HC Deb 14 April 1840 vol 53 cc1093-103
Mr. Easthope rose

, pursuant to notice, to move the consideration of the petition of Nathaniel Cave, complaining of illegal imprisonment. He reminded the House, that when he presented the above petition on Wednesday last, and gave notice of his intention to call the attention of the House to it, he had abstained from entering into particulars, thinking that the jus and proper course then was to refrain as much as possible from doing so, and wait till the time when it could be fully stated and fairly met. He then informed the House that he had availed himself of every means in his power to give to the party accused the fullest information, and the most ample opportunity for making any explanation of the circumstances which he might think proper. He had communicated the contents of the petition to one of the hon. Members for the county of Hertford, who had forwarded it to the rev. Mr. Mountain, and the answer received was, that that reverend gentleman did not feel it necessary to enter into any explanation whatever. He was quite sure that the House of Commons would never sanction the doctrine, that there should be one law for the poor man and another for the rich man. He was not there to complain of the administration of the law as propounded by Lord Abinger, but he thought he should have the opinion of the House with him when he said, that the aw, as it was propounded by that learned person, was most unjust— that it subjected accused persons to great hardship, and permitted the infliction upon them of unmerited sufferings. The petitioner, Nathaniel Cave, while working for his master, Mr. Wootton, a surgeon, at King's Langley, was apprehended, handcuffed,' confined all night, and then taken before the rev. Mr. Mountain, of Hemel Hampstead, a magistrate for the county of Hertford. A statement was then made by John Wilson, gardener to the rev. J. W. Butt, of King's Langley, to the effect that he had found, on the preceding day, that some of Mr. Butt's young trees, growing in his garden, had been lately destroyed, and that he afterwards went into a beer shop at King's Langley, kept by Richard Sturman, and there heard two of his sons (named Richard and Thomas) say, that they had heard the petitioner say, that the trees had been cut on the preceding Friday night. No other evidence was given against the petitioner. The rev. Jacob Henry Brooke Mountain, however, thereupon made out a warrant of commitment of the petitioner to the House of Correction at Berkhampstead for eight days, and refused to take bail for his appearance, and said to the petitioner, "there is quite sufficient evidence to transport you." It should be observed, that that was the first account given by Wilson of the statement of the two boys, namely, "that Mr. Butt's trees had been cut." It was then, as alleged by Cave, afterwards stated by Wilson in his deposition, that what the boys had stated was, that "they had heard Cave say he had cut the trees." Now, what was the next step? Instead of the allegations being inquired into, when the poor man was brought up before the magistrate on the morrow after his apprehension, he was sent to Berkhamp-stead gaol, and there confined for eight days on bread and water, upon the trumpery evidence set out in the petition. He submitted to the House, whether this were not a case that claimed consideration? A man was taken up, incarcerated for eight days in a gaol, and restricted to the fare of a common felon, upon the mere hearsay, confused, and highly improbable tale of two boys, either that certain trees had been cut, or that the party had been heard to say that he had cut them. What followed? When the man was brought up at the petty sessions, the whole case was found to be of a most ridiculous and trumpery character, and he was instantly discharged. Discharged he was, certainly; but he went again to his daily toil, in the midst of his own circle, after having been confined for eight days like a felon, and after having been told by the magistrate that there was evidence enough to transport him. He trusted that the feeling of the House would go with him when he said, that this was a case of great hardship and oppression. He certainly did not personally vouch for the facts; he knew nothing of them till he read the petition; but this he did vouch for, that the petition came to him from a most respectable person, who stated that Nathaniel Cave was a worthy, honest man, and that such was the excitement produced in his favour amongst his neighbours, that it induced him to bring an action against the rev. Mr. Mountain. He brought his action; but the learned judge who expounded the law said, that the law did not provide for the case: a verdict consequently passed for the defendant; and thus this poor man, after having endured eight days' imprisonment. — after having been fed with the food of felons, and finally mulcted in the sum of 100l. for costs, was told, that however hard his case might be— though he had suffered unjust imprisonment— his oppressor was not liable by law to make him any compensation; but that whatever of misfortune and disgrace he had endured from his incarceration in a gaol upon the trumped-up story of two boys, he must abide the operation of a law which involved him in immense expenses, and still believe this was a law made equally for the benefit of the poor man as for the rich. He appealed to the good sense and candour of the House to say, whether a person moving in a higher sphere— whether the son of a gentleman charged with an offence like this would have been handcuffed, sent to prison upon such mere hearsay evidence, brought up and examined, recommitted for further examination, and finally detained in gaol upon felon's allowance for eight days to await the petty sessions. He was sure there was no Gentleman in the House who would say, that this could have happened to any man above the class of a labourer. He regretted this occurrence as furnishing evidence of the apparent truth, and gave force to the taunt, that we had in this country one law for the rich and another for the poor. He complained not of Lord Abinger for his interpretation of the law. It would be very presumptuous in him to do so. He was bound to believe, that Lord Abinger had carefully considered and rightly interpreted the law; but if his interpretation were correct— if a poor man like the petitioner in this case, who had nothing to trust to but his labour— nothing to look to but his good name— whose daily toil was only relieved by the consciousness of his own integrity and worth: if such a man, upon a mere tale told by a couple of young and idle boys, was to be subject to eight days' confinement in a gaol, and afterwards to be told by one of the expounders of the law that he had no redress, then he should say, that such a law was not to be endured, and required some amendment. When this poor man was released from gaol, he applied to the gentleman who had committed him, in the hope of obtaining from him some expression of regret and some reasonable compensation, which, when known amongst his neighbours, would serve to wipe away the stain which his eight days' confinement had thrown upon his character; but he was met with a cold rebuff. He was told, that if he chose to enter an action, the attorneys were ready to receive the proceedings. Finding that he had no other alternative, he adopted that course. The action was entered— the cause was tried — and by the law the poor man was thrown out of court, and subjected to the additional penalty of having to pay his own costs and the costs of the defendant. Unless he was greatly mistaken in the feeling of the House, it would not refuse to institute an inquiry into the facts of this case; and when these facts had been ascertained to be truly stated in the petition of Cave, it would be for the House to declare whether the law as it now stood, was such a law as ought in policy and justice to exist in this country. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving, that a select committee be appointed to inquire into the case of Nathaniel Cave, and to report the facts connected therewith to the House.

