HC Deb 11 February 1836 vol 31 cc306-8
Mr. O'Connell

then rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the law of Libel. As this subject would be fully discussed on the first of second reading of the Bill, he trusted the House would not think it necessary for him now to go further than to state this fact—that every one admitted the law of libel to be at present in a most unsatisfactory state. The noble Lord who lately filled the office of Lord Chancellor was certainly of that opinion; and the noble Lord who now filled that office, when in that House, spoke at length and very ably upon the same subject. The obvious necessity of altering the law of libel would be shown, if he were to state nothing else than this fact—that as the slightest written imputation upon character was, in point of law, a libel, where the smallest exaggeration occurred in any one paper, which should be copied in nineteen other papers, any speculative attorney might bring twenty different actions against the parties, and if he got but one farthing in damages, he punished the parties in penalties perhaps of 500l. in the shape of costs. There was another part of the law of libel which required amendment, though he admitted it should not be approached without caution. At present it was a criminal offence to charge any man with any crime, or with anything that might mate him appear ridiculous, however he might merit the charge. It was a crime to tell the truth—indeed, it had been said that a libel was aggravated by the force of its truth. Now, without concurring at all in that opinion, or of being supposed to give any countenance to it, yet there was no lawyer, in or out of the House, but who must admit that it was no defence in the case of criminal proceedings for a libel to prove the truth of the words. And this anomaly also existed—that if one person published the truth concerning another, with however innocent a motive, yet, in the case of criminal proceedings against him, he was convicted and punished; but if he published the truth, with however malicious a motive, and however injurious it might he, yet, in a civil action, no redress was made to the injured party, and this arising from the circumstance that in a criminal proceeding the truth was no justification, while in a civil action it was. Without entering further into the subject, he begged to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the law of Libel.

Sir Frederick Pollock

admitted that the law of libel was not in a satisfactory state, and that it required considerable alteration. It was impossible for any one, acquainted with the proceedings of the courts of law upon the subject, not to be impressed with the truth of the remarks which had fallen from the hon. and learned Member for Dublin. He, for one, should be happy to contribute whatever was in his power, in the way of suggestion, to the amendment of the present law; at the same time, if the Bill should be introduced with the same amendments as were proposed last Session of Parliament, he must in candour say, that he could not give it his entire concurrence, for he entertained considerable doubt as to the propriety of several of those amendments being adopted.

The Attorney-General

said that one great evil arising from the present law was this, that the most atrocious libellers were afforded the pretence of complaining that in the present state of the law of libel justice could not be obtained. The most atrocious libellers defended themselves by mixing up their cases with the cases of those against whom some pettifogging attorney had brought the most unfounded actions. The hon. and learned Member for Dublin had pointed out two imperfections in the present law, upon which alone he was fully entitled to ask for leave to bring in his Bill. The first was, that any speculative attorney might bring an action merely to put the costs into his own pocket; because (by an absurd distinction made where no real difference existed,) if, in an action brought for a written slander, where no real injury had been sustained, the Jury gave only one farthing damages, that would carry full costs; whereas, if the action were for words spoken and the Jury gave a verdict of one farthing damages, the plaintiff would be entitled to no more costs than damages. Another fault pointed out was, that at present the consideration of the truth in all criminal cases was excluded. He thought the truth ought always to be admitted to be given in evidence, and that it should go to the Jury for them to say whether the publication was banâ fide and justifiable, or whether it was done from malicious motives. Ample justice would then be done to the party, and a sufficient protection would, at the same time be afforded to the public, which they did not now enjoy. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend (Sir Frederick Pollock) that several of the provisions in the Bill of last Session were objectionable; but, at present, he gave the Motion of the hon. and learned Member for Dublin his entire concurrence.

Leave given.