HC Deb 16 February 1837 vol 36 cc586-94
Mr. Williams Wynn

brought up the Report of the Committee appointed to inquire into the case of Mr. Lechmere Charlton, which was read as follows:— In reporting upon the question which has been referred to your Committee, they propose to follow the course which usually has been adopted upon such occasions, of first stating the circumstances of the particular case, and afterwards the law and usages of Parliament, as it appears to apply to them. The warrant for Mr. Charllon's commitment to the Fleet, and the order of Court on which it was founded, were produced to the Committee, and it appeared that he was committed by the Lord Chancellor for writing a letter, addressed to William Brougham, Esq., one of the Masters of the High Court of Chancery, containing matters scandalous with respect to the said Master, and an attempt improperly to influence his conduct in the matter pending before him, 'which the said Lord Chancellor deemed to be a contempt of the Court of Chancery.' The order not proceeding to set forth the letter in question, or to specify the parts of it on which these charges were grounded, your Committee therefore directed the letter to be produced, inasmuch as they considered, that although the Lord Chancellor had the power to declare what he deemed to be a contempt of the High Court of Chancery, it was necessary that the House of Commons, as the sole and exclusive judge of its own privileges, should be informed of the particulars of the contempt, before they could decide whether the contempt was of such a character as would justify the imprisonment of a Member. They also summoned Mr. Charlton before them, and afforded him an opportunity of fully stating hi? case. Upon the whole examination, the letter appears 10 your Committee to be expressed in an intemperate and improper manner. The letter, however, was occasioned by information derived from the solicitor in the cause, the correctness of which Mr. Charlton had no reason to doubt; but they are of opinion that it is offensive to the Master, and thereby to the authority of the Court under which he acted, and was an attempt improperly to influence his conduct in the matter pending before him, with a view to obtain a further hearing, to which, if applied for in a proper manner, Mr. Charlton would have been entitled. It was found, in the course of the investigation, that Mr. Joseph Parkes, the solicitor for the parties, who appeared before the Master, in opposition to Mr. Charlton's clients, had, during the interval which occurred between the issue of the warrant and its execution, written a letter, at the request of a third person, containing the following assurance— 'Mr. Charlton may take my honour, and I have never yet violated it, that he is perfectly secure in coming to my house, to see if we can adjust the Ludlow matters,' and that Mr. Charlton did afterwards, in consequence, attend a meeting at the house of Mr. Parkes, without any interruption, or attempt to execute the warrant by the officers who held it. Your Committee, therefore, felt it necessary to ascertain whether the execution of a process issued on the ground of punishing a contempt of the Court of Chancery, had in any manner been allowed to be enforced or suspended, at the discretion of one of the litigant parties, or to be rendered subservient to his objects. This inquiry has tended considerably to lengthen their proceedings, but the result has satisfied them, that no power had ever been given by any person, or exercised by the solicitor, for that purpose. Upon the law and usage of Parliament, as affecting this case, your Committee beg leave to refer to the statement contained in the Report of the Committee of Privileges in the case of the Hon. William Long Wellesley. presented to the House on the 26th of July 1831, the precedents cited in which they will not here repeat. The Committee are deeply impressed with the difficulty and importance of the question referred to them, in the absence of authorities to which they can refer, as clearly in paint, and directly bearing on this particular case. It will be seen, from the early cases, that the ancient definition of privilege of Parliament is, that it belongs to every Member of the House, except in cases of treason, felony, or refusing to give surety of the peace. These exceptions, by the statement of the Commons in 1641, are i further extended to all indictable offences; by their resolution in 1697 to forcible entries and detainers; and, in 1763, in conformity with the principle of the declaration of 1641, and of a subsequent resolution in 1675, to printing and publishing seditious libels; to which may be added, the resolution of the Lords in 1757, that privilege shall not protect Peers against process to enforce the habeas corpus. The ordinary process for contempts against persons having privilege of Parliament, or of Peerage, has not been that of attachment of the person, but that of sequestration of the whole property, which has been found sufficient to vindicate the authority of the courts, even in cases of some aggravation. It is stated by Blackstone, that 'contempts committed even by Peers, when enormous, and accompanied with violence, such as forcible rescues, and the like, or when they import disobedience to the Ring's writs of prohibition, habeas corpus, and the rest, are punish-able by attachment;' and the same doctrine has, on different occasions, been expressed by other writers, and by judges of high authority. The only cases, however, in which attachments have been found by the Committee to have been actually issued against privileged persons, are that of Earl Ferrers, by the King's Bench, and that of Mr. Long Wellesley, by the Court of Chancery, already referred to. The former was a case of disobedience to a writ of habeas corpus, to which, while the discussion was pending, it bad been declared by the House of Lords privilege of Parliament did not extend; the other was that of the forcible removal of a ward of the Court of Chancery, and placing her out of the jurisdiction of the Court, which obviously could only be checked by the most prompt and efficacious remedy. Since the sitting of the last Committee of Privileges, the Act of 2 and 3 William 4th, c. 93, entitled, 'An Act for enforcing the Process upon Contempts in the Courts Ecclesiastical of England and Ireland,' has passed, by which contempts of the Ecclesiastical Courts,' in face of the Court, or any other contempt towards such Court, or the process thereof, are directed to be signified to the Lord Chancellor, who is to issue a writ de contumace capiendo, for taking into custody persons charged with such contempt,' in case such person 'shall not be a Peer, Lord of Parliament, or Member of the House of Commons.' Under all the circumstances of the case, your Committee are of opinion, that Mr. Charlton's claim to be discharged from imprisonment, by reason of privilege of Parliament, ought not to be admitted. February 16, 1837.

