HC Deb 02 April 1845 vol 78 cc1389-96
Sir John Easthope

said, before the House proceeded to a Committee of Supply, he hoped he should be strictly in order in recalling the attention of the House to the subject of the petitions which he had presented in an early stage of the evening's proceedings. He thought he should obtain the indulgence of the House when he stated that these were cases of very serious hardship upon very helpless and very defenceless persons. He was aware that he required that indulgence, but thought it would be found not to be ill bestowed, as he would occupy as short a time as possible. The first case was that of a man of the name of Thomas Lakin, who was sentenced to imprisonment for the nonpayment of 5s. 4d. assessed upon him for poor rates. A benevolent individual hearing the particulars, paid the amount, and the man was released from prison. He was then summoned by the parochial functionary for the sum of 20s. for costs. He was summoned before the magistrates of Leicestershire. He went to the place at which the magistrates met, but was not permitted to go into their presence. The policeman in attendance told him that if he had not got the money he must go to gaol. He was accordingly taken to gaol, and he now lay in the county gaol of Leicester, a prisoner, and with hard labour for a month, in consequence of not being able to pay the costs, 20s. He was a poor man, with a wife and four children in extreme indigence. He had no goods whereon the distress of 5s. 4d. could be levied, and of course he had no goods upon which to levy the larger amount, and, consequently he now lay in gaol at Leicester. The next case was that of Anne Ward, and this was a very aggravated one. This woman was a widow with four children. She was also in great indigence. She was not a householder, but had a lodging, where she lived upon a very bare subsistence. She was summoned for 3s. 4d. In that case also the money was paid by some benevolent individual, and who the person was, was unknown to the parties at this moment, and she was set at liberty. She went to her house five or six miles off, but was again summoned before the same ma- gistrates, and was now under a second commitment in the gaol of Leicester, with hard labour, for a month. As soon as the petitions were placed in his hand on Monday, he concluded that it was impossible but there must be some exaggeration. He thought it utterly impossible that educated gentlemen, engaged in the administration of justice, should have acted in the manner described; and he wrote to the committing magistrates, stating the circumstances, and requesting them to instruct some person to appear in that House and explain the true state of the facts, in order that the whole matter might be cleared up, and that he might not, in endeavouring to obtain justice for these individuals, commit an injustice to others; but the reply which he had received that morning, he was sorry to say, admitted in substance the facts of the case. There was no denial that the parties were committed, upon the second warrants, to hard labour for the longest periods for which it was possible, under the circumstances, to commit them. It was not denied that the magistrates did not hear that case; but it was stated that the parties were summoned and did not appear. Now, in their petitions they stated that they did appear, but were prevented from going before the magistrates, or into the room where the petty sessions were held, and told that if they had not the money they must go to gaol. They did not appear, because they were prevented by those whose duty it was to have brought them before the bench. But was it not the duty of the magistrates to inquire whether the parties were there, and to institute a rigid inquiry before they made out their commitment for the extreme time, and under the extreme circumstances, for which they could by any possibility inflict the punishment? This was a very painful case; and he assured the House that it was with the utmost pain he felt compelled to ask for an explanation with reference to it. He did not, envy the feelings of those who would unnecessarily impugn the conduct of gentlemen acting in the administration of the law; but this subject had created considerable excitement in the neighbourhood, and particularly in the town which he had the honour to represent, and the public waited with great anxiety to learn the determination of the question; for it was not extraordinary that persons living in large manufacturing districts, and feeling the im- portance of maintaining the supremacy of the law, should feel intense pain at finding the persons entrusted with the administration of the law execute their duties carelessly, severely, unjustly. They felt that the humbler classes were bound to bow to the administration of the law, even when it pressed severely upon them in their distress; and if they were so bound to obey the law, it was felt that it ought not to be inflicted upon them with a severity that it was impossible to bear; good men of all classes must regret that persons should be placed on the bench who acted carelessly in inflicting the penalties of the law. He begged to ask the right hon. Baronet whether the facts of this case had come to his knowledge, and if so, whether he had obtained such information as would justify him in recommending that these persons should be immediately released? He begged to know if any and what return had been made from the magistrates, and whether the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to take any step which would prevent his (Sir J. Easthope's) further troubling the House on this very painful subject.

