HC Deb 03 July 1845 vol 81 cc1436-42

The Order of the Day for taking into consideration the petition of Mr. Jasper Parrott having been read,

Mr. Divett

said, that it was with great reluctance he took upon himself a duty which he was aware would have been more properly confided to hon. Members more conversant with subjects of this nature; but he had taken it up with the earnest and natural desire of protecting his friend from the injury which he would otherwise sustain for having given evidence before a Committee of that House. In the discharge of the duty thus undertaken, he had moved that the petition of Mr. Parrott be printed with the Votes. It was now in the hands of Members; and he trusted that, after its perusal, they had all come to the same conclusion to which he had arrived, namely, that all the parties who had taken any share in the proceedings against Mr. Parrott, were guilty of a gross breach of the privileges of that House. He believed, though it was necessary to act with caution, they must act also promptly, and they ought to take care that individuals were not unnecessarily harassed by matters arising out of proceedings before that House. Mr. Parrott had been summoned by the noble Lord to give evidence before the Medical Relief Committee; and, from all the inquiries he (Mr. Divett) had made, there was no doubt of the truth of that evidence. But it was not for the House at that moment to comment on the evidence: what they had then to determine was, whether it was in the power of any individual to prosecute a person for evidence given before that House. If there were no truth in the evidence, it would be for him to come before the House as a right tribunal to obtain redress; and if any individual should state that any proceedings there had been injurious to him, he for one, was ready to give every redress. There was a precedent for the course he was about to recommend to be found in the time of William III., long before the Election Act passed, where an action was brought against two individuals by Sir George Meggott, for evidence given before the Committee of Elections. This was in the year 1696. The case was as follows:— A complaint being made to the House, that Sir G. Meggott had prosecuted at law several persons for what they testified the last Session at the Committee of Privileges and Elections, upon the hearing of the matter touching the election for the borough of Southwark, it was, on the 23rd of November, 1696, ordered that it be referred to the Committee of Privileges and Elections to examine the matter of the said complaint, and to report the same with their opinion thereon to the House; and on the 4th of December, Colonel Wharton reported from the Committee of Privileges and Elections, that to prove the complaint, was produced Mr. J. Huggins, an attorney, who said, he was employed to appear for Mr. Malyn and Mr. Ladd, at the suit of Sir G. Meggott, Mr. Lake, the attorney, having taken a writ out against them; and accordingly he did appear, and received a declaration severally against either of them, copies of which were produced to the Committee; and in those declarations it is taken notice, that Anthony Bowyer, Esq., and Charles Cox, gentleman, were returned to serve in Parliament for the said borough; that he, the said Sir G, Meggott, thought himself aggrieved by the said return, and petitioned the House of Commons for relief in the said matter; that the said petition was referred to the Committee of Elections, at which Committee the said Malyn and Ladd did falsely and maliciously say and affirm, that Sir G. Meggott did say, 'if it cost him 500l. he would carry the election; and that if he could not have justice done him abroad, he had friends enough in the House to bring him in right or wrong.' And that the said Malyn and Ladd afterwards, at the said Committee, did falsely and maliciously say and affirm these words, viz., 'Sir G. Meggott, did say, that if it cost him 500l. or 1,000l. he would have right; and that he had friends enough in the House to bring him in, notwithstanding, whether he were elected or not.' By which means he was taken into the custody of the Sergeant at-Arms, and detained to the end of that Session, and put to great expenses, to a damage of 3,000l. That Mr. Lake did afterwards call upon him for pleas to the said declarations, and he did thereupon plead to them severally the general issue, counsel having advised him so to plead, the declarations having not set forth the words aright; that Mr. Huggins afterwards called upon Mr. Lake to know if he would try the said causes; but Mr. Lake told him he would not further proceed unless Sir George Meggott would give him security to save him harmless, and thereupon he gave rules and obtained nonsuits, and 3l. 3s. were allowed him in each cause for costs, which he acknowledged he had received; but it was not near the expenses they had been at. That there was also pro- duced Mr. Halsey, who said, that at the last election of burgesses for Southwark, he told Sir George it would be very unnecessary for him to stand the poll, and that Sir George Meggott did say that he had laid by 1,000l., and had not spent above 100l., and had 900l. left to spend at the House of Commons; that there were no witnesses produced on the other side. But the counsel observed, that as to the matter testified by Mr. Halsey, it was not now complained of, or referred to the Committee; and as to the prosecuting at law of Malyn and Ladd by Sir G. Meggott, it was begun out of ignorance, and that there was no arrest; but Sir George, having thought himself injured by their evidence, did think he might lawfully have done himself right by an action; but as soon as he was better advised he desisted, and suffered himself to be nonsuited, and paid them their costs; and that he had orders to say from his client, that he was very sorry if he hath hereby offended the House. That the counsel did also submit to the consideration of the Committee, that the witnesses here, not being upon oath, and so not liable to be indicted for perjury, it might be inconvenient if there was no way to punish them for any false testimony they might give, and that upon the whole matter the Committee came to this Resolution, viz.,—'Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Committee, that Sir George Meggott, having prosecuted at law Thomas Malyn and John Ladd, for what they testified at the Committee of Privileges and Elections the last Sessions, upon the hearing the matter touching the election of the borough of Southwark, is guilty of a breach of the privileges of this House.' The said Resolution being read a second time was, upon the question put thereon, agreed unto by the House; ordered, that the said Sir George Meggott be taken into the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms attending this House for the said breach of privilege. He believed Mr. Parrott was present. The evidence given by him was in compliance with an Order of the House; he had been brought to London on the summons of the noble Lord, and had been compelled to give evidence, and he now claimed the protection of the House; which, as he (Mr. Divett) believed, it was essentially necessary to give, if they meant to preserve the privileges of the House. It was time to vindicate their power, and to grapple boldly with this attack. It would never do to allow the attorneys in the country to make a trade of these actions; if it was essential to preserve their privileges, it was necessary they should vindicate them, and not blink the matter any longer. They ought to take notice of the subject-matter of this petition: first, to protect their own privileges; and, secondly, they ought not to allow individuals to be harassed by proceedings of this nature, when they had the power to prevent it. He would not go into the legal technicalities, which he would leave to others better able to discuss them; but, to bring the subject before the House in such a position that it would be necessary to deal with it, he begged to move that the parties who were agents of the lawyer in the country, who brought the action, should attend the House to-morrow; and he would follow that up by moving, that the party himself, the plaintiff, and the country attorney, should attend the House on some future day. He would then move, therefore— That Frederick Keddell, Thomas Baker, and Joseph Humphry Grant, of Lime Street, in the city of London, attorneys, do attend this House to-morrow.

