HC Deb 24 January 1840 vol 51 cc549-54
The Speaker

I have to acquaint the House, that the Sergeant-at-Arms has a communication of the highest importance to make to this House.

Sir William Gosset, Sergeant-at-Arms

, appeared at the bar, and said, that last evening, about six o'clock, he had been served with a writ of habeas corpus from the Court of Queen's Bench, commanding him to bring up the bodies of William Evans, Esq., and John Wheelton, Esq., then in his custody. As he had acted by the warrant of the Speaker under the authority of that House, he conceived it his duty to lay this information before the House, with a view to receive their further directions.

Sir William Gosset

handed in the writ, which was read by the clerk.

Mr. Law

inquired what indorsement was on the instrument. The clerk read "William Burchell, solicitor.—Robinson, clerk in court."

The Attorney-General

then rose and said, that the House would perceive that their Sergeant-at-Arms had acted in strict conformity with his duty. He had taken the earliest opportunity of informing the House, that he had been served with the writ of habeas corpus, and the question for the House to determine was, what steps should be taken under circumstances of such great importance. It was a crisis of great moment; they were struggling for the existence of their privileges, and any false step might involve them in inextricable difficulty. It might very possibly be contended, that though this writ had been served upon their Sergeant-at-Arms, it ought not to be obeyed. He would not then enter into any nice question of law in regard to the power of either House of Parliament to order its officer to disregard a writ of habeas corpus. He had no hesitation in advising the House to direct the Sergeant-at-Arms to return to the Court of Queen's Bench, that he held these two individuals in custody by the warrant of the Speaker. That was the safe, the dignified, and the constitutional course. Let it not be supposed that thereby they submitted their privileges to the judgment of a court of law. The Court could do nothing but simply remand the prisoners into the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms. But if there should be a departure from all established precedent and usage, and the Court should question the commitment, such an usurpation on the part of the Court, would give the House a decided advantage in the struggle, should it be continued. It had been determined by a long series of authorities, that this House had the power to commit for contempt, and that when it did so commit, no court of law whatever, had the power to inquire into the cause of the committal. In some instances the cause had been set out on the face of the warrant, and in those cases the Court had decided that they could not judge whether such cause was sufficient or insufficient. In other instances, the cause had not been set out, and then the judges had decided that the omission was immaterial, as they could not have reviewed the cause, had it been set out ever so distinctly. He would, for the information of the House, mention one or two cases in which that doctrine had been held. There was Lord Shaftesbury's ease, in which the cause of commitment was not mentioned on the warrant more than in general terms, that the prisoner had beer committed for a high contempt of the House. Upon Lord Shaftesbury's moving for a habeas corpus, and the objection being made that the warrant was insufficient, inasmuch as it did not state the cause of commitment, what was the language of the Lord Chief Justice? It was to the effect, "that the Court had no jurisdiction in the case, and that they ought not to attempt to extend their jurisdiction beyond its proper limits, and the actions of their predecessors would not warrant them in such a course." Therefore, although the commitment of Lord Shaftesbury by the House of Lords was general, and merely for contempt, the Court held unanimously that they had no jurisdiction at all to inquire, and they remanded the prisoner. He would mention also a case which occurred in 1751. That was a commitment by the House of Commons under a similar warrant; he meant the case of Alexander Murray, who was committed for contempt, the contempt not being specified in the warrant. He was brought before the judges of the Court of King's Bench, and Wright, Justice, said, It appeared, by the return to the writ of habeas corpus, that Murray had been committed to Newgate, under a warrant charging him with a high and dangerous contempt of the privileges of the House of Commons, and it was insisted at the bar that that was a bailable case, within the meaning of the Habeas Corpus Act. The answer to that was, that it had never been maintained that the act gave power to the judges to decide upon the privileges of the House of Commons, and it had been agreed upon all hands that they had power to judge of their own privileges. It need not appear to them what the contempt was for which he had been committed; for it did appear, they could not judge thereof. Lord Shaftesbury had been committed for a contempt of the House of Lords, and, being brought before the King's Bench on a writ of habeas corpus, the court must remand him, because in no case that had been cited had the court interfered. The House of Commons was superior to that court in that particular, and they could not, therefore, enter into that question. Justice Denison said, The Court, as any other Court, had granted the writ of habeas corpus, not knowing what the commitment was; but now it appeared that it was for a contempt of their privileges. What these privileges were, the Court did not know, nor need they tell what the contempt was, for the Court could not judge of it. That Court must be considered inferior to the House of Commons, with respect of judging of contempt against it. The case was a clear one, and required no sort of consideration. Judge Foster, who it was well known was considered as one of the most constitutional judges that ever sat upon the bench, agreed in that decision, upon the ground That the law of Parliament was part of | the law of the land. He would further remind the House that when Sir F. Burdett's case went to the House of Lords, Lord Eldon proposed the following question for the opinion of the judges: — Whether, if the Court of Common Pleas adjudged an act to be a contempt of court, and committed the offender by a warrant, stating generally, without those circumstances that led to a commitment—whether in that cause the Court of Queen's Bench would discharge the prisoner, because the particular facts out of which the contempt arose, were not set forth in the warrant. That in substance would be, whether such a warrant as had been signed in the case of Messrs. Evans and Wheelton, were signed by the authority of the Court of Common Pleas—whether that would be good. The question being handed over to the judges, and they having consulted for a few minutes, Chief Baron Richards delivered the unanimous opinion of the judges, that in such a case the Court of Queen's Bench could not interfere. They therefore, had the unanimous judgment of the whole of the judges of England, that on a commitment by a court of law, where the warrant did not specify the cause, is a good commitment, and no other court could inquire whether that commitment was proper or improper. A power belonging to a court of law would hardly be denied to the Houses of Parliament. Under those circumstances, he (the Attorney-general) thought that they might with confidence direct their Sergeant-at-Arms to make a return of the warrant under which Messrs. Evans and Wheelton had been committed. He (the Attorney-general) apprehended that on the warrant being read, the Court of Queen's Bench could do nothing else than say that the prisoners must return to the custody whence they came. If they decided differently, it would be a flagrant violation of law, and the House would con- sider what powers the constitution had given them for the vindication of their own privileges, against the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench. He would conclude by moving, That the Sergeant-at-Arms should be directed to make a return to the said writ, that he holds the bodies of the said William Evans and John Wheelton, Esqrs., by virtue of a warrant under the hand and seal of the Speaker, issued by the authority of the House of Commons, for contempt of a breach of the privileges of that House.

