had interfered, he did not know, but whoever did interfere, it was obvious it must have been done from an impression of too great severity in the sentence. One would have thought then, that the former transaction would have suggested moderation in the latter case. He had now gone through all the statements of the case, and he should leave them without further comment, and move for leave to bring up the petition.

Mr. Holme Sumner

said, he rose for the purpose of opposing the bringing up the petition. Its sole object seemed to be to cast an imputation upon a most excellent and respectable magistrate, and a member of that House. When the House considered the talents and attainments of the hon. and learned gentleman whose character and conduct the petition impugned, they would easily perceive how competent he was to defend himself, and he was confident the hon. gentleman would give a most satisfactory refutation to all the charges contained in the petition. But, it might happen that an individual of less power and inferior talents would be placed in the same situation; and it was not every man, however strongly he might feel, that was able to express himself efficiently; and he contended, that no magistrate should ever be placed in such a situation. The deficiency which he complained of in the present petition was this, that a court of justice was the proper place to apply for redress, and there was no statement in the petition that such an application had been made. If the conduct of the hon. gentleman had been such as the petition represented, there could be no doubt that a criminal information would have been granted by the court of King's-bench, which would have been followed up, if deserving it, with due severity; and he would appeal to gentlemen who discharged the magisterial duties in the different counties—and a most onerous office it was—whether they would continue to act, if they felt themselves constantly liable to be called upon to defend themselves from such charges as these? If justice had been demanded, and the application refused, then the petitioner would have done right in coming to this House; but no allegation of that kind had been made, either in the petition, or in the speech of the hon. and learned gentleman who presented it, and therefore he should oppose the motion for bringing it up.

Mr. Chetwynd

then rose and addressed the House to the following effect, evidently under the influence of very strong feelings—Mr. Speaker; I rise to present my most earnest prayer that the petition, which has just been presented to the House, may be brought up and read; for I should hold myself unworthy ever again to rise to address you—I should consider myself disqualified from ever again sitting on the justice seat—if, upon the ground of any technical informality, I objected to having the Petition received; or if I gave the slightest opposition to the most complete and unrestricted investigation of each and every one of the allegations it contains. I am, Sir, at this moment prepared to go through the details of that petition sentence by sentence; and, if it shall not ap- pear from the facts which I shall state, and which I am happily in a condition to substantiate, that there is not the shadow of a foundation for any, even the smallest portion of those charges, I earnestly implore this House to visit upon my head their most heavy animadversion, even to dismiss me from the House, and to call upon the lord Chancellor to strike my name out of the list of magistrates. I implore the House to hear that petition read, and in the name of justice to hear my answer [loud cheers].