Sir James Graham

said, the hon. Baronet had been so obliging as to notify to him, in the course of the morning, his intention of bringing this case before the House, and early in the evening he had presented two petitions on the subject to which it referred. If it were not for this previous information he should not have been prepared to answer the hon. Baronet's question; but what the hon. Gentleman stated was quite correct, that the circumstances of this case had excited in Leicester and the neighbourhood considerable sensation. From other quarters, unknown to him, copies of the petitions had been sent to the Home Office, and on receiving them he felt it his duty, seeing the primâ facie case they contained, to call upon the magistrates named for some explanation. He had received, during the course of yesterday, that explanation, and he was bound to say that it was not satisfactory to him. He was of opinion that an indiscretion had been committed, probably without the know edge of the magistrates, in not allowing persons who had been summoned to appear before the bench to come before it. They were summoned to appear before the justices. They were not allowed to enter the room, but a preliminary question was put to them, whether they had brought the money. They had it not, and were refused permission to enter that room. This he conceived to be a gross violation of justice. Nor did the matter end here. The parties were in arrear for poor rates, and upon the nonpayment of that arrear it was competent for the justices to issue a warrant for that nonpayment; and if costs were to be charged, it was competent to the justices to issue at the same time a warrant not only for the poor rate in arrear, but also for the costs. As he understood this case, the warrant was issued for the non-payment of the arrear of poor rate. If the magistrates intended to embody in the commitment not only the non-payment of poor rate, but also the nonpayment of costs, they should have set forth not only the non-payment of the rates, but also of the costs, in the commitment, and both documents ought to have been issued at the same time, and the parties to have been committed for the arrear and the costs. In this case, however, the warrant was for the poor rate alone in the first instance, the amount due being under 5s. in each case. That warrant was discharged, and the matter ought to have ended; but the parties having been liberated with respect to the poor rates, it was illegal in his opinion, and in that of persons more competent to form a judgment upon such points, to issue a second warrant for costs amounting to 20s. in each case without their further appearance before the magistrates. He had heard of these circumstances with the greatest possible regret, and would not for a moment attempt to justify them. He was sorry they had not sooner come to his knowledge, for the parties were committed on the 5th of March, and their imprisonment would expire on the 5th of April. He had now obtained a knowledge of the circumstances; he had formed his opinion upon them, and it would be his duty to advise Her Majesty immediately to liberate the parties.

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, the right hon. Gentleman had stated the circumstances quite accurately, for last week the same parties who sent the petitions to the right hon. Gentleman called upon him (Mr. Duncombe), and it was by his advice that the petitions were so sent. His hon. Friend (Sir J. Easthope) was not in town, and as Parliament was not sitting — it being in the recess—he thought the best thing they could do would be to send the petitions to the right hon. Baronet. He believed every circumstance stated in the petitions to be correct. These poor persons were undergoing hard labour in Leicester gaol. They had been prevented by a policeman from going before the magistrates. The right hon. Baronet said, he would immediately order their release; but, unfortunately, their imprisonment would expire on Friday next, the very day on which they would receive the order for their discharge. He wished to know what redress they were to have? The one was a poor man in very indigent circumstances, the other a widow, who had lost her husband by an accident in a colliery. What redress were they to have? Was there to be no redress for these unfortunate people? He hoped the right hon. Baronet would go one step farther than releasing them. He hoped he would advise Her Majesty to strike these two magistrates out of the Commission of the Peace, and take care that they should not any longer disgrace it by either their ignorance or their intentional perversion of justice, nor any longer abuse their power by acts of gross tyranny, oppression and cruelty.

Mr. Packe

, as Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, begged leave to say a few words on behalf of the excellent gentlemen against whom this complaint was made, Mr. Cresswell and Mr. Abney. He quite agreed with the opinion that had been expressed, that there had been an error in the act of these gentlemen. He was convinced that it was a mere error, and that no corrupt motive could have possibly influenced, or could be imputed to these respectable persons. He had known these two gentlemen for a considerable length of time, and he had acted at Quarter Sessions with them, and he could bear testimony to their proper conduct. He trusted that what had occurred now would be a useful lesson to gentlemen in the country, that they would now know that the 18th George III. ought not to be separated from the act authorising the payment of rates. He was sorry for the unfortunate individuals concerned in this case; but he trusted that no further steps would be taken to the injury of those respectable gentlemen, and whose characters, he would say, were not deserving of any reproach being cast upon them.