Report laid on the Table.

Mr. Williams Wynn

then said, that he had been further directed by the Committee, to call the attention of the House to a paragraph in one of the morning newspapers, reflecting upon the full attendance of Members at the Committee, as being caused solely by party and political feeling. During the time that he had sat in Parliament, he had never seen a Committee more fully attended, and the report which had been just read, would show that the Committee could have been influenced by no other motive, than an anxiety to act with justice and impartiality. The accusation therefore was, in his opinion, a case which called for the interference of the House. In ordinary Committees, such calumnies might be safely passed by, because their proceedings were open to the public; but the investigation of a Committee of Privileges being carried on in private, there was no other opportunity of contradicting the imputations which had been cast upon the motives of hon. Members, than by bringing the paragraph immediately under the notice of the House. The effect of it was, to impeach the character of a Committee silting judicially, and therefore tended directly to obstruct the course of justice. The passage of which he, as the organ of the Committee, was directed to complain, was as follows. The right hon. Gentleman read the following passage from the Morning Chronicle: —"We directed attention, ten days ago, to the indecent conduct of the Tories on the question respecting the claim of privilege by Mr. E. Lechmere Charlton, against the process of the Lord Chancellor, for a gross contempt of Court. This conduct is repeated by the Tories, who are notoriously 'whipping' the Committee of Privileges. That Committee, being substantially open to all Members of the House of Commons, is, it would seem, to take the place of packed special juries of former times; and such is the rage of party spirit, that even a grave and responsible judicial enquiry is to be turned into an arena of political faction. The Tory 'whippers-in,' who are well-known under that denomination, daily display the utmost industry in the exercise of their honourable vocation. It matters not whether the authority of the Great Seal, or a great constitutional question be at issue, everything now is to be sacrificed to party feeling, and party objects. The simple matter of reference to this Committee, is the consideration of all mattes touching privilege, and the consideration of the letters to the Speaker from the Lord Chancellor and Mr. Charlton. On this simple inquiry the Committee has now sate in secret and solemn conclave, a full fortnight. The Lord Chancellor either has or has not the power of committing a Member of the House of Commons for Contempt. No man of common sense doubts that a violation of law, or a contempt of the courts of justice, is aggravated in the case of a Member of the Legislature, and not' privileged.' It requires little knowledge of Parliamentary history, and legal decisions, to be able to pronounce that, as in the case of Mr. Long Wellesley, the Court of Chancery ought not to be overridden by the House of Commons. With respect to the particular 'contempt' assigned by the Lord Chancellor against Mr. Charlton, we apprehend that the Privilege Committee is no appellate jurisdiction. It is for the judge to decide what is a 'contempt' of his court and authority. In the present instance, the perpetrator is, we understand, a petitioner and counsel of the Court. In such relations, he is surely amenable to the jurisdiction of the Court in which he petitions and practises. But the 'whippers-in' now inform us, that this peculiar Committee is not only to decide whether Mr. Charlton is 'privileged,' but is also to determine, whether his offence is or is not, a 'contempt' of the Court of Chancery—that is to say, they are to usurp the functions of the judge! Mr. Charlton's letters to Mr. W Brougham, and to the Lord Chancellor, may be acceptable, as a matter of taste, to the Tories, but the 'whippers-in' will find it hard to persuade the country, or the House of Commons collectively, the his epistles are not vulgar, as well as subversive of the course of justice. In charity to the hon. Member, they may desire to use him for ulterior objects; but, whatever the report of a 'whipped' Committee, they will fail in persuading a reformed House of Commons, that the Lord Chancellor of England, and the highest judicial officers of the realm, are to be insulted with impunity, or that the municipal rights of a populous borough are to be sacrificed to the old nuisance of borough-mongering. If the 'whip' is to decide this constitutional and important reference, we hope it will be applied on both sides of the House. Certainly it is the duty of every liberal to attend this day, in order that Parliament itself, as well as the Lord Chancellor, may not be brought into 'contempt.' "The right hon. Gentleman then moved, after handing in the Morning Chronicle of Thursday, Feb. 16, to the clerk at the table, that John Black, the printer and proprietor of the Morning Chronicle. summoned to attend at the has of the House the next day.

