HC Deb 11 March 1859 vol 153 cc25-9

said, he rose to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland, whether there is any foundation for the statement which appeared in The Times, that letters from the persons accused of political offences in Ireland, to their professional agent, had been intercepted or delayed by the Government?


said, he would answer the second question first. It was one of great importance, for nothing could be more improper or unfortunate than that any impediment should be thrown by prison authorities in the way of persons who were awaiting their trial, communicating in the most free, unrestricted, and confidential manner, with their legal advisers. He could assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that in this case nothing of the kind had taken place; and, if the House would permit him, he would read one or two documents, which would show exactly what had happened. The by-law in force in Cork gaol, relating to the inspection of prisoners' letters, was couched in the following terms:— All letters or parcels to or from a prisoner must be inspected by the Governor, who shall forward or keep the same according to the nature of their contents. He found that the regulations adopted in English prisons, were still more strict, and provided that no letters, addressed even to a legal adviser, should be sent out of the prison without being inspected by the Governor. The English rule was— Prisoners under examination, or committed for trial, are to be allowed to deliver personally to their legal advisers (such being certified attorneys), or their authorized clerks, any confidential written communications prepared as instructions for their defence, without being previously examined by any officer of the prison; but all such written communications, not personally delivered to the legal adviser or his clerk, are to be considered as letters, and are not be sent out of the prison without being previously inspected by the Governor. According to the general regulations for prison discipline, then, all letters addressed to, or sent by, any prisoner awaiting trial, or after conviction, might be inspected by the Governor. The subject to which the hon. and learned Gentleman had called attention, was first brought under his (Lord Naas's) notice, by the following letter, which he received on Monday from Mr. M'Carthy Downing, the solicitor for the defence of the prisoners:— I have the honour of enclosing, for your Lordship's perusal, a copy of a letter which I this day addressed to the Governor of the gaol of the county of Cork, and as the agent of those young men, I respectfully ask your Lordship to communicate to that gentleman by telegraph, that all communications from me to the prisoners, and from them to me, shall be delivered unopened by him, or any one else, otherwise, my Lord, my determination is to abandon the defence, unless my counsel are of opinion that such a course, even under such unprecedented circumstances, is not open to me. May I ask the favour of your Lordship's reply by Monday's post, directed to Tralee, care of Joseph O'Riordan, Esq.? The moment he (Lord Naas) received that communication, he immediatly sent the following telegraphic message to Colonel Larcom, the Under-Secretary, at Dublin:— Mr. Downing's request should be complied with. Telegraph to Governor of Cork Gaol, and write to Downing by to-night's post, stating that you had telegraphed to me, and that I had at once answered in the affirmative. Mr. Downing had, however, in the meantime made a communication to the Governor of the Cork gaol, and he was immediately informed by the Governor, that his request would be complied with, and that any communications he might make to the prisoners, or which they might make to him, should not be subject to the ordinary prison rules, but should be delivered unopened, and without being submitted to the usual inspection. In order that there might be no misunderstanding on the subject, Colonel Larcom, on the 7th of March, addressed by telegraph, the following communication to Mr. Downing:— I am directed by the Lord Lieutenant to inform you that your letter of the 5th instant to Lord Naas was forwarded yesterday to London, and a telegram has been this day received from his Lordship, desiring that directions should be given to the Governor of Cork County Gaol to forward, unopened, all letters on legal business to and from the prisoners charged with being members of an illegal society. A letter has this day been received from the Governor of the gaol, enclosing a copy of his correspondence with you, from which his Excellency learns with satisfaction that the course indicated above has already been adopted. And his Excellency's approval of that course has been communicated by this day's post to the Governor. It would be seen, therefore, that under the peculiar circumstances of the case the ordinary prison rules had been waived, so that all communications between Mr. Downing and his clients might be conducted confidentially on the subject of the prisoners' defence.

With regard to the question that had been put to him by the hon. and learned Member for Ennis, (Mr. J. D. FitzGerald) he was afraid he could only return the same answer he had given to a similar question last Tuesday. He thought, however, (hat the hon. Gentleman made a somewhat extraordinary statement when he said that there was any compact entered into last year with regard to the appointment of the third Judge of the Landed Estates Court. He (Lord Naas) was present during the whole of the debate on that subject, and he certainly never heard that any such understanding was entered into. If there was any understanding at all, it was that the Court should for the future consist of three Judges; and the hon. and learned Gentleman himself, in the speech he made on that occasion, expressed a very strong opinion as to the advisability of retaining the three Judges in the Court. The hon. and learned Gentleman said— If this Commissioner was to be superseded, he ought to retire upon his full salary; but he must be permitted to add that it appeared to him most unwise to reduce the number of Judges at the very time when the proposed alterations would obviously have the effect of materially adding to the business of the Court. The Government originally proposed that the Court should consist of two Judges only, but the opinion of the House appeared to be so decidedly expressed in favour of three, that the point was given up by the Attorney General, and the number of Judges was fixed by the Bill accordingly. The hon. and learned Gentleman had said that the business of the Court had not increased, but he seemed entirely to forget that the rules under which the new procedure was established were only published at the end of last October, that the return which had been made was dated early in February, and that it therefore only refers to the proceedings of the Court during three months, which afforded no criterion of the business which was likely hereafter to be thrown into the Court. It was, however, clear that the public were not yet in a position to take full advantage of the Court. The new rules of procedure were not generally known, and it was impossible at this moment to form a judgment as to the ultimate result from the proceedings of two months, while the Court was, so to speak, in its infancy. He could only say, in reply to the question of the hon. and learned Gentleman, that no decision had yet been come to by Her Majesty's Government; and that no appointment had yet been made. The whole question was still under consideration, and he could assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that in arriving at a decision the Government would only be influenced by regard for the interest of the public service and the future good working of this important Court.