HC Deb 18 April 1828 vol 18 cc1560-4
Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he held in his hand a petition containing the application of a private individual for redress. It was the petition of Miles O'Reilly, of Dublin, who had lost a large sum of money, in consequence of certain transactions which occurred at Madras; and he conceived he had a right, in fairness and in conscience, to claim a reparation from the directors of the East-India Company. Mr. O'Reilly had put this petition into his hands several years ago; and he had then told him, that his best course would be, to endeavour to procure redress by quiet and peaceable means. In consequence of that recommendation, he had succeeded in keeping Mr. O'Reilly from having the petition presented for three or four years; and he had done so from a hope, which was not yet extinguished, that the Court of Directors would, in that spirit of justice and fairness which characterized their conduct, attend to the claim of the petitioner. But as that body, no doubt from a sense of public duty, had refused to interfere, all he could do was to lay the petition before the House; and he hoped that the statement contained in it, and the discussion upon it, might have the effect of convincing the high and honourable men to whom one very important branch of the public interest was intrusted, that there was, in this instance, if not a legal at least an equitable claim on them, to pay to Mr. O'Reilly, out of the funds of the company, the sum of which he had been deprived. There was, in a statute passed in the 39th and 40th of the late king, a clause which directed the registrar of the king's court to sue out letters of administration, when any person residing in the presidency happened to die intestate. That clause was intended, and, he believed, had the effect of preventing property thus left from suffering that havoc and destruction, with which it might otherwise be visited; since it was placed in the hands of those whose duty it was to take care of it, and to see that it was given up to the right owners. But when the property of individuals was thus, by a legal enactment, taken out of that course and channel in which otherwise it would naturally flow,—when the care of private money was intrusted to a public officer, —then, not only that public officer, but all the agents of the government by whom he was appointed, were bound to watch over the property thus taken from individuals, with the most anxious care. It happened in this case, that colonel O'Reilly, the brother of the petitioner, died in 1816, leaving behind him a moderate property; which, as he died intestate, would descend to his next heir. Mr. Ricketts, the registrar of the court at Madras, took out letters of administration, and then took possession of the colonel's estate, which he invested in the company's treasury at Madras. That act rendered him the trustee of the property, by virtue of the office he held; and those who gave them the authority so to appoint him, namely, the directors, were in fairness and justice, if not in strict law, answerable for any loss which the property might sustain, in consequence of want of due care and vigilance. Soon afterwards, Mr. Ricketts, whose affairs were embarrassed, went to the treasury, and took out a large part of this property. In a short time after he died insolvent, leaving no security for the money, and without any assets. In conquence, the whole of this money, about 3,000l., was lost. An important circumstance in the case was this, that the treasury paid the money to the registrar without any rule or order of court made to that effect. The judges of the court admitted, by a paper which was still in existence, that there ought to have been an order: and two of the former judges of the court at Madras, now living, sir T. Strange and sir E. Stanley, had declared in the court, that, in consequence of the money being taken from the treasury without an order, the directors became answerable. Surely this was but reasonable. If the treasurer had said, "I cannot pay you without an order from the court; it is not your money; it is vested in me for the benefit of others— go and get a rule authorizing me to pay it," what would have been the consequence? Why, probably, it would have prevented this unfortunate, man from making such an application; or, if he did apply for a rule, the court would have said, "Show us what the money is wanted for; prove to us your solvency and efficiency." Then Mr. Ricketts would have been called on for security; and if he did not lay sufficient grounds before the court, his application would have been refused, and the property saved. If the treasury made itself liable for this money, ought it not to have exercised thus much vigilance? If it were pot vigilant to that extent, why then it appeared to him that there was no vigilance at all. Now, he did not think it would be denied, that the Court of Directors, who appointed the government, and the government under whom Mr. Ricketts had been suffered to act in this manner, were responsible for any injury that might be incurred, by want of proper attention. That they were legally responsible, he was not bound to show; but leaving the legality aside, he would contend, that, in liberality and equity, they were bound to consider the case of the family of one of their old and faithful servants, who had sustained a heavy loss by the gross negligence (he would not say moral misconduct), and want of care of the public money. By his advice several statements of the case had been made to the Court of Directors, and all the facts were admitted by their secretary, Mr. Dart, but no redress followed. Another thing that strengthened Mr. O'Reilly's claim for compensation was this—that Mr. Ricketts, by whom the loss was sustained, was appointed to the office contrary to the wish of sir T. Strange, a judge nominated by the king, who wished another gentleman to fill the office. But the mayor and aldermen, who were the servants of the company, outvoted him, and appointed the person who caused this loss. Another circumstance to which he called the attention of the House was this: by the act of parliament, which gave this power to the registrar, it was enacted, that he should publish an account of all monies paid into his hands on account of intestates, first in the India newspapers, and then as soon as possible in the London Gazette, in order to give warning to the relations of individuals so deceased, throughout Europe. Colonel O'Reilly died intestate in 1816, and yet five years elapsed before the advertisement appeared. What could have been the object of inserting the advertisement after such a delay? The whole use of this regulation was, that speedy information should be given to the relatives of the deceased, by which embezzlement or dilapidation of property might be prevented. If this advertisement had been inserted the next year, this small fortune might have been rescued from the hands of the registrar. He only mentioned this as a part of the general grievance which would be removed if the law were adhered to. Under all circumstances, he hoped that the statements he had made, and the discussion that might ensue, would have the effect of inducing the East India Company not to depart on the present occasion From that practice of liberality and justice which had generally characterized their conduct.