Lord John Russell

could have wished that the right hon. Gentleman had taken some further time for consideration before he adopted this proceeding. However, if the right hon. Gentleman, as he appeared to be, was only the organ of the Committee of Privileges, then he must say that the Committee, in wishing to press this matter, had not in his judgment, taken a course which was either worthy or expedient. The House had been accustomed now for some years to indulge public writers in a great latitude of observation; and the custom which formerly prevailed of Members taking offence at some paragraph or other, and calling the publisher to the bar, had fallen into disuse. He must say, that for the last two or three years, if any complaint of this kind was to be made, those who had most often cause to complain were the majority of that House. There were no terms of abuse, no terms by which men could be vilified or lowered in the estimation of their fellow country-men, which had not been applied to the majority of that House. But, to pass over minor observations of this description he would refer to a charge delivered by a Lord Bishop, in which after representing the majority of the House and their proceedings to be under the guidance of a faction who wished to destroy all the institutions and establishments of the country, said that certain Members of that House who were sufficiently designated by the reverend Prelate professing the Roman Catholic faith, had been guilty of treachery and perjury. He must say, that if they were to take notice of breaches of privilege of this kind, they ought not to lose a moment in vindicating the honour of those Members of the House, who for giving their votes in Parliament, and for nothing else, had been declared by the right rev. Prelate in his charge to his clergy to have been guilty of treachery and perjury. For his own part, though when he read that pamphlet he thought it as gross a breach of privilege as had ever been committed, yet he was convinced that the Members who were attacked and the House would do better to treat it with utter contempt, and not take any notice of such proceedings, but act according to their own sentiments of what was their duty as Members of the Legislature. Were they, then, now to be told that they ought to take up cases of this kind, in which a journalist had thought proper to state that some Members of the Committee of privileges had been "whipped up,' and that the Committee was in some degree influenced by party, spirit? Even supposing that there was some foundation for that charge, what did it amount to? Why, merely that party feeling prevailed in that House, which could hardly escape its influence, while so much party spirit existed in the country, and that some Members of the Committee had attended more from party spirit than from a desire to give a fair and dispassionate consideration to the question before it. He would not enter into the consideration of the course which the Committee had pursued during the investigation. He thought that their best vindication was in the Report which had been presented. They had given as their opinion—an opinion from which he, on the only occasion on which he attended at the Committee, differed—that they were bound to sift the entire charge against Mr. Charlton, and examine the letters addressed to the Master and the Lord Chancellor. He differed from them in that respect, but these Gentlemen said that they were bound to protect the Members of that House in the enjoyment of their just privileges, and that an inquiry was necessary. He believed that they had come to a correct decision, in declaring that Mr. Charlton's privilege of Parliament ought not to protect him under the circumstances, and he must say that having so acted, to prosecute the writer of a paragraph in a newspaper was really beneath the dignity of the House. He was told that there were paragraphs on the opposite side with regard to the divisions in the Committee, either attacking or ridiculing, he did not know which, his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for the part he had taken. If, therefore, the House should resolve to call before it the writer of the paragraph in the Morning Chronicle, they would be obliged to order the attendance of the printers of the Morning Post and the John Bull and see what were the observations which had been made with respect to the conduct of the House of Commons. He really did hope that the Committee would be satisfied with what had been done, and would not think of carrying the proceedings further. If the Committee wanted any defence, it was contained in their own report. It was very inconvenient to take notice of all observations on the character and conduct of the Members of the House when acting in the performance of their duty. He really hoped the matter would not be further proceeded with, and that it would not be necessary to discuss the question, but that the sense of the House would be against it.

