HC Deb 04 February 1848 vol 96 cc80-2

On the question that the Order of the Day for resuming the Adjourned Debate be read,


said, he would take the opportunity of putting a question to the right hon. Home Secretary, on a subject which he thought the House would deem important, as it involved considerations of justice as well as the interests of many hon. Gentlemen who were Members of that House. He wished to ask whether it was the intention of the right hon. Baronet to bring in any Bill to amend the present law with regard to the trial of election petitions? Many hon. Members of that House had been and others might be subjected to great hardship by having petitions presented against their return, and by finding, when it had been proved that the petitions were not well grounded, that they were still liable to bear the expenses of defending their seats. It was true that Election Committees had the power of deciding that petitions were frivolous and vexatious; but it was perfectly well known that they rarely did so unless in very strong cases; and it often happened that when hon. Members who had been petitioned against were declared to have been properly returned—when it was clear that they had justice on their side—they were still saddled with very considerable expenses. There was another point connected with the trial of election petitions which he considered deserved attention. A Member who was petitioned against was totally ignorant in what order the charges made against him by the petitioners would be proceeded with before the Committee; and it was, therefore, impossible for him to have those witnesses present who might be essentially necessary to meet any particular charge; and the adjournment of the Committee, to enable him to obtain the attendance of the requisite witnesses, was attended with great expense. He thought it only just that in these Committees the same principle should be followed which was adopted in every court of law—that a party placed upon his trial should be distinctly informed in what order the charges would be made against him, and by what testimony they were to be supported. He trusted that these matters would receive the consideration of the Government, and that they would propose some alteration of the existing system, which was fraught with very great injustice to hon. Gentlemen against whose return petitions might be presented.


was not able to state that it was the intention of the Government to bring in any Bill to amend the law relating to the trial of election petitions, with regard to the points to which the hon. Member had referred. The hon. Gentleman had complained of the practice with reference to awarding costs in case of the failure of a petition. Now, he did not think it would be possible to deprive Election Committees of all discretion in the matter. There was now a discretion vested in them; and if the party in whose favour a decision was given applied to the Committee for costs, it was in their power to grant costs if they conceived the circumstances warranted them in doing so. But it would be impossible to provide by Act of Parliament that whichever party succeeded in obtaining the decision of the Committee should be reimbursed the whole of the costs he had incurred, for such a provision would be productive of greater inconvenience than the present practice. He believed the reason that Election Committees so seldom made orders for the payment of costs was, because they were very seldom applied for. The proceedings before those Committees were frequently very protracted, and when a party found that he was not likely to gain the object with which he prosecuted a petition, he believed it was the practice to give an intimation to the other side, and the petitioner retired from the contest on a sort of understanding that no application was to be made for costs. Under such circumstances, the party petitioned against was generally too happy to find that the opposition to his return was withdrawn, for it was more economical to terminate the contest in this manner than to carry it on for several days longer, in uncertainty as to its ultimate result, He did not think, therefore, that the law on this subject could be altered with any advantage. The hon. Member for Bridport had also referred to the inconvenience arising to a sitting Member who was petitioned against, from his not knowing in what order the objections made to his return would be proceeded with. It was provided by Act of Parliament that lists of the voters intended to be objected to, in the case of a scrutiny, should be delivered by the petitioners to the Election Committee, and that these lists should be accompanied by a general statement of the heads of objection; but he did not think it would be right to compel parties to state the order in which they intended to proceed with those objections. They ought not to compel parties to go on with a charge of bribery, when they considered that there was no charge of bribery which they would be able to substantiate, and when the real ground of objection upon which they intended to proceed was of another character. He (Sir G. Grey) thought, however, that it might be advantageous if the chairmen of Election Committees, following the example of the chairmen of Railway Committees, would draw up a series of rules for the adoption of the Committees over whom they might be called upon to preside, with a view to obviate unnecessary inconvenience and expense, and communicate those rules to the agents of parties who might conic before them. He certainly did not consider that it was the province of the Government to propose any Bill on the subject.

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