HC Deb 09 March 1835 vol 26 cc718-25
The Solicitor-General

said, that in moving for leave to bring in a Bill of which he had given notice on a previous night, he must claim the indulgence of the House while he stated, as briefly as was possible, the circumstances under which he had felt himself called upon to act. He was quite aware that Bills of indemnity for any violation of the law, or indeed any measure which had a retrospective object, ought not, and would not, be dealt lightly with by the Legislature; but in this instance he believed he could satisfy the House, that the violations of the law had been so inadvertent, the conduct of the informer so vexatious, and the actions brought by him so exclusively intended for the purpose of extorting money, that he hoped to obtain the sanction of the House to the measure he proposed even as a Bill of indemnity. The House would be aware from the conversation which had taken place a few nights ago, and from the contents of a petition presented by the hon. Member for Somersetshire, of some of the circumstances of the case, but the House had yet to learn that at the present moment there were pending no less than 200 actions, which had been brought to recover penalties of 100l. for each offence—that was upon each newspaper published inadvertantly without some of the requisites provided by the statute upon which those actions were based. The penalties to which the informer would be entitled to recover against a daily newspaper amounted to 30,000l.; and as against a weekly paper of course not so much, but particulars of demand had been furnished to a weekly paper, amounting in the whole to no less a sum than 10,500l. The actions were ostensibly brought by a person of the name of Smith, who, as far as he (the Solicitor-General) had received information, turned out to be a boy of fifteen or sixteen years of age, a writing clerk, in the employment of an attorney in not very reputable practice. In truth, however, the actions were brought by another clerk, who was at present suffering an imprisonment under a sentence pronounced by the Court of King's Bench, for libel. It was necessary that he should shortly state the provisions of the Act of Parliament which was supposed to have been violated, in order to point out the remedies he proposed for the existing evil, for he did not mean the present measure to be one of indemnity alone, but, also, to embrace provisions which would prevent a recurrence of transactions similar to those which had been described. The Act under which these actions had been commenced, was the 38th George 3rd., chap. 78, and was passed in the year 1798, for the purpose of expediting and simplifying proceedings against newspaper proprietors for libellous publications. It was provided by that statute, that no person should publish a newspaper until an affidavit had been made, delivered in, and filed at the Stamp-office, or if in the country, with the Sub-commissioner of stamps, setting forth the names, the additions, or descriptions, and the places of abode of all persons intended to be the printers and publishers of such newspaper, and, also, stating in the same manner the proprietors as well as a description of the building in which it was intended to be published, together with the title of the newspaper. In default of a compliance with this provision the penalty was 100l. Another provision of the same Act was, that no paper should be published without setting forth in some part of it the names, the additions, and places of abode of the printers and publishers; for a violation of it another penalty of 100l. was provided. The intention of these two distinct provisions was to make legal proceedings against newspapers more easy, and in order that no further evidence of the fact of the publication of a libel should be required than the production from the Stamp-office of the affidavit, or a certified copy of it, and the production afterwards of the particular newspaper itself, for the purpose of proving that the title, the names, description of the printers and publishers, and place of printing, tallied with the affidavit. So far as the object of this Act went, the omission of the place of residence of the printer and publisher was wholly immaterial, and these actions which had now been brought were founded upon a non-compliance with a wholly immaterial form. The informer in the present cases had discovered, that of late years a practice had grown up amongst printers and publishers, of, in some instances, omitting the addition of their place of residence, but complying with the other requisites required by the existing law, and this omission formed the ground of the actions for penalties in the generality of the suits pending. But in order to show the vexatious spirit with which these proceedings were instituted, he (the Solicitor-General) would mention one case. A person resident in Cornwall, the proprietor of a newspaper, had died, and his widow, after regularly altering the affidavit at the Stamp-office, continued its publication in her own name, but in printing the newspapers, the addition to her name of "widow" had been inadvertently omitted. For this omission an action had been brought, and the particulars of