Lord Grimstone

would leave it to the House to determine how far it was consistent, with propriety, to bring under the consideration of the Legislature, a case which had already been decided in the courts of justice. He had not been able to discover exactly the merits of this case; but this he knew, that when the judgment of the court was known in the village of King's Langley, where this, man resided, it was received with universal delight and satisfaction. He, therefore, intreated the House, if a committee were appointed, not to trust to the ex parte statement which had now been made, without hearing the explanations that might be offered on the other side.

Mr. Fox Maule

was not disposed to under-rate or under-value the importance of any petition which an individual might present to that House; but he confessed it appeared to him, that this was a case that might be dealt with otherwise than by a reference to a select committee. He thought, that if the inquiry were left in the hands of the proper officer of the Government, namely, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the end that his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester (Mr. Easthope) had in view would most probably be fully attained. He was sure that his hon. Friend wished nothing more than that the public should be in full possession of all the facts of the case. If the words attributed to the magistrate were true— if he had really said to the petitioner when he was brought before him, "There is quite sufficient to transport you." It was very right that the matter should be investigated. But with respect to the number of days that this unfortunate man had been imprisoned, he (Mr. Fox Maule) should say, that that was rather the fault of the law than of the magistrate. As the law at present stood, it was not always possible to avoid these long imprisonments previous to trial. If his hon. Friend would leave the case in his (Mr. F. Maule's) hands, he pledged himself that every inquiry should be made into it, and that the result of the inquiry should be laid before the House.

Sir Eardley Wilmot

alluded to the absurdity of the law, which made the cutting of a stick in a plantation felony, whilst the carrying off of a large and valuable piece of timber was merely a malicious trespass.

The Attorney-General

was rather surprised at hearing the law so laid down by the hon. Baronet, who was a Warwickshire magistrate, because, in point of fact, the law as it really stood, was directly the contrary of what the hon. Baronet had stated.