The Attorney-General

(sir J. Copley) said, he was anxious to make a few remarks upon this subject, as it had fallen to his lot to be acquainted with some of the facts of the case. And first, he wished to advert to a statement contained in the conclusion of his hon. and learned friend's speech; he meant with respect to Mr. Abraham Flint, the brother of the petitioner. The fact was this: an application was made to lord Sidmouth, in the shape of a petition, to mitigate the sentence which had been passed upon him by his hon. and learned friend the member for Stafford. That petition was supported by the interference of his hon. and learned friend, but, after a perusal of the circumstances of the case, lord Sidmouth had been of opinion, that there were no grounds for a mitigation of the sentence. However, not satisfied with having gone so far, as soon as lord Sidmouth had retired from office, and was succeeded by his right hon. friend (Mr. Peel), so far from any prejudice remaining in the mind of his hon. and learned friend against that individual that he actually renewed his application to the secretary of state, and, on the second occasion, his prayer was attended with success, and his right hon. friend consented to yield to his intreaties. Then, he would boldly ask, what pretence was there for an imputation of undue prejudice in the mind of his hon. friend, against the present petitioner, or against any member of his family? Did not his own conduct furnish the best refutation [cheers]? Now, with respect to the present charge what were the facts? An individual was supposed to be guilty of a violation of the law, and having been arrested by a constable, an immense crowd of people assemble to the number of four or five hundred, for the purpose of rescuing him from the constituted authorities. He hoped the House would not be led away by the ex parte statements of the petitioner; for he must inform them, that the magistrates who sat upon the bench on that occasion, had had an opportunity in the court of King's-bench, of contradicting these statements, and that it had been done in the most satisfactory manner upon the affidavits of his hon. and learned friend, and of the reverend clergyman who presided along with him and several others. This man Flint was one of the party who had endeavoured to effect the rescue. Now, it was stated in the petition, that the magistrates had refused to bind these parties over to the Quarter Sessions; but this the magistrates had denied on oath, and declared to be untrue. Again, another important assertion was contained in the petition, although his hon. and learned friend (Mr. Denman) had not thought proper to advert to it. It was this, that although originally there was no intention to indict Flint, his hon. friend (Mr. Chetwynd), who was himself afterwards to sit upon the cause, had interposed to procure an indictment to be preferred against him [hear, hear!]. This base and libellous allegation his hon. friend had contradicted upon oath; and it was further contradicted by the gentleman who assisted in managing the business of sir G. Jerningham. If, then, he opposed the bringing up this petition, it was because the petitioner had ventured to calumniate a member of that House, and a magistrate, upon charges which had not even the shadow of a foundation [cheers]. What, in reality, were the facts of the case? An indictment was preferred against certain individuals, and the case came to be tried before a jury; when the evidence had been gone through, his hon. and learned friend who presided, read over every word of it to the jury most carefully. Was the individual unassisted? No; he was supported by the advice and talents of counsel; and, after a considerable length of time, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. It had been said, that his learned friend in his summing-up had stated the law improperly; but, were the House to believe this on the bare, unsupported statement of the accused and convicted party. Mr. Clair, the other magistrate, had stated, that he had approved every act done by his hon. friend who presided. Then, the next step upon which an accusation was founded was the sentence which was pronounced. Let it be recollected, that these arties were convicted of a riot. But, did his hon. friend act upon his own judgment? No; Mr. Clair sat in conjunction with him. But, even they did not rest upon their own judgment; they applied for assistance to the other magistrates who were in attendance, one of whom his hon. and learned friend (Mr. Denman) very well knew—he meant sir Oswald Moseley—and they were unanimously of opinion, that the judgment had been most correct and proper [hear, hear!]. Then, surely, if his hon. friend deserved censure, all the others were equally censurable. So far then for the trial, the charge, and the judgment. The next point to which his hon. and learned friend had alluded was, the hard labour to which this individual had been consigned. His hon. and learned friend had talked of his punishment at the tread-mill for three months. But, to shew how false this statement was of harsh treatment, he was prepared to prove, on the representation of the individual himself, that he had been only on the treadmill for five hours [cheers].

Mr. Denman.

—Do you mean for five hours in all?

The Attorney General.

—Yes; for five hours altogether. He was subsequently employed in carding and spinning wool, and, on a further representation from the individual, he was allowed to remain entirely idle. As to his having been shut up for forty days, and deprived of any intercourse, and of his being allowed nothing but bread and water—points which were contained in the petition—as his hon. and learned friend had not touched upon them, he should say nothing; but he would just put the matter to the House in this way. In consequence of the publication of statements in the London papers, similar to those in the petition, his hon. friend (Mr. Chetwynd) had moved for and obtained a criminal information, in the court of King's-bench; his hon. and learned friend (Mr. Denman) had stated, that there were some observations upon the statements, which also formed a ground for the application. Whether this were the case or not, he was not prepared to say; but the main charge was the statement which was now repeated in the petition. The House were aware, that the court of King's-bench never granted a criminal information, until all the facts were disproved upon oath; so that all the material allegations had been contradicted upon affidavit by his hon. friend, by Mr. Clair, by the agent of sir G. Jerningham, by the task-master of the prison, and, in fact, by all who were in a condition to give a direct negative to the charges [cheers!]. The reason why any delay had taken place in the court of King's-bench was, because the defendants themselves had applied to the Court to allow the case to stand over till the next term, in order that they might be prepared with matter to answer the opposite side; so that the charge of delay did not attach to his hon. friend. He certainly thought, as had been anticipated by his hon. and learned friend (Mr. Denman), that it would have been more proper to have postponed the presenting of this petition until after the question had been investigated in a court of law, in that manner alone in which it could be fairly investigated; unless it was supposed by the petitioner, that an ex parte statement in this House would have injured the case of his hon. friend. The consequence to the petitioner would be, that if every one of his statements were false, no legal responsibility would fall upon his head; whereas, if he had made false representations on oath in a court of law, he would have been liable to a prosecution for perjury. Upon all the grounds which he stated, he should most certainly oppose the bringing up the petition.