demand in that action had been delivered, claiming penalties to the amount of 10,500l., being 100l. upon each newspaper so published. He thought this instance alone fully justified the interference of the Legislature? But what had been the whole course of the informer's proceeding? The first step he had taken was, to send round to the editors, publishers, or proprietors of newspapers, a document purporting to be an elaborate opinion of an eminent counsel— nay, indeed bearing the initials of his noble and learned Friend, the present Lord Chief Baron, and apparently dated at the Chambers which that distinguished personage had occupied, to the effect that the parties had no defence to the actions, and therefore advising them to compromise them on the best terms they could. This was not all, for the informer had entered into such a wholesale trade, as to issue printed circulars (one of which he held in his hand), containing a form for returns of the numbers of printers and persons engaged in that branch of trade, and which he had addressed to the clergyman of the parish, or some other influential person in the town, and accompanied with a note to the effect that the object of the return was to lay it before Parliament, and the immediate attention of the party to whom it was addressed was particularly requested. The circular concluded by desiring the return, when filled up, to be forwarded to the informer under cover to some Member of Parliament, who was named, and who in general was the Representative of the town from which the information was sought. In the letter he was reading, the return was directed to be sent under cover to him the Solicitor-General. He was satisfied the House would on this statement agree with him, that some interference on its part was necessary, and the question then remained, in what way that interference should be made? It had been suggested to him by the hon. Member for Sussex, that a Bill of indemnity should be introduced to release the parties from the actions which had been brought against them, and for such a course he had found precedents in a Bill to indemnify printers from the penalties they had inadvertantly incurred, under the 29th George 3rd., and which passed both Houses in 1809, and in a similar Bill which passed some years after. But it struck him that the passing of a mere Bill of indemnity would only be meeting the matter half way, and that the Act which had so improperly been put in force, ought not to be left in the hands of a common informer to deal with, lest the same transactions should occur again. From inquiries which had been made at the Stamp-office, it appeared, that until these actions were commenced by the informer Smith, the officers there had supposed that no actions under this statute could be brought by an informer, but that, on the contrary, the right to institute proceedings for these penalties was only vested in the Law-Officers of the Crown. This mistake arose from the fact, that previous to the year 1804, all penalties for the violation of the stamp-laws might be recovered by actions brought by common informers, but in that year an Act was passed, providing, that in future such penalties must be sued for by informations at the instance of the Law Officers of the Crown, and such he apprehended must have been the intention of the Legislature when it passed that law, because in a subsequent Act, the 60th George 3rd., for regulating the publication of pamphlets, &c., a similar provision was made. This intention he proposed to carry into effect by the present measure, and the reason why this was necessary was, that in a case which had been argued in the courts of law, touching upon these statutes, it had been decided that as these Acts were not acts of revenue, a common informer might sue. He therefore proposed to introduce into the present Bill a provision, that in future no common informer should bring actions for violations of the statute in question, and next, that the editors and proprietors of newspapers against whom actions had been already brought, should be relieved from their liabilities; but he did not think that he should be justified in bringing forward a Bill, the effect of which would be to deprive the informer of his costs when it was remembered, that the informer had brought his actions and incurred expenses on the faith of the existing law, and though the House, perhaps, would not be inclined to show much indulgence to him, yet, probably, it would not think it right that those expenses should fall on him, the informer. He therefore proposed that in all the actions which had been commenced, the defendants should be at liberty, on taking out a Summons before a Judge, to stay proceedings upon payment of costs. Anxious that the House should at once agree to the principle of the Bill, and in order to its being passed as speedily as possibly, he had conveyed, he hoped clearly, the full scope of its intended provisions, and he should conclude by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the provisions of the Statute 38th George 3rd, c. 78, and to indemnify persons who had omitted to comply with certain of the regulations contained in that Act respecting the printing and publication of newspapers.

