HC Deb 18 July 1831 vol 4 cc1401-6
The Speaker

then rose, and said:— "I have to acquaint the House, that on Saturday last, I received a Letter from the Lord High Chancellor, dated ' High Court of Chancery, July 6th, 1831,' which, with their permission, I will now read." Mr. Speaker,—I have the honour of making known to you, for the information of the House of Commons, that I have issued my Warrant for the commitment of the Hon. W. Long Wellesley, Knight of the Shire for the County of Essex, for a contempt of this Court, confessed by him in open Court, in having taken his infant daughter, a ward of this Court, from the custody of those persons to whom she had been committed by order of this Court, and in having refused to deliver up the said infant ward, when served with an Order so to do, and in having stated, that he had resolved not to deliver her up, and that he had taken steps to withdraw her from the jurisdiction of this Court. The right of this Court to commit in such cases is unquestionable, and it has been enforced against the Peers of the realm; but I have thought fit to make this communication to you, for the purpose of bringing the House of Commons acquainted with the fact, and thus accounting for the absence of Mr. Long Wellesley, and also to testify my profound respect for the honourable House. BROUGHAM, Chancellor.

The Speaker

then continued.—I have this day received the following Letter from Mr. Long Wellesley:— "London, July 18th, 1831. Mr. Speaker,—I have the honour to inform you, that on Saturday last I was ordered by the Lord Chancellor into the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Court of Chancery. I am not aware that I am so confined for any breach of law which could subject a Member of Parliament to such detention. I therefore beg leave to submit to you, Sir, and the House, the consideration of this act, as being an infringement of the privileges of Parliament, of those of my constituency, of the people generally, and of myself. I have the honour further to request, that you will lay this, my complaint, before the House, hoping that they will find cause to direct my immediate discharge, in order that I may be able, without delay, to attend in my place there to perform my public duties. I have the honour to be, Mr. Speaker, your faithful and obedient servant, W.L. WELLESLEY. The Right Hon. Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

having made the communication of these Letters to the House, resumed the Chair.

Lord Althorp

said, that it appeared from the Letters which the Speaker had just read to them, that Peers of this realm had been committed under circumstances similar to those under which Mr. Long Wellesley had been committed. He believed, however, that this was the first case in which any Member of the House of Commons had been committed for a contempt of Court. He believed, that the distinction drawn in cases of this description was simply this;—That in civil actions, the privilege of Parliament protected a Member from arrest; but that in criminal proceedings, it did not. The present was a peculiar case, which partook of the nature both of a civil and of a criminal proceeding; for, undoubtedly, any person being guilty of such a contempt of Court, as in the presence of its Judge to avow his determination not to obey the will of the Court, and to state, that he had taken steps to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Court, one of its wards, did appear to be guilty of something like a criminal action. It appeared to him, that this was a case to which the Privilege of Parliament did not apply. But as there might be some difficulty, though he did not anticipate any, as to the course which the House ought to pursue, he thought it would be advisable to refer the consideration of the whole of this matter to a Committee of Privileges. He would not, however, make a proposition to that effect, unless there should be some opposition to the opinion which he had just expressed.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

was of opinion, that the suggestion which the noble Lord had just thrown out, was the only proper proposition for the consideration of the House. If the present case were, as it had been stated, a case primæ impressionis, it was fitting that it should be fully and maturely discussed, before the House came to any decision upon it. The question involved in this case was not whether the proceeding was civil or criminal, but whether the principle on which the decision of it was to rest, was in accordance with those principles on which the House had always acted hitherto,—namely, that the privilege of Parliament extended to all cases, save those of treason, felony, and breach of the peace. Under those principles every decision of the House of Commons, in cases of this nature, had been hitherto framed. Cases had occurred in which the House had decided how far the exception to the protection of privilege in cases of breach of the peace could be carried. One of them was decided by a Resolution to which the House came on the 14th of April, 1697. That Resolution was as follows:—" That no Member of Parliament hath any privilege in case of a breach of the peace, or a forcible entry, or a forcible detainer." On the ground of that Resolution, he conceived that a contempt of Court, accompanied by a breach of the peace or any exercise of force, would deprive a Member of that House of all protection from arrest on the score of his privilege. There was a case, in the other House of Parliament, in which it had been decided, that no privilege of Parliament should withstand the Writ of Habeas Corpus. Here, however, was a case, in which it became necessary for the House of Commons to decide whether any contempt of Court would justify that Court in arresting a Member of the House of Commons, who had been guilty of such contempt. On that point he would deliver no opinion. Perhaps the particular case of contempt then under consideration, would go far to justify a commitment; but certainly the point was a new one, and the House was called on, in assenting to the arrest, to go further than it had ever before gone. As it was, therefore, a matter of some doubt, he concurred in the propriety of the noble Lord's suggestion, that the whole consideration of this matter be referred to a Committee of Privileges.

