HC Deb 30 May 1836 vol 33 cc1142-52
Mr. O'Connell

rose to move the Order of the Day for resuming the debate on the subject of the petition which he had presented, which was in substance, though not in form, an election petition, from the constituency of Dublin. At the last election for that city two persons were returned as duly elected, A petition was presented from certain electors against that return, praying for a scrutiny, and the substitution of the defeated candidates. To that petition the defeated candidates were no parties—it was merely the petition of certain individuals, and on being presented it was referred to a Committee, who determined that the evidence should be taken in Dublin before a Commission appointed under the Act, and special rules were framed by the Committee to limit and confine the evidence to be given. The Committee, among the limitations which it imposed on the Commissioners, had pre scribed one, the 16th rule, in the words which he would read to the House: —"That no recriminatory evidence be admitted against the defeated candidates, except as far as regards the disqualification of their voters, they not being petitioners, nor any parties to the investigation before the Committee." Thus the petitioners had disclaimed the candidates as parties; they had called on the Committee to decide that they were not parties, and to draw the inevitable inference that no evidence could be given affecting them personally; and the Committee had accordingly unanimously so decided. Now, there was not the least doubt that the petition prayed a substitution and a scrutiny; that it charged bribery and intimidation on the part of the sitting Members; that the sitting Members, on the other hand, retorted those charges; and the petitioners came forward before the Committee, and insisted that the Committee should determine that the unsuccessful candidates were not parties before them, and that consequently the evidence should be so limited. Thus the unsuccessful candidates remained scatheless, and no evidence could be adduced against them. There was no exaggeration of that fact, because a Member of the House had stated, that that view of the case bad been distinctly come to and acted upon by the Committee. He had only one more fact to state, and that was, that there were eight persons struck off the poll for having been promised money for their votes be fore they voted, and having been sub sequently paid for their votes after they had voted. The fact, therefore, of bribery having existed, was so clear that it could not be disputed. He believed, that the facts which would bring that bribery home personally to the now sitting Members were equally clear, so that if the House were compelled to decide that this evidence was not to be gone into, it might suppose the case of sitting Members having given these bribes themselves — having actually made the promise,—and yet that was a case in which there was no kind of remedy whatever. If such a decision was made in the Court of King's Bench, people would ask how a Judge dare to arrive at such a decision? The case turned upon two Acts—the 9th of George 4th, cap. 22, and the 46th of George 3rd, cap. 106. This last was the Statute which gave legal power to appoint Commissions. The hon. Member read the 14th section, by which the Committee were empowered to specially assign and limit the facts which the Com missioners were to try. The Committee accordingly limited the inquiry as to the fact, by excluding evidence upon the point to which he had referred. He would then come to the 9th George 4th, which was said to be the perfection of legislation. It was alleged that this Statute made the decision of the Committee final, and that, therefore, no more evidence could be let in against the parties, Could any pro- position be more monstrous? The Statute enacted, that the Committee were to decide whether the petitioners or the sitting Members were duly elected, and that such a decision should be final between the parties. The House was now called upon to declare that the decision of the Committee was to be final between persons who were no parties before the Committee. The Committee had decided that the present sitting Members were no parties before them, and refused, upon that ground, to hear evidence against them. He hoped, therefore, that party spirit would never induce that House to depart so far from what was the clear intention of the Legislature. The Legislature stopped there, and now it was attempted to carry the principle much further by construction. What did the Act say in another part? It provided that eleven Members should be chosen as a Committee. The eleven were to retire and choose a chairman; and then it provided, that, in case those eleven should be equally divided in opinion, they should settle the point in another way. There was a Statute for them! He contended that the 40th section did not include the present case; it expressly excluded it, and there was no ground why the petition of his late constituents, or those who voted for him— they certainly did not vote for the present Members—should not be received; why a Committee should not be appointed, and an investigation had as to who committed the bribery. There had been an allegation of bribery against him, and the witness who had been produced to sustain it was now tinder sentence for perjury; that was a tolerable refutation of the charge. All the petitioners desired was investigation, and it was the duty of the House to inquire whether the bribery happened by accident, or whether there had been hands to set it in motion. That investigation might not be very convenient for—he did not allude to the sitting Members—but a gentleman of the Irish Bar, whose handwriting, dated "Committee-Room," made a portion of the evidence by which some of the voters had been struck off. It might also be inconvenient for some persons on that side the water, for thousands of pounds do not fly over the Irish Channel without some persons to send them across. It had been asserted that the Canterbury case was a decision against him. What was decided in that case? That the petitioner ought to have been returned, and that the sitting Member was not duly admitted. Now, he would ask, ought any man to have been returned who was not duly elected? If he was in a Court of Justice, he should laugh to scorn the pitiful chicanery that made such a distinction, and would consider such a decision final and conclusive between the parties. This was not a final decision, because it did not include all the particulars. It did not follow that this decision was a decision under the Act. The Canterbury case met this. There was a class of cases that did not come within the finality of the Statute, and this was one of them. He had laid the case of these electors before the House, and he trusted that there could be no reasonable doubt that the House would take care that what ought to be investigated should be. He did not of course suspect that either of the Gentlemen (the defeated candidates) had themselves bribed, but there was no doubt that bribery existed, whatever doubt there might be as to the quarters from whence the money came. That that money had been found by some party was perfectly clear, and the only question was whether, under the circumstances, the House would send back the petition to the Committee to review their decision.

