HC Deb 06 February 1837 vol 36 cc138-44
Mr. Bernal

presented a Petition from Messrs. Hansard, printers to the House of Commons, stating that an action for libel had been commenced against them for publishing a Report of a Committee of the House, and praying for relief in the matter. He moved that the petition be read.

The petition was read by the clerk, which stated that in 1828 the petitioners had been appointed, and had since continued to be, printers to the House; that by certain resolutions of the House, of 13th August, 1835, and 18th March, 1836, all Parliamentary papers and reports were directed to be sold to the public by the petitioners, at a rate below their actual prime cost; that they had printed a Report of the Commissioners for inquiring into the state of prisons, wherein it was stated that many of the prisoners had been found reading obscene works printed by J. J. Stockdale; that Stockdale had subsequently commenced an action for libel in the King's Bench against them; and had estimated his damages first at 1,000l., but had subsequently increased them to the enormous sum of 20,000l.; that the case stood for trial on Tuesday, the 7th of February next; and that the petitioners had directed their solicitor to take the necessary steps to defend such action. The petitioners then stated that they had, under the advice of an eminent special pleader, as a bar to such action, pleaded that they were printers to the House of Commons and had, therefore, printed the Report under the sanction and authority of the House, but that the Court of King's Bench had since ordered the plea of justification to be struck out of the record. They, therefore, prayed the protection of the House.

Mr. Bernal

then moved that the petition be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

The Speaker

said, on referring to the reports, he found that in a case where an action had been brought against the Speaker and the Sergeant-at-Arms, the opinion of the House seemed to be that the plea ought to be so framed as to allege specifically and distinctly the authority of the House in defence of the action. In this it was doubtful whether the plea had been so framed; and it would only be prudent in the House to pause, till that point were ascertained and not enter hastily into a contest on a question of privilege.

The Attorney-General

happened to be counsel in the case, and would take care not to make allusion to the merits of it. But he was anxious for the sake of the learned Judge that it should be fully understood by the House that he meant no disrespect whatever to the House by the order he made, because all that he meant was, that the special plea of the privilege of the House was wholly unnecessary, inasmuch as it was competent for the defendants to give that matter in evidence under the plea of the general issue. He would just suggest to the House that if they did wish to protect persons from the consequences of publications made under their authority, it might be necessary to have a new law upon the subject.

Mr. O'Connell

certainly did not wish to make any reflections on the motives of the learned Judge; but it appeared to him (Mr. O'Connell) that the judge had taken a most inconvenient course. If the plea had been left on the record it would have been decided at once whether in point of law it amounted to a justification or not, and that without the expense of a trial, because if the plea had been demurred to, then the question would have been simply a question of law and decided by the court; whereas under the general issue it could only be tried before a jury. This was a demonstration how inconvenient the practice of pleading the general issue in many cases was. The general plea denied the publication, and put it upon the plaintiff to prove it. Now that was not Mr. Hansard's defence at all. He admitted that he published the Report, but he also alleged that he published it by the authority of the House. By striking out the plea of justification, therefore, they were to have a trial, not to ascertain these facts (which were already admitted), but to ascertain whether these facts amounted to a justification. Now that could have been ascertained without a trial if the plea had been left on the record. It was impossible that the House could order a man to print and publish a paper, and afterwards allow an action to be brought against him, without extending to him the protection of the House. If a wrong had been done by the publication, the House itself ought to afford compensation.

Mr. Williams Wynn

said, when the House ordered a publication of its Reports, not for the use of the Members only, or when it authorised any person to sell those Reports, that certainly was a publication by its authority, and was within the case which occurred at the close of the reign of Charles 2nd. In that case the Speaker was proceeded against in the Court of King's Bench for having licensed a certain publication. He pleaded in justification the authority of the House; that plea was overruled by the judges, and it was afterwards declared that the decision of the judges was a violation of the privileges of the House; and the judges were called upon to answer for it at the Bar of the House. No doubt the authority of the House might be given in defence upon the general issue, but if it were put on the record it was a plea which, in his opinion, ought not to have been overruled. He could not conceive that it was necessary to make any new law upon the subject. He would not enter into the question as to the expediency of licensing and selling Parliamentary papers, but he very much doubted the expediency; but having granted that licence he was bound to say those acting under it could not be amenable to any law for so doing. Unquestionably this case would induce the House to exercise a more jealous control over the papers published by its authority. It was no longer ago than at the close of the last Session, to his great surprise, he found in the Report of the Committee of Petition a petition printed containing the stronges charges, in the most offensive and scan- dalous language, against Lord Chief Justice——. He was sure if that petition had been read to the House it would never have been suffered to he upon the table unless some Member should have given notice that he intended to ground upon it proceedings that would give an opportunity to the learned Judge to make a defence. As it was now, it stood upon the journals as a most offensive production, and he certainly should take an opportunity, unless some proceedings were intended to be grounded upon it, to move, as in other instances had been the case, that the petition be expunged from the journals of the House.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that the petitioners ought not to have pleaded the general issue at all, but only a justification. He did not think it was too late to move the court to allow the plea of the general issue to be withdrawn, and the plea of justification entered on the record. He had no doubt that such an application would meet with success.

