HC Deb 20 April 1836 vol 32 cc1245-8
Captain Pechell

, pursuant to notice, had to present the petition of an unfortunate woman who by the course of law had been deprived of her legal and natural protector; and he felt assured that on this, as on other occasions when a female besought their sympathy, the House would favour her advocate with their attention. It was necessary before he entered into the case that the House should be aware, in consequence of some remarks which had been made, that although the cause of complaint had arisen in consequence of a change of administering parish relief, it was not sought in this matter to question the principle of the Poor-Law Bill, as in all probability the grievance would have occurred had not that measure come into operation. Neither was it intended to attribute any improper motives to the Cinque Port Magistrates concerned, who appeared to have shewn some indulgence, and who, no doubt, had acted according to the law as laid down or explained to them. Still he, (Captain P.) had much reason to regret the cause which had produced the present petition. The Horse would re collect that, on the 26th February, a petition was presented from Jane Champion, which stated, that she had the misfortune, in consequence of the transportation of her husband, to be left with six young children totally unprovided for, and with every prospect of producing a seventh. The parish officers then allowed her a maintenance for the children, the payment of which ceased on the Poor-Law Bill coming into operation. The children were than taken into the workhouse, and the mother was allowed to seek a subsistence for herself. The parish officers imagining that by compelling the petitioner to go into the work house she might be induced to take back her children, obtained a warrant under the vagrant act; and on the petitioner refusing so to enter the poor-house, she being able to obtain a subsistence for herself, she was convicted by the Cinque Port Magistrates as a rogue and vagabond and sent to the House of Correction. After enduring this punishment the petitioner went to live with her relations at Brighton, and occasionally was able to get employment, but the parish officers again interfered and again sought to force her into the workhouse. The magistrates, however, finding that the case was to be sent to this House, very kindly consented to adjourn it, and the noble Lord (J. Russell) directed the case to be sent to the law officers as to the privileges of coverture claimed by petitioner. The law officers, in giving their opinion, actually threw the main question at issue entirely overboard; and he, (Captain P.,) appealed to the House, whether or no the Attorney General did not completely avoid the question put to him the other evening on this subject? The law officers gave it as their opinion that if the wife by the transportation of the husband became possessed of the means of supporting the children, the property so possessed was liable to their maintenance. But they also declared, that previous to any step being taken, it was necessary proof should be given that she had the means. Acting on this opinion, the parish officers of Seaford brought the adjourned case to a hearing on the 11th inst.; but they did not attempt to show that the petitioner had any visible means; yet they construed her refusal to enter the workhouse, and their offer of employment, in the same light as if she had bona fide. the pecuniary means of assisting to maintain the children. The petitioner was therefore again convicted as a rogue and vagabond, and this was the ground of the present complaint. The petitioner did not ask for relief; she could support herself, or live on the charity of her family. She had not left her children; they were taken from; her long since, and placed in the poor house; so that it was not easy to reconcile these facts with the provisions of the Vagrant Act. The 56th section of the Poor Law Bill stated that all relief given to the wife and children was to be considered as given to the husband. But here the husband was living, and absent without her consent, and certainly against his own. The woman could not marry, and therefore it was oppressive to hold her single for one law and married for another. It was to be regretted that the Attorney-General was not in his place; but as there were no doubt other legal Gentlemen present, he (Capt. P.,) should like to know, as the law officers had decided that the petitioner might have become possessed of property by the transportation of her husband, whether, in the event of any money having been settled on her at her marriage, she could now have obtained the same. He, (Capt. P.) believed that the Crown would take it for the life of the husband. The law officers might probably tell him that the monies called pin money would be applicable; but in the present case the unfortunate petitioner had no such resources. By the decision come to by the magistrates, the question of the liability of the wife to maintain her husband's children had been entirely overlooked. The petitioner had no choice but a jail or a workhouse, as the parish officers would not permit her to maintain herself, but would compel her to go into the poor-house. This then being a special case he considered the Government should interfere, as the petitioner had no legal remedy and could not sue or be sued, and that the Poor-Law Commissioners should he directed to sanction the parish officers allowing this woman the same sum for the maintenance of her children as was given her on the transportation of her husband and before the new Bill came into operation. He, (Capt. P.) had reason to believe that the Poor-Law board was very desirous to assist the petitioner, and therefore trusted the noble Lord would do something for her. The petitioner prayed, that her petition might be referred to the Law and Ecclesiastical Judges for their opinion on her case, whether she was to be held as femme sole or femme convert. He had reason to believe, that the Judges were bound to give their opinion when called upon by parliament; and as the petitioner was to be committed pursuant to the sentence on Monday next, he earnestly entreated the Government to take this case into their immediate consideration.

Mr. Fox Maule

said, that when the former petition on this subject was presented, he then expressed his opinion—an opinion which he now begged leave to repeat—that he did not think it was a case in which the House should interfere. The matter having come before the magistrates of Seaford, they had a case made out of it, and sent up to the law officers of the Crown for their opinion. That opinion was given, the magistrates acted up to it, and if there was anything wrong in it, the law officers of the Crown were ready to be responsible for it. He thought that in the mean time the magistrates o Seaford were perfectly justified in acting upon it. The petitioner was regularly brought within the pale of the law, and the law must take its course. He did not see how the House could send the matter to the Judges, or suspend the proceedings before the magistrates.

Mr. Kemp

said, that the present case was a very distressing one, and he trusted, therefore, that it would meet with the consideration of the House. As no discretionary power was vested in the magistrates, or the Poor Law Commissioners on the subject, and as the poor woman was liable to be sent next Monday to gaol, he thought that the prayer of the petition should be complied with.

Mr. Sergeant Goulburn

said, that the prayer of the petition was rather an extraordinary one—namely, that it should be refer red to the judges to as certain whether the petitioner was a femme sole or a femme couverte.—Petition to lie on the Table.