The Solicitor General

(Mr. Wetherell) said, that putting out of consideration for the moment, the talents and character, and gratuitous services of his hon. and learned friend, the member for Stafford, he should contend, that no magistrate in the country ought to be left at the mercy of such a petition as that which had been offered to the House. Three courses were open to the petitioner; the one was, to move for a criminal information against his hon. and learned friend; the second was, a petition to the great seal; and the next, an application to the lord-lieutenant of the county. But, instead of this, the petitioner had called upon the House to form itself into a court of criminal jurisprudence, which they were not competent to do; and, if the House should resolve to entertain this petition, they would knock out of the lists all the ordinary and constitutional modes of redress. Until he was satisfied that all the ordinary means had been resorted to, he should not consent to the receiving this petition. His hon. and learned friend had called upon the House for an opportunity of vindicating his character; but, would the House allow that? He had not the slightest doubt that his hon. friend would be able to prove that every line of the petition was a most base and scandalous calumny. But, would the House allow him to be put upon his trial? If a magistrate had been accused, who was not a member of that House, there would be neither law nor precedent for adopting the course which the petitioner had pursued. Why, then, should it be different, because the individual was a member of the House of Commons? It did so happen, that an hon. member of that House was accused, who had talents and abilities to defend himself, and who had sufficient spirit and honour to stand up in his place, and demand inquiry. But, it was the duty of the House to say, "You shall not be put upon your trial; for, according to the constitution, you cannot be tried" [cheers!].

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that on the subject of the presentation of the petition, or the propriety of receiving it, he should not say one word; for, in that respect, he felt himself somewhat in the situation of his hon. friend, the member for Stafford, inasmuch as the exercise of his judgment had been called in question. But, if an inquiry were to be set on foot, and he were called upon to account for the reasons why he had abstained from advising the Crown to exercise the prerogative of mercy, then he should endeavour to give a satisfactory explanation of his decision. There were three points upon which blame was attributed to him in his official capacity; the first was, the nature of the inquiry which he had instituted; the next was, the delay in commencing it; and the third was, his not having advised the Crown to exercise the prerogative of mercy. With respect to the two first, he should endeavour to give a satisfactory explanation. On the last, he should be silent; because it would be impossible to explain the various motives that would induce one to abstain from giving such advice without going into a full detail of the particulars of the case. The two preliminary points, as to the nature of the inquiry and the delay, he should proceed to explain, and from that explanation, the House would draw an inference as to the propriety of the other. The first case was that of Abraham Flint: and it had been very justly stated, that his first act on his coming into office was, to advise the Crown to exercise the prerogative of mercy in the case of that individual. He held in his hand a letter which he had received on the subject from his hon. friend (Mr. Chetwynd). It appeared, that after the conviction of Abraham Flint, it happened, that, upon the trial of another individual, an accidental circumstance had occurred, which materially affected the credibility of one of the witnesses who had deposed against him; and immediately upon the discovery of this fact, he received from his hon. friend a letter, containing these words: "I now feel fully justified in imploring the royal mercy for the liberation of this unfortunate man: he is at present suffering most severely; his family are in the greatest distress; and I earnestly entreat your earliest attention to his case." And this is the individual who is supposed to be influenced by undue prejudices against the family of the petitioner [cheers!]. Now for the question of delay. That letter was dated, Lichfield, January 29, 1822; and upon the back of that letter, he found written the words, "Immediate—to be complied with;" and on the 1st of February, Abraham Flint was accordingly liberated. But to come to the subject of the present petition. This man was convicted in the month of October, and he had no means of knowing, as the House would suppose, that any such conviction had taken place; and, in fact, it was not until the December following, that he had received the least knowledge either of his trial or conviction. And really he thought it was a little too hard that he should be accused of delay under such circumstances and before the hon. and learned gentleman (Mr. Denman) had made up his mind to impute to him any unnecessary delay in the discharge of his official duties, he ought, at least, to have taken some pains to make himself acquainted with the real circumstances of the case.

Mr. Denman

said, he had been quite misunderstood. He did not of himself impute any delay to the right hon. gentleman: he had merely stated, that one of the allegations contained in the petition was, that the memorial had been detained for a considerable time, he had expressed no surprise, nor made any complaint, and for this reason, that he did not know at what date the memorial had reached the right hon. gentleman.