Sir John Campbell

expressed his entire concurrence in the measure which had been proposed by his hon. and learned Friend, the Solicitor-General. The language of the act of 1798, was extremely ambiguous, and when he had read the section of the clause in question, it appeared to him very doubtful whether, or not, in these cases, it had been violated. The proceedings of the informer, in the present instance, were most pettifogging, and, as he thought, most scandalous. He could claim no favour, and if he were secured the costs he had incurred, he would get as much as he could require, or as he deserved. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend, in thinking, that for the future, the recovery of these penalties should be left to the Attorney-General, and the Law Officers of the Crown. In all respects, he thought the Bill most unexceptionable, and he trusted that it would meet with no opposition.

Mr. Curteis

said, that the thanks, not only of the press, but of the public generally, were justly due to the hon. and learned Solicitor-General, for the prompt manner in which he had attended to the request made to him the other night. The learned Solicitor-General had alluded to a case of great hardship, in Cornwall, but, he knew another equally harsh case. He held in his hand a newspaper, the proprietor of which was liable to penalties of 10,500l. for inserting merely the initials of his Christian names, T. R., instead of the names Thomas Richard, at length. The mode, in which the Solicitor-General had met the evil, was most proper, and he hoped it would be carried into effect. The only difficulty he (Mr. Curteis) felt, arose from the case at Hull, which his hon. Friend, the Member for Hull, whom he did not now see in his place, had desired him to mention. He however hoped, that the informer would not be allowed, by getting his costs, to put money into his pocket, as if so, he would still reap a great benefit from the course which he had pursued.

Mr. Baines

felt under a great obligation to the learned Solicitor-General, for the promptitude he had shown in this business. He begged to suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman, the propriety of some provision in this Bill, to render unnecessary the publication of the printer's residence, as the place of business was amply sufficient to answer every essential purpose. It would simplify the Bill, and prevent the possibility of oppressive conduct on the part of a Government towards a printer, if, for any supposed wrong, any Government should feel so disposed.

The Attorney-General

said, it would be extremely inconvenient to insert into the present Bill any such clause as that which the hon. Member suggested. The object of the Bill was, simply to set aside all the pending proceedings, and to prevent their recurrence in future; and if it were to be accompanied by any alteration of the existing laws, or, indeed, embraced any but the single object, the Bill might meet with opposition and be unsuccessful elsewhere, or it might be so long delayed, as that the mischiefs it was designed to prevent might be effected. He had felt, in conjunction with his hon. and learned Friend, the Solicitor-General (for he begged to share with him the responsibility of this measure) that it was their duty, as the Law Officers of the Crown, themselves to bring forward and take the responsibility of an ex post facto law. There was no part of the duties of the office which he had the honour to fill, that he desired so little, as the responsibility of having to bring forward prosecutions for violations of the law, selecting some for prosecution, and passing by others; but still he was satisfied of the propriety of taking this power out of the hands of the common informer, and placing it in those of the Law Officers of the Crown. In confining the provisions of this Bill to the object it sought to attain, he did not desire to be considered, as giving an opinion, that the present law, in other respects, was not capable of alterations beneficial to the public, and to printers in particular; but he did think it would be rash, at present, to legislate beyond the existing necessity. He should be ready to enter upon the consideration of those alterations at a future time, but, at present, he entreated the House to confine itself to the relief of these parties from their present difficulties, and to the prevention of a recurrence of similar transactions. To the hon. Member for Sussex (Mr. Curteis) he begged to reply, that the present Bill would have the effect of preventing the informer from reaping any benefit from his nefarious practices. With these explanations, he trusted the Bill would be passed without delay.

Mr. Bonham Carter

said, that as the actions which the common informer had brought against the proprietors of newspapers were numerous, so were the errors various, which had given rise to those actions. He hoped that the hon. and learned Solicitor-General would not limit his indemnity clause to that class of errors which he had stated, but would word it in such a manner as to include every case. It would expedite the public business, by saving hon. Gentlemen the trouble of adding to the clause, particular words to meet particular cases.

Mr. Aaron Chapman

said, that the Solicitor-General deserved the thanks of the community, for the prompt attention with which he had applied a remedy to this species of grievance. There were three individuals, in the borough which he represented, against whom actions had been brought to recover penalties amounting to 5,000l. or 6,000l. They would be relieved from great anxiety, by the introduction of this Bill. He was delighted to hear the Attorney-General declare that care should be taken, that the informers should not derive any benefit from these nefarious transactions.

Captain Pechell

also tendered his thanks to the Solicitor-General on behalf of his constituents. The town which he had the honour of representing, had been peculiarly marked out by this informer. This Bill was a boon which would give great satisfaction to that town. It would almost give the inhabitants as much satisfaction, as the repeal of the Malt-tax or the repeal of the Window-duties.

The Solicitor-General

said, that his hon. and learned Friend had asked him, whether his clause of indemnity would extend to all cases. It would do so by stopping all actions of this nature. The Bill would prevent the common informer from bringing an action at all. He intended it to be as complete as possible.

Leave given. The Bill was brought in and read a first time.