Mr. R. Alston

said, that having been applied to by the hon. Member for Leicester upon this subject, he had forwarded a copy of the petition to the rev. gentleman whose conduct it impugned, and had asked whether there was any explanation he wished to make. The answer which he (Mr. Alston) received, was one of the shortest description. The rev. gentleman merely said, that he had no explanation whatever to give. Under all the circumstances that had been stated, he thought the subject was one that might very properly be referred to the consideration of a select committee.

Mr. T. Duncombe

feared that the House would be relying on a broken reed, if it assented to leave this matter in the hands of the Under Secretary, for it appeared that the party had already made an application to the Secretary of State without success, and that he now came to the House of Commons, because the Home Secretary had taken no notice of the matter of which he complained. He thought, therefore, that the petitioner would not gain much, if his case should now be referred to the Under Secretary. He confessed, that the imprisonment of the petitioner did not appear to him to be altogether the fault of the law, but the fault of Mr. Mountain, the rev. administrator of the law. What did the rev. Mr. Mountain do? This person, whom he committed on hearsay evidence, offered bail, which bail the rev. Mr. Mountain refused, sending the man off to the House of Correction, with the pleasing assurance that "there was quite enough to transport him." That might be called clerical charity; but it appeared to him to be an act of gross injustice and oppression towards an innocent and unoffending man. He thought it would be quite right to have this matter referred to a select committee; and for this reason— that it was expedient to know how it happened that this unconvicted man was kept upon bread and water, and lodged in a solitary cell in the gaol at Berkhampstead previous to his trial, when it was to be assumed that he was as innocent as he ultimately proved to be. This, he thought, was fit matter for inquiry before a committee. There was, also, a greater and a wider question that required to be investigated — whether the law of the country, as administered by the unpaid magistracy, was properly administered. He believed that real and substantial justice would never be done to the working classes until stipendiary magistrates were established throughout the country. If this select committee should be appointed, he was satisfied it would come to the conclusion that the unpaid magistracy, and particularly the clerical magistrates, did not do their duty.

Lord Granville

Somerset was obliged to the hon. Member for Finsbury, for informing the House what was the real object of the present motion. He was obliged to the hon. Gentleman for making it manifest that the real object of the motion was to attack the magistracy generally throughout the kingdom. ["No, no."] Then the speech of the hon. Member for Finsbury was wholly irrelevant. For what did the hon. Gentleman say? "There can be no justice for poor men until stipendiary magistrates shall be established throughout the kingdom." Was the House prepared to embark in such a question? He, for one, was not; and, therefore, he should vote against the proposition of the hon. Member for Leicester. He regretted as much as any one, that a poor man should have been committed upon insufficient evidence for further examination; but he must observe, that the man obtained an advantage by the committal, in so far that if he had been subjected to summary jurisdiction, he would probably have been convicted and sentenced, which would have placed him in a worst position than the being committed for further examination, There certainly appeared to have been some want of caution in the conduct of the magistrate in this case; but after the decision of the court of law, that he had not acted from malice, he did not see how this House could properly be called upon to interpose for the purpose of passing a censure upon him. He was afraid that the Under Secretary of State had undertaken a rather difficult task. Indeed, he did not know how the Secretary of State could interfere in a matter of this kind. The question was, whether the magistrate had acted bonâ fide in the discharge of his duty, or from malice towards the party whom he imprisoned. The court had decided that he had not acted from malice. Was the Secretary of State, then, to sit in judgment on the decision of the court? Was the office of the Secretary of State to become a court of appeal from the decisions of the courts all over the kingdom? As to the concluding observations of the hon. Member for Finsbury, he would only observe, that he should be sorry to see the day when stipendiary magistrates should be established throughout the country, being satisfied that nine-tenths of the people had more confidence in the unpaid than in the paid magistrates.

Mr. Aglionby

said, that if the hon. Member for Leicester should divide the House upon this question, he should feel it his duty, upon the statements made in the petition, to divide with him. He certainly thought that it was not expedient constantly to introduce into that House questions that might be decided, or had been decided in the courts of law; but, at the same time, he held that the House of Commons was the grand court of appeal to which every subject, who had suffered a grievance, had a right to look for protection. His vote in favour of the appointment of the committee would be based chiefly on two grounds— first, that it was alleged in the petition that the depositions were altered— a very important point, which did not appear to have come before the judge and jury at the trial; and secondly, because it was stated to be a practice in the district where this transaction occurred, not to remand as a matter of discretion or justice for two or three days, or even for a fortnight, according to the circumstances of the case, but to1 commit at once to the next petty sessions. He thought that magistrates as well as the country would derive an advantage from an inquiry upon these points— points which he apprehended could not be properly inquired into by the Secretary of Stale, and which ought, therefore, to be referred to a select committee.