The Attorney-General

thought, that this petition could not be received, it being contrary to the statutes. He felt it his duty most attentively to consider the case, and he must acknowledge that it was with very great reluctance he had at length arrived at this conclusion.

Mr. O'Connell

rose, amidst loud cries of "Chair," and "Order." He begged the Attorney - General's pardon. He wished to say but one word. [Cries of "Spoke."] It would save the time of the House. ["Chair, chair."] He wished to withdraw the petition. [Cheers.] His wish to withdraw the petition whatever his own opinion might be, the principal law officer of the Crown having pledged his legal reputation to a contrary opinion he did not think it would be becoming in him (Mr. O'Connell) to persevere.

The Attorney-General

said, that his opinion was of comparatively slight value, but the question was one on which the Speaker's immediate predecessor had be stowed much consideration, and he believed it had received the serious attention of the present Speaker. He felt anxious that the opinion he had pronounced should be contradicted or corroborated by that of the hon. Gentleman in the Chair.

The Speaker

As I collect, that it is the wish of the House that I should state the opinion which I have formed on the question raised by the petition now tendered, I shall do so. The object of the Grenville Act, and of the Acts which have followed it, was to take from the House the power of deciding on controverted re turns and elections, and to vest it in a Committee, to be chosen in the way pre scribed in the Act. Where a petition, complaining of an undue election, alleges that the unsuccessful candidates were the parties who ought to have been declared to have been duly elected, the intention of the Act clearly is, that the judgment of the Committee should be final. It is competent either to electors, to the unsuccessful candidates, or to both, to present petitions claiming the seats. But it is to be remembered, that the constituencies are the substantial and real parties. The parties petitioning only represent their interests. In all cases, therefore, where the seat is claimed, the Committee are bound to un-vestigate and decide all points by which the right to the seat can be effected. If a Committee should decide that either of the parties has been duly elected, having omitted to investigate and decide any point by which the right to the seat might have been effected, they must be held to have come to an imperfect and premature decision. In this case, voters were struck off the poll, because they had received pecuniary consideration for their votes, and certainly it does appear to have been the duty of the Committee to have ascertained whether the candidates were privy or par ties to the bribery, on account of which the votes of some of the electors who supported them were disallowed. Unless this point was fully sifted, I cannot imagine how the Committee could have come to the conclusion that the parties in whose favour such votes were given were duly elected. It is surprising that any question should be raised as to whether the Members declared to have been duly elected, were parties or privy to giving money, because the Committee has reported that there was no evidence to connect the now sitting Members with the bribery which was proved. Their Report on this point is expressed in the exact form of words that would have been used if the matter had been thoroughly sifted and examined. I therefore did feel great surprise when it appeared that a doubt existed on this point—that the Committee appeared to have thought it possible, that, after their Report so ex pressed, it was in the power of this House to countenance any proceeding by which this question could be further investigated. It may be a cause of regret if the Committee has conducted this important portion of the case imperfectly; for my opinion is clear that, according to the true construction of the Act, the decision of the Committee must be final. I have referred to no authorities, because it seems to be plain on the reason of the case, that no party can be declared by a Committee to have been duly elected, if any point, by which the right to the seat could be affected, has been omitted. There is, how ever, one recent case in 1833, which is so similar to the present that I cannot refrain from alluding to it, especially as I think that it must have been brought under the notice of the Committee, as one of the Gentlemen who was counsel in this case, was also counsel in the one to which I am about to refer. In the Southampton casein 1833,one of the Members who had been returned, was unseated, and it was decided that one of the unsuccessful candidates ought to have been declared duly elected. After the Re port of the Committee had been made, there was a desire, as in this case, to pre sent a petition charging the Member who had been seated, by the Report of the Committee, with bribery and treating. The opinion of my predecessor was asked, and he decided, that if there was an intention of preferring any such charge it ought to have been made, heard, and decided, before the Committee reported; that it was then too late, as the Report was final. In this opinion I entirely con cur. I think, therefore, that there is no legal ground on which this petition can be entertained. I am quite as clearly of opinion that there is no equitable ground for entertaining it. I do hope that this House will never be induced, under the pressure of any circumstances, to shake off the fetters which the law has imposed on its own powers. If it should ever establish such a precedent, I fear that it would prove to be a bad and mischievous precedent, and that the day would come when, for different reasons, and under different circumstances, it would be induced to shake off the fetters which the law has imposed on others.