Mr. Peel,

in continuation, said, that on the 6th of December he received the first communication on the subject, and that was contained in a letter from Mr. Tooke, the law-agent of Mr. Flint, and he requested that he might have an opportunity of stating the circumstances of the case to the secretary of state. He was not at all aware of any such trial having taken place, until the receipt of this intimation, and accordingly he sent back an answer to Mr. Tooke, stating, "That if it would be any satisfaction to Mr. Tooke to see Mr. Peel on the subject of Flint's case, he should be ready to receive any communication. But it was Mr. Peel's invariable course not to act upon a statement in any criminal case, that was not communicated in writing." Any one at all acquainted with proceedings in criminal cases, would at once perceive the policy of this rule. Upon the 6th of December he received the first intimation of the transaction, and he immediately applied for information; and on the 17th of the same month he received the answer; so that the period that had elapsed between the 6th and 17th of December was all the delay that had been complained of. Then, with respect to the nature of the inquiry, he in the first instance applied to his hon. friend (Mr. Chetwynd), and he should be ashamed, if, while he professed to repose confidence in him, he had applied to any other. His hon. friend was not content with sending back a short and immediate answer, but had entered into a detail of all the evidence, and had sent besides a literal transcript of the charge which he had delivered to the jury, and had concluded, by requesting him (Mr. Peel) to judge for himself what course he should pursue. It was not his intention to enter into an explanation of the course which he did adopt; he should content himself by stating, that he felt quite satisfied that the sentence was a just and lenient one, and that he would have acted imprudently if he had advised the Crown to interpose the royal prerogative.

Mr. Littleton

said, that notwithstanding all that had been offered, he could not forbear from making a few remarks. It appeared to him, that the charges were wholly without foundation; for he believed, in the administration of justice, or in the performance of the other magisterial duties, a more scrupulous magistrate did not exist than his hon. friend. He could not conceal his surprise at the manner in which the hon. and learned member had introduced to the notice of the House what he was pleased to call the allegations in the petition which he held in his hands. He would appeal to their recollection, whether the hon. and learned member did not appear to identify himself with the case of the petitioner [No, no, from many members]. The magistrates, he could take upon himself to say, after the fullest inquiry, had conducted the examination of witnesses, and the whole proceedings of the trial in the fairest way. They had been most solicitous to put themselves in possession of the actual state of the facts; and the universal conviction of all was, that his hon. and learned friend, the member for Stafford, had conducted himself, as was to be expected from his high character, in the most impartial and judicious manner. He had himself received a communication from Mr. Clair, a magistrate of the county, who sat on the bench with the hon. member for Stafford, requesting him to say, that if any blame attached to the chairman of the Quarter Sessions, he was ready to take his full share of responsibility; and that if it was deserving of censure, which he denied, it must equally attach to himself. There was another magistrate also present, who had expressed the fullest approbation of the conduct of his hon. friend; he meant sir Oswald Mosely; and he did expect that the gentlemen on the opposite side of the House would repose confidence in an opinion proceeding from that most upright and conscientious authority. It was most true, that the petitioner, with five other persons, were convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment and hard labour. Undoubtedly, the other individuals convicted with the petitioner were in the humblest walks of life—they were tailors, shoemakers, or such like description of persons; but, would it be contended, that a difference was to be made in the punishment of the persons so convicted, on the ground of any difference in their respective stations of life? Surely, that House would never recognise the principle, that there was one law for the poor, and another for the rich! The truth was, that by certain proceedings the county had been much agitated, and it became the duty of the magistrates to prove that the law could not be violated with impunity.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

said, he could not consent to allow the petition to be brought up. His objection was this, that the hon. and learned member alleged no corruption to the magistrates. If the petition did allege corruption, then this was not the proper tribunal for the appeal. The court of King's-bench was the court to which the petitioner ought to have taken his complaint. The gravamen of the charge was not against the summary nature and arbitrary conduct of the jurisdiction, but against the finding of the jury; a matter upon which the House could not erect itself into a tribunal of appeal.

Mr. Hume

deprecated any decision on the part of the House, which would go to shut its doors against the complaints of the people. If he understood his hon. and learned friend who presented the petition rightly, the petitioner was ready to verify the truth of his allegations, not only on his own oath, but by the testimony of other witnesses. Recollecting that such was the statement of his hon. and learned friend, he could not but consider him rather hardly dealt with, when hon. members imputed to him the attempt to identify himself with the petition. He knew nothing of the particulars of the petition, but from the spirit with which it was met, there appeared something like a grudge, which excited in his mind a degree of suspicion. Let, however, the complaint be received; let the petitioner at least be allowed to lay his statement on the table, and then, if an investigation should take place, the merits of the case would be understood. This would be acting upon the principle of justice to all parties. But, at all events, there was this higher question; namely, that the doors of the House of Commons ought to be thrown open to the petitions of the people.