Mr. Godson

did not rise to oppose the motion of the learned Attorney-general, but he felt it his duty to state, that the learned Gentleman had not explained the real question which would come before the Queen's Bench on this return, which would be, whether or not an officer of that court could be interfered with, and be stopped in the discharge of his duties, by any power known to the constitution of this country; and it was yet to be decided, whether the court would not require the parties who had adopted such a course to come before them, and justify so serious an interruption of the course of justice. Let the House for a moment escape from the idea of this being a contest between it and the Queen's Bench, and consider it as a question whether, when one of the subjects of the realm had gained a legal verdict, and was about to receive the fruits of that verdict, the constitution would allow any single body of men to step in between those parties, and do away with the judgment of the court. He would not anticipate the arguments that would be used before the judges, nor would he venture to say that they would not remand the sheriffs; he would give no opinion on that point; but he hoped, that there would be no wish or intention to gain a triumph over the judges. Nothing could be more abhorrent from a well-regulated mind than the attempts which had been made by the Ministerial papers to throw ridicule upon the judges of the realm. He would particularly refer to a paragraph which had appeared in one of the morning journals this very day, describing the judges as "fifteen elderly Gentlemen, living in Bedford-square, and occupied principally in deciding how often thens and theres should be inserted in a special demurrer." If the returns were made as proposed by the Attorney-general, which appeared to be the regular course, he presumed that the sheriffs would accompany the sergeant-at-arms into court. If the opinion of the court was, that they ought to be remanded, let it be so; but if the opinion of the court was, that they ought to be discharged, he trusted that there were men in England who would not refuse to assist the judges in the due administration of justice.

The Attorney-General

said, that whatever others might have said, he had not meant the slightest disrespect to the Judges in anything he had said. He not only loved them as friends, but venerated them as most conscientious magistrates. He thought in this instance that they were in error, but he had never attributed to them anything like improper motives. As to the questions that might arise, he would say that none could possibly arise, if good cause of detention were shown. The writ of habeas corpus required that the person to whom it was directed should state if he held the, body of any individual in his custody, and under what authority he so held it, and if the authority were sufficient, the warrant must be considered a valid warrant, and this was a valid warrant, unless the unanimous decision of all the Judges for centuries was wrong.

Mr. Cresswell

thought that they would be asserting their own privileges, and in the most efficient manner, and at the same time paying a proper respect to the Judges, by not indulging in speculations as to what the decision of the court might be. If the House thought fit to make a return to the writ of habeas corpus, it was their duty without speculating as to the consequences to return the truth, and to consider any question that might arise afterwards. The judges would dispose of the case according to what they believed to be the law, and if the House considered their decision to be wrong, then would be the time to question it. He trusted, therefore, that he should hear no more speculation as to what would be done by the judges.

Motion agreed to