Lord John Russell

observed, that after the very clear exposition of the Speaker, the House, he thought, could not do otherwise than confirm the decision of the Committee. While he entirely agreed in the observations that had been made upon the law of the case, and thought it would be improper in the House to disturb the decision of the Committee, yet he could not allow the question to pass without ex pressing his opinion that by the Act of the Committee (whom he had no doubt had discharged their duty conscientiously,) a very gross injustice had been committed. The Report of that Committee stated, that the sitting Members had been duly elected; and by that it was to be inferred that every circumstance relating to the election had been properly and duly investigated. The fact, however, was other wise. He did not mean to find fault with the motives of the members of that Committee, but certainly their decision ought to lead the House to consider whether some remedy could not be adopted for the future to prevent that which had occurred in this case, and which operated most injuriously, and, he must also say, most unjustly. It was admitted by the Committee for inquiring into the election for the City of Dublin that there was a case which required investigation, and yet they refused to inquire into that which required investigation. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman in thinking that the petition could not now be received, but he considered the Committee had come to an erroneous conclusion in refusing to investigate what was so material to the case.

Mr. Williams Wynn

felt, after what had been said by the Speaker, in which he concurred, the difficulty of adding any thing on the subject before them, yet he could not avoid saying a word or two respecting it. He felt fully the inconvenience of altering the decision of the Committee, and he also felt the inconvenience of allowing an illegal decision to remain. In his opinion, the decision of the Committee was a most mistaken one as regarded one part of the case before them, in refusing to receive evidence criminatory of one party before they decided on their Report as to whether the petitioners were duly elected. That course was most certainly wrong, but the great difficulty now was, what could be done to remedy the error? Under all the circumstances he thought it would be better not to interfere with the decision as it stood.

Mr. O'Connell

begged to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the 26th section of the Act; that section prevented the Committee from receiving any further evidence after they had made their Report. The mistake was in the Statute.

Mr. Rigby Wason

objected to the course proposed, as lending the sanction of the House and the law to an obvious injustice. There was a great difference between the Canterbury and Monaghan cases, which had been relied on as authorities and the present. In both the former the petitioners never attempted to prove a case of bribery against the sitting Members, nor had they ever asked the Committee to receive evidence on such a point. It would be contrary to every principle of justice if the parties could keep in their pockets the best part of their case, and take the opinion of the Committee upon the least important part of it. The present case, therefore differed entirely from those alluded to by the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Montgomeryshire. What he should propose was, that the House should resolve to give to the electors of Dublin fourteen days to present a petition, which, in his opinion, was the course pointed out by the forty-second section of the Reform Bill.