Sir John Wrottesley

said, he had signed the resolution of the magistrates passed in approbation of the conduct of the chairman and concurred in every thing that had been advanced by the Attorney-general upon the same subject. He had, however, made one reservation, which had not been strictly observed; namely, that the resolution should not be directly published. His reason for thinking it unfit for present publication was, that the conduct of his worthy and excellent friend, the chairman, had been attacked in one of the public Journals, the British Press, in a manner which he would not stigmatize with any particular epithets at present, because it was likely to become the subject of judicial decision: he would only say, that the attack was such as no person of honour and sound feeling could suffer to pass, without calling for the decision of a court of justice upon his conduct. He could not accede to withdrawing the petition, because the conduct of the magistrates, which he thought unimpeachable, was concerned too deeply in the decision; and he asserted, without fear of contradiction, that in the whole kingdom there did not exist a more temperate, feeling, or impartial magistracy, than that in the county of Stafford.

Sir Robert Wilson

said, he had listened with great attention to all that had been offered by hon. members against the reception of the petition. The hon. member for Surrey had opposed it, on the ground of the hardships to which the magistracy of the country who were not orators and rhetoricians, or so well able to defend themselves as the hon. member for Stafford, would be exposed, if petitions of the character of the present, were received by that House. The learned Attorney-general had opposed the reception, because he denied the truth of its allegations. The hon. member himself, whose conduct was attacked, with a feeling that was highly creditable to him, had expressed a solicitude to have the whole proceedings inquired into. He knew nothing of the particulars, but after such an avowal by the hon. member for Stafford, he considered the conduct of his friends at least injudicious. The new tone assumed that night, in speaking of the petitions of the people, ought to be met in the commencement with reprehension. Were the doors of the House of Commons to be closed against the people of England? If he stood alone he should divide the House against such an attempt.

Mr. Wynn

observed, that ever since the House of Commons had been a house of Commons one uniform custom had prevailed with reference to the receiving of petitions. No member, it was held, was justified in presenting a petition, unless he was prepared to pledge himself to the truth of its allegations [No no, from the Opposition]. No individual, he would repeat, had a right to make the access to that House a matter of convenience for himself in attacking the character of magistrates and others. The members of that House were bound to present no pe- tition that was disrespectful [hear, hear! from the Opposition]. It would be a safer and wiser course for hon. members to wait until they heard the end of the sentence. If the hon. member who was accused was not present; if he had no advocates in that House, and was himself not a member, still he (Mr. Wynn) should have opposed receiving a petition, complaining of a judicial proceeding before a competent tribunal. If any abuse or malversation existed, the constitution, in such cases, provided a legal remedy. It was stated by the hon. and learned gentleman who presented the petition, that the petitioner imputed corrupt motives. Under such circumstances, his means of redress were through an application to the court of King's-bench.

Mr. Bright

said, he had not a single doubt of the truth of all that had been urged in defence of the conduct of his excellent and very worthy friend, the member for Stafford, but, throwing aside all personal feeling and consideration, he called upon the House and especially upon the country gentlemen present, to reflect deeply how far the conduct recommended with regard to this petition agreed with the right of the people to present petitions to parliament, which right was secured to them by the great charter. He would assent to the withdrawing of the petition, but not to the opposition made to bringing it up. He never would consent to so dangerous ah encroachment on the people's rights. Were they really prepared to say, that because a magistrate happened to be a member of that House, the House would not hear any petition accusing him of malversation? The right hon. gentleman said, that a member presenting a petition, was bound to take care that there was nothing disrespectful to the House in it. But, would any one say that a petition was disrespectful to the House, which sought the interference of the House in a case of alleged oppression? For what purpose did they sit there, if not to listen to the complaints of the people? It was said, that the complaint in the petition, if true, was matter tryable by the ordinary jurisdictions. He allowed that that might be the more proper course: but it was one thing to deny the truth of a petition or the propriety of its appeal, and another to refuse to hear it. It did not fellow that they must adopt its suggestions, or that a member might not be prepared to refute the allegations in it, or that the House would not throw it out. But, how could they know the merits of its contents without first hearing it? Some said that it ought not to be entertained or received, because it was an appeal from the common jurisdictions, for which there was remedy in the courts of law. Now he understood that a part of the prayer of the petition was to alter an oppressive law. The petitioner complained, that he had suffered under the oppression of that law. Would the. House, then, refuse to hear him, because he asked of them to repeal that oppression? The allegations might be true or false; but he offered grounds for his complaints, and petitioned for a remedy. All that was required in the first instance, was for the House to listen. It was an appeal, not to their judicial, but to their legislative functions. To refuse leave to bring the petition up would be oppressive. His own wish was, that his hon. and learned friend should withdraw the petition under the peculiar cicumstances of the case; but, if the presenting of it were pressed, he trusted that the country gentlemen and all the other members would recollect that, in defending the great constitutional right of petition, they were best securing their own rights and interests.