Mr. Praed

was not going to oppose himself to the sense of the House on this motion, but having been regular in his attendance at the Committee he wished to say a few words. The noble Lord had attempted to defend one violation of their privileges, by referring to what the noble Lord called another. He could not however conceive the least analogy between the case cited by the noble Lord and that to which his right hon. Friend had called the attention of the House. At all events, the discussion of a question of very grave importance was not to be approached in the manner in which the noble Lord, as he thought with very mistaken taste, had treated it to-night. He was very sorry that two questions of very serious Parliamentary importance should have been received with levity, but he assured them, whatever reception might be given to the observations he had to offer, that it would not disturb his self-possession. He trusted, at the same time, that he should not himself say anything offensive to the feelings of any individual, or discourteous to the House at large. With submission to the noble Lord, he would submit to him a case a little more analogous to the case then under their consideration. An individual had written a private letter offensive to a person exercising the functions of a judge in a particular case, and calculated improperly to influence his decision in a matter pending before him. For writing that letter the Lord Chancellor had committed that individual to an indefinite imprisonment, and he now stood committed to the Fleet for writing that offensive private letter, calculated to produce an influence upon the decision of the proper judge, until the Lord Chancellor should make a further order. But here was a paragraph in a newspaper published, calculated improperly to influence the Members of the Committee of Privileges in the discharge of a judicial duty, and he must say, that the writer of the paragraph ought to have some kind of regard to the subject which formed the matter for the investigation of the Committee. It did appear to him, that as the Committee was a strictly private one, and carried on its proceedings with closed doors, an inquiry was necessary in this case, because the writer almost assumed that he derived his information from some Member of the Committee, and it occurred to him that there was no other opportunity of pointing out the gross and scandalous nature of the paragraph than by adopting this mode of proceeding. For his own part, having been most assiduous in his attendance on the Committee, he would say, that on his honour as a Gentleman and Member of Parliament, he believed that there was not a shadow of foundation for one single innuendo contained in the paragraph in question.

Mr. Wynn

had no wish to press the motion, but he had brought it forward in the exercise of an indispensable duty, as Chairman of the Committee. He would not enter into any argument on the question, but it appeared to him that the present case was widely different from any which the noble Lord had cited, inasmuch as it represented a Committee of the House of Commons sitting upon a judicial question as a packed special jury. It was infinitely more offensive than any of the publications which had been mentioned. He could only appeal to hon. Members opposite, who had attended the Committee, to declare whether they believed that any Members of it were actuated by an undue political bias. He had sat in the chair, and he certainly could declare, as his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Praed) had done, on his honour as a Gentleman and Member of Parliament, that he had seen nothing of the kind.

Motion by leave withdrawn.