Mr. Williams Wynn

thought parties were desirous of trying experiments in acts of contumacy; but before they proceeded further in this case, they ought to ascertain the facts as stated in the petition. There was no doubt of the respectability of the person petitioning; but it was necessary to prove that the action was brought on account of words spoken by a witness in the evidence given by him before a Committee of that House. Having this proved, they would have the choice of two courses—either immediately to pronounce this a breach of the privileges of the House, or to allow the action to proceed, and the defendant to plead the fact of a justification as an answer to the action. If a party should be proceeded against for words spoken in evidence given before Thomas Lord Denman, and twelve gentlemen, the action must proceed till the party justified the words as evidence given before the Court of Queen's Bench; so here, where the words were alleged to be spoken in Palace-yard, in the hearing of Mr. Bramston, the action must proceed till it was made to appear to the Court of Queen's Bench, that the words were spoken by a witness, in his evidence before a Committee of that House. There was no doubt, in this case, that the plaintiff could not stir without proving that the words spoken were in evidence given before a Committee of that House; and though the plaintiff might subpœna the shorthand writer to prove the words, the House would not allow him to attend. The House, however, ought to take the matter into their own hands, where any person acted contumaciously. The principal doubt was, whether they could inflict a sufficient punishment by imprisoning the party during the rest of the Session for such an offence. There were, however, cases in which the imprisonment had been prolonged by Motions made in the next Session.

Mr. Divett

observed, that the parties who were agents of the country attorneys were resident in London, and might be proceeded against directly. Mr. Parrott was then in attendance to give any evidence that might be required; and, as the time for pleading would expire to-morrow, the House was at least bound to guide him in the steps he should take.