Mr. Canning

expressed a desire to know, whether it was the intention of the hon. and learned gentleman to withdraw the petition or not?

Mr. Denman

said, he could not give a positive answer, as he understood that an hon. friend would not consent to its being withdrawn.

Mr. Canning

said, that his wish was that the petition should be withdrawn. If it were not, he must oppose its being brought up, simply on the ground, that it prayed for that which it was impossible for the House to grant, namely, that it would reconsider and reverse the verdict of a jury.

Mr. Peel

said, that the hon. and learned member seemed to be displeased with him for not reversing the sentence of the Quarter Sessions. With regard to his own individual feelings, he could have no objection to the adoption of that course by the petitioner, with a view to a revision of the case; and if the petition were withdrawn, the case would stand just as favourably as before for that purpose.

Mr. S. Wortley

entreated his hon. friend the member for Surry, not to per- sist in his opposition to the withdrawing the petition.

Mr. Sumner

considered the petition a gross abuse of the privilege of the House, and could not yield to the wishes of those who expressed a desire to allow it to be withdrawn.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it appeared to him that the argument brought forward by the hon. member for Surry would apply, if the hon. and learned gentleman persisted in pressing the House to receive the petition, but it had no application if the hon. and learned gentleman wished to withdraw it.

Mr. Denman

observed, that although he knew he had no right to reply, yet as he had had so large a share in this business, he trusted the House would allow him to say a few words. It had been supposed by some hon. gentleman, that he had mixed himself too much up with the merits of the petition. Now, the truth was, that he had not offered any opinion whatever on the disputed facts. But those who made that assertion, seemed to forget that the strongest part of the impression made against the petition, consisted of a number of allegations by the hon. and learned attorney-general, who had acted as counsel for the hon. member for Stafford; and yet the House would not listen to the original allegations against which that counter-statement was made. It was very possible that the allegations of the petition were false; but that was no reason for refusing to receive it. It was enough that the petitioner felt himself aggrieved. If his petition was couched in respectful language towards the House, and distinctly stated the grievance of which he complained, he (Mr. D.) conceived, that any member was bound in duty to present it. He did not mean that the serjeant-at-arms might run after him and insist on his doing so; but he was bound in the ordinary acceptation of the term. According to some hon. gentlemen, however, a petitioner, in such a case as the present, was bound rather to make an application to the lord-lieutenant of the county, and then to the court of chancery, to wait at the door there until all the appeals from other courts, the bankrupt causes, the chancery suits, &c, were disposed of, in order that the lord chancellor might then, perhaps, have leisure to examine whether the magistrate complained of ought to be struck out of the commission. Was not the ship-money case a grievance? yet it was the result of a trial. Possibly, too, the decision of the Judges on that case might have been perfectly legal; yet the House of Commons, of that day, willingly received such petitions: and he maintained that unless the House of Commons, of the present day, received such petitions, as that which he had presented, they would abandon one of the most valuable of their functions. It had been put to him personally, as sometimes presiding in a court of justice, whether he would like to have his decisions petitioned against to that House. He hoped that neither himself nor any other magistrate in the House would wish to escape an appeal to that House, if it were even supposed that he had acted illegally. In the present case, the Trespass act had been improperly put in force, and the punishment had been excessive and oppressive. He recollected an instance in which his own conduct had been pretty sharply arraigned in that House. Indeed, he trusted that, from the highest to the lowest judicial characters in the country, there was not one who was not amenable to the House of Commons for his conduct. Under all the circumstances of the case, however, and seeing the temper of the House upon it, he was disposed to withdraw the petition, dreading lest a majority of that House should establish, by their vote, that such a petition ought not to be brought up, although they had not heard it read, and could not, therefore, be aware of its contents. Whatever became of the petition, he was convinced that the discussion which had taken place would do good.

The petition was then withdrawn.