Mr. Hume

thought, that the time had arrived when the unpaid magistrates should be put an end to. It was stated, that application had already been made to the Secretary of State without success. That was a sufficient reason to induce him to support the motion for the appointment of a select committee. To what tribunal were aggrieved persons to look for justice if not to the House of Commons? He hoped that his hon. Friend would take the sense of the House upon the motion.

Mr. Easthope

, in reply, observed, that the noble Lord, the Member for Mon-mouth, overlooking entirely the manner in which the motion had been brought forward, had attempted to assign to it an object wholly different from that which it really had in view. He appealed to the candour of the noble Lord, to his sense of justice and of propriety, to say whether his motives were to be construed by anything that might strike the mind, and fall from the lips of his hon. Friend, the Member for Finsbury. He put it to the House whether, in any part of the statement he had made, there was anything like an attempt to impugn the conduct of any class of the magistracy— whether, in speaking of the judge who presided at the trial, he had uttered one word in disparagement either of his learning or of his judgment— whether, from beginning to end, he had not adhered closely to the facts of the case, rather understating than overstating them; and whether, at the very outset of his observations, he had not stated, that before he undertook to present the petition, he had communicated with one of the Members for Hertfordshire, and requested that a copy of the petition might be sent to the rev. Gentleman whose conduct it impugned, in order that he might have the opportunity of offering an explanation? He believed that improper committals, such as that complained of in the present instance, were by lawyers termed "slips" on the part of the magistrates: he thought that the noble Lord (Lord G. Somerset) had been guilty of a "slip" when he undertook to construe his motives by what had fallen from his hon. Friend, the Member for Finsbury. Then the noble Lord said, that it was rather an advantage than otherwise, that this poor man's case was delayed, and that he was sent to gaol for eight days, instead of having the matter at once fully inquired into. How was that possible? How was it possible to imagine that any advantage could result to this man from eight days' imprisonment? Be it remembered too, that the petitioner had tendered bail, which was refused; and that when he was apprehended, he was brought in handcuffed, the whole of the evidence against him being, that he himself had told two beer-house keeper's boys, that certain trees were cut. Was this the way to treat a man arrested upon a frivolous charge like this? The annals of story-telling could not furnish a tale more utterly absurd and ridiculous than that upon which this poor man was consigned to the cell of a prison. He was confident that the noble Lord, who had rather a leaning towards the magistracy, regretted the conduct of the magistrate in the present instance. He was satisfied that the noble Lord did not appear, with much comfort to himself, as the apologist of a gentleman who had so far forgotten himself as to listen to such an improbable cock-and-bull story as that told by the beer housekeeper's boys, and upon the strength of it to send a poor man to gaol, upon felon's food, for the space of eight days. Fie assured the House, that this subject had been to him a matter of greater pain than than many Gentlemen, perhaps, would imagine. Rarely addressing the House at all, he was the more reluctant to be the instrument of bringing under its attention a case of this painful nature. But he had yielded to a sense of duty. He had not engaged in the matter from pleasure, and feared he had not engaged in it with much effect. If it should be the temper of the House to fall in with the suggestion of his hon. Friend, the Under Secretary for the Home Department, he should be ready to adopt that course, and to withdraw his motion, relying upon his hon. Friend to give to the subject such an anxious and careful investigation as should satisfy the ends of justice. If, however, the investigation of his hon. Friend should not be satisfactory, he believed he should then have the support of the House, in moving for the appointment of a select committee, and that the petitioner, in addition to his other wrongs, would not have to complain, that he had appealed in vain to the justice of the House of Commons, Lord G. Somerset explained. What he said was simply this; that if this man had been subjected to a summary jurisdiction, he might have been convicted and sentenced, which would place him in a worse situation than the being committed for re-examination.

Motion withdrawn.