HC Deb 26 February 1836 vol 31 cc941-6
Captain Pechell,

in presenting the Petition of which he had given notice, claimed the indulgence of the House, as the case was one that deserved the most serious consideration, being from an unfortunate woman, named Jane Champion, who had been committed to prison by the Magistrates of Seaford for not supporting the children of her husband who had been transported for seven years, leaving his wife unable to provide for them. The Magistrates held that as her husband was civilly dead, she stood in the position of a widow, and was liable to support her family. In so peculiarly novel and distressing a case, he begged at once to state that he by no means intended to cast censure on the Magistrates (who were not Justices of the Peace for the county of Sussex, but Magistrates of a cinque port) who, he believed, had acted to the best of their judgment, and as the law was laid down to them. He must also express his approbation of the manner in which the case had been gone into when he laid it before the Secretary of State and the Board of Poor-law Commissioners, who were complained of in the petition. The petitioner, Jane Champion, was living with her husband at Seaford when he was convicted of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to seven years' transportation, leaving his wife and six young children totally unprovided for. The parish, consequently, gave the necessary allowance, which, however, was discontinued on the Poor-law Amendment Bill coming into operation, and the six children were taken into the workhouse. The mother went to Brighton, where she was obtaining a bare subsistence for herself, when she was taken upon a warrant, signed by the Rev, J. Carnagie, a Magistrate at Seaford, as an idle and disorderly person, and was ordered into the workhouse, on refusing to enter which, she was committed under the Vagrant Act to the House of Correction for twenty-one days. Her period of punishment having expired she returned to Brighton, there again to sustain herself, but still unable to do any thing towards the support of the children of her husband. She was, however, shortly afterwards taken up again on a warrant signed by the same cinque port Magistrate, and brought before the Bench at Seaford, where the Magistrates decided as before that her husband being civilly dead she was liable, as a widow, for the maintenance of her children; and in this opinion they were backed by the authority of the Poor-law Commissioners who considered that her husband being transported for seven years, the wife had lost her privilege of coverture, and that, unless she went into the workhouse to assist in supporting her children, or would take them away, she was liable to be convicted and punished as a vagrant. He begged to observe, that the Vagrant Act required that depositions should be made as to the ability of the petitioner to maintain her children, which in this case had not been done; and moreover, this woman was deprived of her husband, who went to sea against his consent, and the parish took the children into the workhouse, leaving the mother to provide for herself, which she was ready and willing to do. It was also to be. observed, that the law not permitting her to marry again, deprived her of the advantage of a second husband, who might be found to provide for the children; and hence the danger of an immoral act being committed, which in his opinion the state of the law actually promotes. He, therefore, called on the hon. Baronet, the Member for Wigtott, to support the petition of this woman, and thereby prevent the necessity of her seeking a temporary companion [loud and continued laughter] who would undertake the care of her till the return of her real husband from New South Wales. And here was the anomaly in the law; for the Board of Poor-law Commissioners and the Magistrates of Seaford, declared that the absence of the transported husband for seven years, renders the wife liable, as a widow, to the support of the children of her husband, and yet this woman cannot marry. That was having one law for the Poor-law Board, and another for the Ecclesiastical Court. He (Captain Pechell) had given this Petition some attention, and he had reason to believe no case could be quoted where a decision in point had been come to. If he was wrong some learned Gentleman would correct him; but believing that no case could be cited, he thought that this woman, who could neither sue nor be sued, nor obtain redress at law, for the suffering she had endured, and was still likely to endure, was entitled to the benefit of the nice point of law, under the severe interpretation of which she had been punished. He had been told in that House, that the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer was more likely to form a correct opinion on a point of law than a Captain in the Royal Navy; but he replied then as he maintained now, that on principles of justice and equity, he considered that a Captain in the Navy could give as correct and honest an opinion as any lawyer, and he confidently appealed to the law-officers of the Crown to declare the real state of the law as regarded the unfortunate petitioner. The hon. and gallant Member read the prayer of the petition, which entreated the House to give such directions to the Poor-law Commissioners, or to the Magistrates acting under them, as would prevent her from being (again incarcerated in the House of Correction; and in moving that the petition be brought up, he begged to remind the House, that Mr. Justice Lawrence had laid it down, in a case of man and wife, that the wife was not answerable for the husband's breach of duty, and that though morally liable, yet in law she could not be said to be guilty. He, therefore, trusted that the Government would give the petition that consideration which he believed they were always ready to afford in such cases.

Mr. Fox Maule

said, that it appeared to him that the case which the hon. and gallant Officer had brought before the House was one which it would have been much more expedient to have referred to the consideration of that department of the Government to which he (Mr. Fox Maule) belonged; for although he was one of those who would never interpose to prevent an appeal to that House, where wrong had been endured, or injustice inflicted, the at all times, thought it tended much to the establishment of a very inconvenient as well as dangerous precedent, that the time of the House should be taken up, when there was another tribunal to which the party complaining might appeal. He believed that the whole of the difficulty in the case had arisen out of an error in the first order issued by the Magistrates. In that order, instead of "Mrs. Champion and children," the word "and" was accidentally omitted, and thus the children only were admitted to the poor-house. But without endeavouring to enter into the particulars of the case at that moment, he would merely assure the gallant Officer that if he would put the petition in his hands, he would take every step to have the matter fully inquired into, and would take care that all the protection of the law should be extended to the petitioner.

Major Beauclerk

thought that the time of the House was never lost in inquiring into cases where the liberty of the subject had been trespassed upon. He certainly could not help regarding the Poor-laws Amendment Act, in its present shape, as a most atrocious law, and one which called loudly upon the Legislature for amelioration and improvement. In the present case, it appeared that the husband was transported for seven years. That was no fault in the wife. Yet, under this Act, the Magistrates, it would seem, had it in their power to punish the wife for the crime of the husband. This might be law, but it was not justice. He thought that the Poor-law Commissioners, when they found the law operating in this obviously unjust manner, ought to come forward themselves to suggest improvements. It ought to be the wish and endeavour of all parties to make this new law operate usefully and beneficially, instead of harshly and oppressively.

Mr. Curteis

hoped and trusted, that Government would immediately take the matter into their consideration. It was the bounden duty of Ministers not to lose a single hour in obtaining the highest legal opinion, as to whether the Poor-law Commissioners were right or wrong in the committal of this poor woman as an idle and disorderly person. It would be most satisfactory to him, as a country gentleman, not having had the benefit of a legal education, to know what was the opinion of the law-officers of the Crown upon the point.

Captain Pechell

would rest perfectly satisfied under the assurance that the subject should be taken into the immediate consideration of the Government, and that the opinions of the law-officers should be taken upon it.

Petition to lie on the Table.