HC Deb 23 May 1865 vol 179 cc785-7

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he rose to move the second reading of the Bill introduced by him to amend the law of libel. The time had, he believed, come when the law of libel should be so altered as to remove anomalies which he hoped to show existed in it. The subject was one that could be considered in the present day apart from party politics, because the time was long gone by when the law of libel was used as an engine to stifle opinion or urge party views. A Bill was introduced by Mr. Fox, which had become the Magna Charta of the press of this country. That Bill took away from the Judges the right of saying what was a libel and transferred it to the jury. Various unsuccessful at tempts were made between 1830 and 1837 to amend the law of libel, but nothing was done until 1843. In the year 1843 a Committee was appointed to consider the law as it then existed, and on their Report a Bill was introduced by Lord Campbell, and was known in the profession as "Lord Campbell's Act." It effected several beneficial alterations in the law, but it did not carry out all the Amendments which the noble and learned Lord wished to see adopted. In 1856 an action for libel was brought against the proprietor of a Durham newspaper, for publishing a speech delivered at a public meeting, and excited considerable attention. In consequence of the decision in that case, Lord Campbell introduced a second Bill, which did not pass. Several of its provisions were embodied in the present measure. As the law now stands, a party who considers himself libelled might proceed either by civil action or by indictment in a criminal court against the defendant. He had divided his Bill into two parts; the first related to criminal proceedings, and the second to civil proceedings, but he did not propose to interfere with the jurisdiction of the Queen's Bench in granting criminal informations in cases of libel. Criminal proceedings involved a stigma on the person charged, and a malicious person anxious to carry out malicious views might resort to criminal proceedings, whereby he closed the mouth of the defendant, who, if he could be examined, might be the only person who could speak to the truth or falsehood of the charge. The defendant had no right of challenge; the prosecutor had. It was a harassing mode of proceeding, and might be kept hanging over the head of a party for an indefinite period of time. It also involved the person proceeded against in a great expense. Often it had been made an engine of oppression. These were anomalies which ought no longer to exist. In Scotland there could be no private prosecution for libel. There the aggrieved party must proceed by civil action for damages, a course which, if adopted in this country, would give the defendant an opportunity of being heard in his own defence. He did not go so far as to propose the abolition of criminal prosecutions for libel, because there might be cases in which the proceeding by indictment was the preferable one. But he proposed this limitation, that no criminal prosecution for libel should be instituted without the consent of the Attorney or Solicitor General. He also proposed that in every prosecution for libel the defendant should be admissible as a witness. There was a Bill before the House for making this applicable to all cases; but in cases of libel such a provision was especially desirable, for the prosecutor had the power of instituting a civil proceeding, and he might adopt the criminal process merely for the malicious purpose of closing the defendant's mouth. So far with regard to proceeding by indictment or criminal information. With regard to civil proceeding, the main provision of the Bill was to make persons who delivered libellous speeches at public meetings where reporters were present, answerable to the party libelled—instead of the newspaper proprietors—as if they had written and published the libel themselves. There was a great distinction, as was well known, between the law of slander and the law of libel. He did not think that distinction ought to be allowed to continue in cases where a party made a libellous speech at a public meeting for the very purpose of publishing it to the world.


said, it had been suggested that it was very desirable, when an hon. Member was displeased with the state of the House, that he should rise in his place and publicly make that statement. He was displeased with the then appearance of the House, and he begged to call the Speaker's attention to the circumstance.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at a quarter before Ten o'clock till Thursday.