Mr. Denison

said, that a friend of his, a Mr. Sinclair, had a brother who, after residing many Years in India, died without a will. This registrar, who took possession of his property, which amounted to ten thousand pagodas, died insolvent, and his friend had never been able to obtain redress, tie petitioned the Board of Control, who referred him to the East India Company; but they told him that Mr. Ricketts was no officer of theirs, but was appointed by the King's Court at Madras. It was extremely hard that people should thus be deprived of their property, without any fault or neglect of their own. In his opinion, the persons concerned in these two cases had, by every consideration of law, equity, and liberality, a claim upon the East India Company.

Mr. Wynn

said, that the deficiencies of Mr. Ricketts amounted to 40,000l., which had been abstracted from the property of the widows and children of the persons whose effects he had, as registrar, administered. The subject was one of great difficulty, and he hardly knew on whom the claim for redress should be made. What the honourable baronet had said of the manner in which Mr. Ricketts had been appointed, had no bearing on the case. By an act which was passed in 1800—an act brought forward by government and not by the East India Company, it was enacted that, as persons in India had commonly few relatives who could undertake the administration of their effects, that office should devolve on a public officer, and the duty was thrown upon the registrar. The judges naturally appointed the existing officer of the Recorder's court. He could not help regretting that when this duty was put upon the registrar, the judges did not take an adequate pecuniary security from him. The practice at present was, that the registrar gave such security, and that no money should be drawn out of the treasury without an order of court. But now came the question, who was to make the loss good? If, a similar case having happened in this country, the government would have had to redress the injured party, then, indeed, he thought the petitioner must be redressed by the East India Company. If not, he did not think the petitioner had any claim on the Company. This was not a question of liberality. Unless a sufficient case was made out, the Company could not, consistently with their duty, reimburse the petitioner.

Mr. Courtenay

observed, that in speaking of this case, he would say, as he had said upon another which had been referred to a committee, that where there was a wrong for which there was no remedy, the proper course was to appeal to that House. He was therefore glad that the subject had been brought before them.

Mr. L. Foster

contended, that the money having been lodged in the hand of the Company's own treasurer, this was an appeal to something more than to their liberality. The attention of the Commons of England had been called to a gross wrong, and he hoped that the appeal which had been made to the feelings of the Company would not be lost upon them.

Mr. Lindsay

did not think the Company liable for the actions of an officer whom they had not appointed. The more the case was looked into, the more clearly it would appear, that the Company were not liable for the misdeeds of an officer over whom they had no control.

Mr. Trant

said, if it could be shown that there had been the slightest neglect on the part of any of the officers of the Company, then it was quite clear that the petitioner had a fair and equitable claim.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

protested against the supposition, that the petitioner supposing his case to be made out, could have any claim upon the government. If it were found that any thing was due to him, the payment must come out of the territorial revenues.

The petition was read, and sir J. Mackintosh gave notice that he would on Thursday move to refer it to a Select Committee.