Mr. George Young

said, that it was with deep regret that he felt it his duty to offer himself to the attention of the House for a few moments in consequence of the severe illness of the Chairman of the Committee, which threw upon him the task of giving to the House a short explanation of the course which the Committee had pursued. After the opinion which had been so decidedly expressed from the Chair, and from so many other quarters of the House, as to the illegality of the decision of the Committee, it would ill become him to question the justness of that opinion, and he should therefore not attempt to do so; neither should he waste one word in vindication of the motives which had influenced the decision of the Committee, because the motives of those highly-honourable men with whom he was proud to have been associated on the Committee had not been impugned. His object in rising was, to offer A word of explanation, in order to elucidate some circumstances of which the House was not aware, it would be recollected that the Commission was sent to Dublin in the month of March, 1835, and the Committee, in granting that Commission, passed a resolution restricting the Com missioners in the reception of evidence. It was well known to the House, and to all the parties, that such restriction was placed upon the Commissioners, and vet this was the first time that the slightest intimation was given that, by that resolution, the Committee had shut out the electors of Dublin from an investigation of the charge of bribery. The consequences of the resolution to which the Committee had come ought to have been pointed out at the time, when there would have been an opportunity of reconsidering it. When the day came lately for going into the investigation of the charge of bribery, the counsel for the sitting Members proposed to go in to the whole of the cases upon that charge. The Committee, however, were at the time engaged in the scrutiny of votes, and they came to the decision that it was better to go on with that scrutiny; and that if in the course of it any case of bribery should be made out, it would be competent to the Committee to reconsider their decision on an application being made by counsel to that effect; but no such application had been made. The Committee would not have passed the resolution restricting the Commissioners against going into any evidence to bring home bribery to the pre sent sitting Members, unless they had believed that it would be open to the electors to go into that question on a future occasion. Mr. Austin, the counsel, said that he had not yet touched upon the most important part of his case, namely, the charge of bribery. The Committee upon that point reserved to themselves the reconsideration of whether or not they would send the matter back to the Commissioners to inquire into the bribery part of the case, on any subsequent application being made to them by counsel to that effect; but the application was never made. He would not of course pretend to say what the decision of the Committee might have been had they been applied to; but he was sure the application would have met with the same deliberate and dispassionate consideration which every other part of the case did. The Committee were, however, unanimous in their reservation of the right to reconsider the point, had they been applied to. The motives of the Committee had not been impugned; but the legality of their decision had, as being opposed to the statute law. He was free to admit that he was, and he believed most of the Committee were unacquainted with the statute law on the subject, but he knew that they came to the decision at which they had arrived as honest and conscientious men. Their decision in this instance was certainly unfortunate in respect to its illegality, but it was impossible to impugn the motives by which it was influenced.

Mr. O'Connell

wished, in justice to him self, to state, that he had not said one word of the motives of the Committee; but he did of their erroneous decisions, of which this was a very small sample. He could not, however, allow the hon. Member who had just sat down to fritter away the distinct admission he had made on a former night, or to qualify it now by any circumlocution. That hon. Member had stated distinctly, that he thought the Committee had come to an erroneous conclusion in having excluded evidence, and he came now down to the House, and with a great number of words sought to qualify that admission. He could not allow the hon. Member to do away with that admission, by attempting to make them believe that he really did not know what the effect of the limitation imposed upon the Commissioners might be. The hon. Member said, that when the Committee came to that resolution, they ought to have been informed that the resolution they then adopted could have the effect which it had been since proved to have. The House must be astonished when he told them, that the Committee decided that they would not hear counsel. One of the counsel for the petitioners, Mr. Harrison, spoke in terms to the Committee which were not the most flattering upon that decision. And the hon. Member now came down to say, "Why were we not informed that such would be the effect of our resolution he having prevented counsel from giving him that information. He did not arraign the hon. Member's motives, but he did his capacity. Again, upon the very occasion to which the hon. Member had just alluded, Mr. Austin was interrupted and prevented by the chairman or by what he might call his mouthpiece, the hon. Member for Tynemouth. Counsel was prevented from going into a statement by the opinion irregularly delivered by the hon. Member. He did not impugn motives—the human mind could not be well searched; and therefore it was that he did not impugn the motives while he impeached the decisions of the Committee.

Mr. Young

had not used the first person in speaking of the Committee. It was therefore an injustice to him to make him singly responsible for the acts of the Committee. What were his acts, were the acts of the Committee. And now he should say this—let the hon. Member for Kilkenny account to the House how it happened that he was so unfortunate in his Committee, composed as it was of all parties, that it should, when it gave a decision adverse to that hon. Member, be always unanimous in its decisions. Now, it was peculiarly un fortunate for that hon. Member, that if the Committee came to an erroneous conclusion, that those whose political sentiments were well known to coincide with those of the hon. Member for Kilkenny, should be unanimous in coming to such a conclusion. As to the "want of capacity," of which he with others was accused, he should not answer it, as he considered the observation unworthy of an answer, and he received it with the contempt that it de served.

The Speaker

remarked that the case had been substantially disposed of, and he therefore hoped that the discussion would not be pressed farther.

Mr. Holland

remarked, that all the Members of the Committee had come into that House honourable men, and he trusted that no imputation could now be cast upon them for the decision which they had come to.

Petition withdrawn.