Mr. Hume

knew nothing of the persons whose names had been mentioned; but the question, he said, to be considered was this—what redress were these poor people to get? He had looked to the right hon. Gentleman whose observations on this point had been addressed to the House, because he hoped to hear from him that redress should be obtained for them. Let them call the act of these gentlemen error, or what else they pleased—here were two unfortunate individuals suffering unjustly. Here, then, were circumstances, when it became necessary that an example should be made. His hon. Friend had told them of the injury, the severe injury that had been done. Then how were they who had suffered to be redressed? They had heard of actions being brought, and heavy damages being given, for a few hours' or a few days' unjust imprisonment; but here there was something worse—here were poor persons for a few shillings sent for a month to prison and condemned to hard labour. Was it not, he asked, in such a case as this, the duty of the Government to protect the poor, to secure to them relief, to ensure for them redress? He did think that this was the duty of a Government, and therefore it was that he asked of Her Majesty's Government to do something for them. He did not know what that should be, nor what was the best mode in which it could be done. There was another point, also, to be considered. Here were 20s. costs on that which was originally but 5s. How long, he asked the right hon. Baronet was that to continue? Here it was plain that the law did not protect poor persons—here unfortunate individuals were conveyed to prison, irregularly, improperly, and as it plainly appeared, contrary to law; for they were told by the Secretary of State that these convictions had been wrong. Then, if the law could not relieve these persons, could it not punish the wrong doers, or was it to be stated that there was no remedy for them? Was it to be said that gentlemen could act thus, and no compassion be shown—that they should deprive persons of their liberty, and the Government afford no redress? This was, he said, an instance in which the Government ought to throw its shield over and protect such poor persons. He was sorry to hear nothing said by the right hon. Gentleman as to his determination to obtain justice.

Sir J. Graham

After what had been said by the hon. Gentleman, he hoped the House would excuse him for saying a few words. The Prerogative of the Crown would be immediately exercised in favour of these poor persons, and then the magistrates would have the opportunity either of vindicating their conduct in a court of law, or of satisfying those individuals for the injuries they might suppose they had done them. Saying this, he thought that from a Minister of the Crown, anything like a threat would be most unbecoming in this state of the case.

Mr. Hume

considered the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman perfectly satisfactory.

Mr. F. French

said, that there could be no doubt that here the parties had a right to complain of the injustice, and it might be said of the ignorance of these persons; for, if he were rightly informed, they had no power to commit, unless it had been proved that property had been secreted to avoid the payment of rates [Cries of "No, no."] What! was it possible that they committed persons for their poverty? It was a monstrous thing if a person could be committed to prison for his poverty; that a person should be liable to be committed if he could not pay 5s., and then in order to add to his misery, 20s. costs put on the original sum, and the person destined to prison and hard labour for not paying.

Sir J. Easthope

trusted that the House would further indulge him for a moment to express his acknowledgments to the right hon. Baronet for the frank manner in which he had met this case. He must, however, implore of the right hon. Gentleman not to let the first post tomorrow pass without ordering the release of these poor people. It was painful to think that they had been confined so long, and that, too, most illegally and unjustly. He felt strongly that not a moment should be lost in directing their release; and he thought the House would be of the same opinion, that the right hon. Gentleman could not so well discharge his duty as in hastening their relief—ay, if it were even but by six hours. The remedy ought to be applied the first moment that the grievance was thus known and proved.

Sir J. Graham

wished to state, for the purpose of preventing mistake or disappointment, lest any delay should occur, that before those persons could be released from prison, an instrument must be submitted to Her Majesty for her sign manual.

Mr. B. Escott

considered this a very proper case to be submitted to the attention of the House and the Government. It was one of those deplorable cases which occurred under the existing law, and that law he hoped to see soon altered. He hoped that the time was coming when the power of thus mulcting parties with costs would be put an end to. It was, however, to be observed, that though the Statute gave the power of ordering costs, it did not give the power to magistrates to order any illegal payments. If the costs in this case were examined, he doubted whether it would be found that they were sanctioned by law. This was an important point, and it was one to which he wished to call the attention of his right hon. Friend. It did not follow that because the Act of Parliament allowed costs, that therefore illegal fees should or could be demanded.

Mr. Gisborne

presumed, that as to the fees in this case, they would be found hung up in the clerk's office, duly inscribed in some old table, sanctioned by some old judge, whose name was now forgotten. Perhaps it would be found, that if these tables of fees were examined, that where there was a common conviction the fees should be 4s., but where there was a game conviction, the costs should be 10s. Such, he knew, was the case in Derbyshire; and, if they made an inquiry, perhaps it was the case in Leicestershire. [Mr. Packe: No, no.] He was glad to hear it; it showed that they were more civilized in Leicestershire than in other parts of the country. He wished to ask the right hon. Baronet (who appeared to him to have done everything that could be done in this case) one question; it was whether he had received an explanation of this matter from the clerk?

Sir J. Graham

replied that it was quite true that he had received an explanation from the clerk, who was of course more cognizant of all the circumstances than the magistrates, and he must say that nothing could be more frank than the explanation given.