Sir Robert Peel

thought this case very similar to that of Lord Cochrane, in which the noble Lord was arrested in that House after his escape from the King's Bench prison, and in which the House determined that the Marshal was not guilty of any breach of privilege in so arresting him. The Committee of Privileges, to which that question was referred, stated that they could find no case analogous to it; but added, that it was their opinion, that in the arrest of Lord Cochrane, none of the privileges of Parliament had been violated. To say, that Members of that House were not to pay the same respect as the rest of their fellow-subjects to the Courts of the country, which were instituted for the general protection of the community, was quite absurd. It would tend more than anything which could be devised to paralyse the working of the Courts throughout the country; and he should be amazingly sorry to learn, that any Member of that House could oppose, thwart, and obstruct, the Court of the Lord High Chancellor.

Mr. O'Connell

thought, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. W. Wynn), had put a wrong construction on the passage which he read from a Resolution of the House passed in 1697. Mr. Wellesley had only been guilty of a constructive contempt of Court without force. Gentlemen should recollect, that the words in the Resolution, "forcible entry, and forcible detainer," alluded to entry and detainers of land only. In this case there was no indictment for trespass on lands, and therefore no criminal process could issue against Mr. Wellesley. Besides, it would be a dangerous doctrine to assert, that a Member of Parliament should be liable to arrest for everything which a Judge might determine to be contempt of Court. Every Court of Record had a right to commit for contempt, or constructive contempt, and that doctrine had, to his knowledge, been carried so far, that a Court of Quarter Sessions had declared the proprietor of a newspaper, who had published some comments on its proceeding, to be guilty of a contempt, and had punished him accordingly. Unless great care, therefore, were taken in the decision in the present case, it might serve as a precedent hereafter to a Court of Quarter Sessions to exercise the same power with respect to a Member of Parliament. Under these circumstances it was obvious, that the subject required mature consideration.

Sir Charles Wetherell

said, that instead of calling this a constructive contempt, he must call it a matter of fact contempt of Court. For his own part, he must say that he, as a Member of Parliament, should be sorry to have a privilege which would enable him not to yield the same obedience as the rest of his countrymen to the Orders of a Court, which were intended for the benefit of the country.

[It was then ordered, that the said Letters, with the subject-matter therein contained, be referred to the Committee of Privileges, to examine the matter thereof, and to report their proceedings, with their opinion thereupon, to the House. The Committee were also instructed to sit to-morrow.]

Mr. R. Grant

moved, that the Order of committal be also submitted to the said Committee.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

said, that the Motion was unnecessary, as the Committee must inspect that committal, as a matter of course.

Sir Charles Burrell

said, the origin of the protection given to Members arose from certain unfair practices which were had recourse to in former times, to prevent them from attending and discharging their duties. This was the cause why they were protected from arrest, but it never could be intended that this protection should extend to shield them from the consequences of a direct violation of the law. If that were the case, all sorts of crimes might be committed by Members of Parliament with impunity; it was, therefore, quite clear that this privilege did not extend to protect a Member who had been guilty of violent and improper conduct.

Sir J. Scarlett, in alluding to the resolution of the House of Commons in 1697, said, that the breach of peace there mentioned was cognizable only by the Court of King's Bench, and that Mr. Wellesley had not been guilty even of a breach of the peace. Besides, even if he had, the Lord Chancellor had no power to punish for a breach of the peace. In all cases of contempt of Court committed by Members of Parliament, the usual course was, in case the contempt was a contempt of a court of law, to proceed against them by a distringas; in case it was a contempt of the Court of Chancery, to proceed against them by sequestration; and in case the contempt was committed by persons who were not Members of Parliament, to proceed against them by attachment. As it would be most injudicious to insinuate, that the Lord Chancellor had committed an error in committing Mr. Wellesley, he should support the proposition for referring the whole of this matter to a Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Baring

concurred with what had been said by the hon. member for Sussex, as to the injustice of extending the privileges of Parliament to protect any species of crime; and so strongly did he feel on the subject, that if he were a Member of that House in the next Parliament, he would introduce a motion to prevent Members from pleading their privilege as a bar to imprisonment for debt. He thought, that it was very detrimental to the public weal, as well as a great scandal, that any set of men should enjoy privileges which enabled them to set their creditors at defiance.

It was then ordered, that the Warden of the Fleet Prison, or any other officer, in whose custody the hon. William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley may be, do bring the said hon. William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley in safe custody, to-morrow, to the Committee of Privileges, and so, from time to time, as often as his attendance shall be thought necessary; and that Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant accordingly.