HC Deb 05 May 1826 vol 15 cc911-4
Mr. Scarlett

said, he held in his hand a petition from Mr. O'Connell, the Irish barrister, praying for the interference of the House, in order to remove lord Norbury from the Chief Justice ship of the Common Pleas of Ireland. He felt that the subject was one of a peculiarly delicate nature; but, as he perceived nothing objectionable in the language of the petition, and as it had been forwarded to him for presentation, he would discharge his duty, putting the House as shortly as possible in possession of the substance of the allegations relative to the learned lord. The Petitioner expressed very clearly the disinclination he felt to interfere with the subject, if he had seen a disposition in any other quarter to have saved him the painful duty of standing forward on this occasion. He had hoped that the lapse of time might have rendered it unnecessary for him to lay his complaints before the House; but having been disappointed in these expectations, he could no longer refrain from calling the notice of parliament to a subject so deeply affecting the administration of justice in Ireland. He begged it to be understood that he preferred no imputation on the honour or integrity of the learned lord. He alleged simply, that he was incapacited from the adequate performance of his judicial duties, by the infirmity and debility consequent upon old age. In particular the learned lord was so subject to lethargic stupor, that he would frequently fall fast asleep in the middle of the trial at which he was presiding. In one instance it occurred that on a trial for murder, which took place in Ireland before the chief justice of the Common Pleas, his lordship fell asleep, and so remained during the greater part of the evidence. The consequence was, that he delivered such a charge to the jury as led to the conviction of the prisoner, who however was afterwards very properly pardoned. Another instance was mentioned at Mulingar, when six persons were tried before the learned lord, who was sound asleep during the greater part of the trial. The fact of his being asleep was so notorious, that the barrister who conducted the prosecution, requested the jury to take notes of the evidence, in order that they might inform the judge of what had passed, when he awoke. The petitioner stated, that if it was necessary to support by evidence his allegation, that the chief justice of the Common Pleas was, by age and infirmity, incompetent to the duties of his office, he would appeal to the other judges of that Court, and to all the barristers who practised in it, and on the Home Circuit, which the learned lord usually selected. He was utterly incompetent, the petitioner solemnly affirmed, to try any serious case of property, or to preside over the fate of any human being, even on the most trivial charge. The petitioner was well aware that his interests were opposed to the course he had adopted, in bringing this subject before parliament; but his motives were public and pure. The only circumstance he had to reproach himself with, was his not having done so before; but he had found so much difficulty in prevailing upon any body to join with him, that he had been discouraged, until the weight of the grievance compelled him, without further hesitation, to present himself before that House. The hon. and learned gentleman, having thus stated the substance of the petition, observed, that he did not intend to found any motion on the petition. He felt that if it was deemed advisable to take any step, the measure would proceed with much better effect from some member connected with Ireland. He presented it to show that he would not shrink from the discharge of any duty, however odious it might be, relative to the administration of public justice. He certainly was of opinion, that infirmity or incapacity was a good reason why a judge should resign, whether it arose from age or any other cause. The complaint in this instance was not that the learned lord was originally unfit for his office, but that time, the greatest of all innovators, had deprived him of those faculties and talents which had recommended him to the notice of those who had placed him in authority. He regretted the necessity of this course; but there was, unfortunately, no other mode of producing, or compelling, the resignation of a judge, than by bringing the case in this shape before the public.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that as the learned gentleman had distinctly declared that he had no intention of bringing forward any motion on this petition, it was scarcely necessary for him to make any observations upon it. But he could not help calling the attention of the House to the situation in which the learned lord was placed. The petition related purely to a question of opinion. Was an individual, because he had attained a particular age, to be held to be so utterly disqualified as to be incompetent to the discharge of his duty for the future? Who had pretended to fix the day beyond which a judge was no longer deemed worthy of his seat? It was well known, that there were, and had been, many judges who had performed their duty to the entire satisfaction of the public, at an age equally advanced with that of the chief justice of the Common Pleas of Ireland. The learned lord's health was as good as at any period of his life, and he (Mr. G.) had observed nothing in his public or private intercourse with him, that could justify the allegation that he was unfit for his office. The right hon. gentleman, with reference to that part of the petition in which the petitioner appealed to the other judges of the Court of Common Pleas for evidence of the incompetency of the chief justice, stated, that he was decidedly of opinion, they would declare him to be perfectly competent. A case had occurred in that Court, only the term before he quitted Ireland, which removed all doubt as to the ability of the learned lord. An argument of great difficulty was heard before the judges in banco. The chief justice differed from all his learned brethren on an important point of law. The case was afterwards argued before the twelve judges, and they decided, in accordance with the opinion of the learned lord, and against that of the three other judges of the Common Pleas. He did not deny that it might be proper to lay down a general rule, that judges should not sit after they had attained a certain age; but, it would be manifestly unfair to make the learned lord suffer by its operation, when it was not intended to be applied to others.

The Petition was then brought up and read. It alleged, that the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas of Ireland was eighty-five years of age, and so deaf that he could hardly hear any thing that passed in his court, and was besides liable, in such a degree, to lethargic stupor, that it was impossible he could properly attend to any case that was tried before him.

Mr. North

admitted, that that part of the allegations of the petition against the learned lord was undoubtedly true, in which it was stated that he was eighty-five years of age, and he had ascertained, having taken pains to make the inquiry, that there was no judge so old either in Ireland, or in this country. He agreed, too, that the learned lord would have consulted his ease, his dignity, the wishes of his best friends, and the interests of the administration of justice, if he had retired from the bench some time since. But, whenever he should retire from the court over which he had so long presided, and in which he had displayed such unrivalled courtesy and kindness to the whole bar, he would leave behind him a remembrance of his admirable temper and unequalled suavity, which would long continue, after the infirmities of his declining age would be forgotten. Not for worlds would he have brought forward this subject himself; but, as it had been introduced, he was glad that an opportunity had been given to him of discharging a most painful duty.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, there was a strong probability that the individual whom he was proud to call his friend, had been induced to retain his seat, from having heard that a petition was to be presented against him. He was prevented from retiring, lest it should appear that he had yielded to the menace held out against him. His high integrity had never been impeached; and, considering the manner in which this petition had been reluctantly brought forward by the learned gentleman, he, speaking as the friend of the learned lord, felt that no impediment was raised in the way of his retirement by this petition. No part of it cast the slightest suspicion on the purity of his judicial conduct. He might retire without the shadow of an imputation on any portion of his long public life.

Ordered to lie on the table.

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