Sir R. Peel

confessed, that he thought this a question of great importance. As he collected the facts, here was a gentleman called upon to give evidence before a Committee—not coming forward voluntarily — as to the medical relief afforded to the poor in the Union in which he was chairman of the Board of Guardians; he had been compelled to give evidence on a matter deeply affecting the medical treatment of the poor. It appeared, and the House had every right to assume, that this evidence was perfectly consistent with the truth. Although the subject was referred to vaguely, in the words of the petition, it appeared highly probable that the action was commenced for words spoken in the Committee, particularly as there was a reference to Mr. Bramston. But they might have been spoken in the lobby of the House, or in Palace-yard, when Mr. Bramston was present, and then Mr. Parrott would not be entitled to any protection. It was more probable that they were used in evidence before a Committee of that House, and that Mr. Bramston was on the Committee. If so, he could not conceive a stronger claim to the protection of that House. Presuming the evidence of the truth to be clear, so far as Mr. Parrott was concerned, he had a claim, in justice and in equity, to any protection which the House could give him; and, so far as the House of Commons was concerned, he could not conceive a more serious impeachment of its privileges. He thought they ought to consider well the course they should pursue. He would not be precluded by the course taken in the case of Mr. Howard, but take that which, after recent events, should appear to be upon the whole best. He thought they ought to require the presence of the principal parties, and inquire of them to see whether they could possibly say the words were spoken on any other occasion, and to inform the House whether the action was brought, as it was charged by Mr. Parrott, for expressions used in a Committee of that House. He thought it best in the first instance to have Mr. Phillips, the plaintiff, and his attorney, and the only question was whether they should have also the London agents, who were immediately accessible. With reference to the other question, what advice they should give Mr. Parrott, he could scarcely say. The hon. Gentleman had said it was necessary for Mr. Parrott to plead to-morrow, and they were suddenly called upon to decide, when it required a little time for consideration.

Mr. Divett

said, that Mr. Parrott might, by a summons before a Judge, obtain a short additional time to plead.

Sir G. Grey

said, that in the precedent quoted, the petition was not acted on by itself: it was referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which at that time was a Committee of the whole House, and they called upon John Huggins, who was employed as the attorney for the defendant, to substantiate the petition, and he laid the declaration before the House. The first step now was to call the attorney of Mr. Parrott, who would have a copy of the declaration, by which the House would become aware in a formal manner of the facts of the case. With regard to any advice the House should tender to Mr. Parrott, his case was different from that of an officer of the House, and he did not think they were called upon to advise him whether he should plead or not.

Mr. Warburton

thought the advice of the right hon. Gentleman the best that could be given. He agreed that the first person necessary was Mr. Parrott's attorney, to deliver in the declaration, and it was important also they should see that Mr. Parrott came before them with clean hands; and he declared in his petition that "he had never, upon any occasion, except that of giving his evidence before the said Committee, as aforesaid, spoken or published the words charged against him in the said declaration, or any words to the same or the like effect." And it was possible that the parties might know of this evidence independently of the Report of the Committee, or any information from any officer of the House. Mr. Parrott, it would be remembered, had come forward on the defensive, to justify the appointment of a medical officer, made by the board of guardians. The first thing, how- ever, would be to have the evidence of his attorney, and, as that gentleman was understood to be in waiting, he could at once be examined.

Mr. Wynn

observed, that the attorney might be examined for the purpose of information; but the House could not adjudicate upon the case until Mr. Phillips or his attorney had been brought to the bar, to admit or deny the charge.

The Motion of Mr. Divett

withdrawn; and on the Motion of the same hon. Member, it was ordered that Mr. Augustus Henry Moore do attend the House forthwith.

Mr. Moore accordingly appeared at the bar.

Examined by Mr. Speaker

I am a solicitor; I am agent for Jasper Parrott, Esq. I have not the declaration with me in the action "Phillips v. Parrott." [A paper was handed to the witness by Mr. Divett.] I have now a copy of it, made by my clerk, and compared by me with the original. I hand it in.

By Mr. D. Dundas

The declaration was delivered on the 26th of June, after I had left my office; I received it on going there the next morning, The time to plead will be out to-morrow.

By Mr. Divett

I can obtain from a Judge an order for time to plead, at all events for four or five days; but I shall be placed under terms to take short notice of trial. The commission-day is the 19th. The names endorsed on the declaration are "Keddell, Baker, and Grant, 34, Lime-street, agents for Edwards and Bryan, Totness, the plaintiff's attorneys."

By Mr. James S. Wortley

I received a communication made on the part of the plaintiff before this action was commenced, but it had no reference at all to an action. I have never received any demand for reparation. I was not aware for what the action was brought until I received the declaration.—Witness withdrew.

"Ordered— 'That David Phillips of Buckfastleigh, in the County of Devon, surgeon; Charles Edwards, and Theodore Bryett, of Totnes, in the County of Devon, attornies; Frederick Keddell, Thomas Baker, and Joseph Humphrey Grant, of Lime Street, in the City of London, attornies, do attend this House on Monday next.'"

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