Sir Robert Peel

hoped that the House would take no step which would interfere with the regular course of justice. He apprehended that under the plea of the general issue the defendant might give evidence of his having acted under the authority of the House. In his opinion, it would be better for them to postpone the matter until the decision of the Court of King's Bench had been given, because the House were at perfect liberty at any time to take such steps as they pleased to vindicate their privileges. He would, therefore, suggest that the hon. Member who had presented the petition should move that the debate be adjourned until after the question had been settled in the court.

Sir W. Follett

agreed with the suggestion of his right hon. Friend. He thought that many of the observations of the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny were totally without foundation. The learned Judge had no discretion, but was bound to remove the plea from the record, on the ground that Mr. Hansard had not thought fit to stand upon the defence that he had printed the Report by the authority of the House alone; but he had also pleaded the general issue, and had, moreover, taken upon himself to plead that the allegations which were printed were in point of fact true. He having so done, upon a summons being taken out before the learned Judge to remove the special plea, he was bound to remove it if, in his opinion, the matter of that plea could be given under the general issue, unless Mr. Hansard first withdrew the plea of the general issue. If Mr. Hansard had been content to stand upon what was, in his (Sir William Follett's) humble judgment, a conclusive defence—namely, that he printed the Report on the authority of the House of Commons, the learned Judge would have allowed that to remain upon the record, and a judgment would at once have been taken upon it. If it should appear on the trial to-morrow that Mr. Hansard did so publish it, it would be a justification. Therefore this House ought not to interfere at all, unless it saw that the court of law was running counter to the orders of the House. He, therefore, agreed with his right hon. Friend that the best course to adopt would be to see what should be clone before the learned Judge to-morrow; and if he should tell the jury that the defence was a conclusive one, then there would be no necessity for the House to interfere.

Mr. O'Connell

certainly thought that Mr. Hansard had embarrassed himself. Why should he plead the truth of the publication? Neither had he any reason to plead the general issue. Having done so, he must take the consequences.

Lord John Russell

hoped there was a general agreement in the House that, with respect to the publication of papers by the authority of the House, the protection which the privileges of the House afforded would be extended over those who made such publication. It did not appear to him, however, that the order for printing and publishing the papers by individuals at all differed from the species of publication which took place previously among the Members themselves. He would add, that he trusted this case would be disposed of in the way proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Exeter. With respect to this particular case, it did not at alt resemble the case of the petition alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman, containing matter of a scandalous nature concerning the Lord Chief Justice. It was one which formed a legitimate subject for the attentive consideration of the House and the public. It would be recollected, the inspectors of prisons had been appointed in consequence of an Act of Parliament passed the year before last; and they were ordered by himself, as Secretary of State for the Home Department, to make a report. In one of those reports, it was stated that they had found in some of the prisons various newspapers and other publications, and the inspectors did no more than their duty in communicating to him what they thought of the character of those books and newspapers; while, in his opinion, the House of Commons did no more than its duty by ordering that report to be printed. It was a publication which was essential to their proceedings and to a due consideration of the important subject of prison discipline.

Mr. Roebuck

considered no person publishing papers under authority ought to be exposed to the trouble and expense of such an action as this. On the contrary, whoever published under the sanction of the House ought to do so under perfect security. To say that there was a difference between publishing and selling that which was published, was a distinction worthy of lawyers, but not consistent with common sense. The moment a thing was printed it was published to all intents and purposes; and courts of justice had determined that putting a letter in the Post-office was a publication; and whenever the votes of that House were printed they were published—all the world knew them —all the world would know them—and the publisher ought to be protected.

Mr. Williams Wynn

could not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the publication was of the same kind when a court ordered documents to be printed for its own use, and when it was sent out to the public. There was, in his opinion, a decided difference between one case and the other. The House could order documents to be printed, not only for its own use, but for that of the public; this, therefore, called for greater circumspection as to what documents should be published, and he wished, in making these observations, merely to show what inconvenience might arise from a want of this circumspection.

Mr. Bernal

said, that whatever was the result of the action, he was sure the House would not suffer the Messrs. Hansard to suffer any loss. He looked upon this as a matter of course, and he would therefore move that the petition do lie on the table.

Agreed to.

Mr. Williams Wynn

then asked the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny, with respect to the petition he had recently referred to, whether it was his intention to found any proceedings upon it?

Mr. O'Connell

said, when he was requested last Session to present the petition he told the parties that he did not think it was a petition that ought to be presented to the House, unless somebody was disposed to follow it up by bringing an accusation against the judge, and that, in his opinion, it contained statements of that nature which could not be well followed up. The party replied, that all he required him (Mr. O'Connell) to do, was to present the petition, and he (the party) would get persons to bring the matter of it before the House. He begged to add, that when he presented the petition he had no idea of its being printed or published.