HC Deb 29 July 1868 vol 193 cc1929-33

said, he rose to move for a Copy of the Proceedings taken in the case of Mr. Leonard Edmunds. He would, remind the House that some few years; ago the country was startled by the statement that certain irregularities of a serious nature had occurred in the Patent Office, with which Mr. Edmunds was connected. A Commission of Inquiry was appointed by Lord Westbury, who was at that time Lord Chancellor, The result was that two Reports were published, the last of them dated January, 1865. These Reports disclosed some extraordinary matters—matters which excited great attention in both Houses of Parliament, and throughout the country. The gravest charges, such as peculation, embezzlement, gross dishonesty, wilful falsification of accounts, and many other acts of a like nature were brought against Mr. Edmunds, and in connection with the Suitors' Fund, with which he was said to have meddled, he was branded as a defaulter. Not only was he driven from his office, but he was also deprived of a pension which a Commission of the House of Lords had assigned to him on account of his resignation of his appointment as reading clerk in that House, and, thus broken down, he was thrown upon society with a tarnished reputation. But the case did not stop there. The Government which was at that time in power, and no doubt rightly enough, believed that such, offences in a public servant as those which Mr. Edmunds was alleged to have committed could not be overlooked, and, though his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir Roundell Palmer) stated that it was not thought advisable to take criminal proceedings against him, civil proceedings were instituted, and very properly so, to recover the balance in which he was alleged to have been deficient. In the first instance, proceedings were taken in the Court of Exchequer, which was supposed to be the proper tribunal, but subsequently they were shifted to the Court of Chancery, and the proceedings in the Court of Exchequer were abandoned. The information in the Court of Chancery was not filed until eighteen months after the Report had been made by the Commissioners, and the answer of Mr. Edmunds, which was not excepted to, and which, in reality, constituted the evidence in the case, was filed in the month of December, 1866. It was not, however, till three years after the last Report of the Commissioners had been made that the proceedings in the case were brought to maturity. During all this time Mr. Edmunds had been deprived of his pension, and, though he (Mr. Bentinck) did not find fault with the Law Officers of the Crown for what had been done, he could not help thinking that a great hardship had been inflicted upon Mr. Edmunds by the removal of the proceedings from the Court of Exchequer to the Court of Chancery, and by his being subjected, as he had been, to an expense of no less than £2,000. When the information was heard every effort was made by the Government to secure a hearing of their case. His hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General appeared by virtue of his office to lead the case, and with him was his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, the leader of the Chancery Bar, and one of the ablest advocates that ever practised in the Court of Chancery. Indeed, in this case it might be said that the Crown had everything, and Mr. Edmunds next to nothing. The case was heard by Vice Chancellor Giffard—and an abler lawyer or a Judge more endowed with good sound common sense never adorned the Bench in this country. He would trouble the House with a portion of the judgment delivered by Vice Chancellor Giffard. The Vice Chancellor said— In one respect I am happy to say that the arguments and the evidence adduced on behalf of Mr. Edmunds have been successful—that is to say, they have been successful in clearing his character from all imputation. They have satisfied me that his liability, whatever it may be, is a liability from mistake—mistake under circumstances of very considerable difficulty, brought about in some respects because he could not obtain the audits which he asked for, I think, in 1834, and subsequently in 1832 or 1853, and brought about also by what is a most unfortunate Act of Parliament, which was passed with reference to a given state of circumstances, when, in point of fact, these circumstances changed very materially afterwards. Then the learned Vice Chancellor concluded his judgment as follows:— Having made that preface, I may add that it is not without regret that I have come to this conclusion that in other respects the arguments which have been adduced on behalf of the defendant arc not successful. I think there is jurisdiction in this Court. I think that the direction asked with reference to stamps must be given in the form which I will presently state. I must also declare that he is not entitled to make any deduction whatever for or in respect of the parchment used in the preparation or engrossment of any document issued by him as Clerk of the Patents, or from the office of Clerk of the Patents, or any other deduction whatsoever, in respect of the preparation and engrossment of any such document. It is with regret that I find myself compelled by the terms of the Act of Parliament to make that last declaration. I repeat, as I said at the outset, that I think the defendant's evidence has removed any imputation that can be justly or fairly cast upon his character, and, having regard to all the circumstamces, the very difficult position in which he was placed and the fact of the audits being refused, I certainly shall not make him pay any costs. A more complete refutation of the charges made against Mr. Edmunds he could not conceive. He now desired to know, therefore, what course the Government proposed to take in this matter. It was quite clear that after what had occurred the case of Mr. Edmunds could not stop in the position it now was, and if he had the honour of a seat in the next Parliament he should certainly move the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry into the whole of the circumstances. In any case he trusted that, having regard to the accusations which were brought against Mr. Edmunds and the decision of the Vice Chancellor, his hon. and learned Friend would exercise what he (Mr. Bentinck) believed would prove a wise discretion, and advise the Government to stop all Chancery proceedings hereafter, and not subject Mr. Edmunds to any of those vexatious proceedings from which he had already suffered so much. There was a point in connection with the decree of the Vice Chancellor which affected Mr. Edmunds very materially. The decree referred to points connected with charges of 12s. 10d. for engrossments. The matter he believed might now be fairly referred to arbitration. Indeed, this course was suggested by the late Attorney General, Sir John Holt, in a letter dated the 23rd of January, 1867, in which he proposed to refer the case to a legal arbitrator, for— A full and complete investigation of the accounts, and also Mr. Edmunds' claims against the Crown arising upon the accounts; stating further that— The Crown would not put Mr. Edmunds to the expense and delay of instituting a cross proceeding for enforcing his claims, but would consent to the arbitrator disposing of the whole question without any such proceeding. Mr. Edmunds was perfectly willing that that course should be taken. It might perhaps be objected that the offer of arbitration having been once made and refused the matter was now closed. But it should be remembered that the offer was refused at the time when Mr. Edmunds' character had not been cleared, and that if he had then accepted it he could not have obtained that full and complete vindication of his conduct which he had since done. He should now leave the matter in the hands of the Government, simply observing that he had endeavoured in dealing with the subject to avoid all matters of a personal nature.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there be laid before this House, a Copy of all the Proceedings and Evidence in the Information in Chancery, Attorney General v. Edmunds; together with the Papers relating to the Patent Office Inquiry."—(Mr. Bentinck.)


The hon. Member who has brought forward this Motion having more than once referred to me, perhaps it may be convenient that I should say a few words on the part of the case in connection with which that reference has been made. My hon. Friend has correctly read, as far as my recollection goes, the passages of the judgment of the Vice Chancellor, which he was anxious to bring under the notice of the House; but my hon. Friend has asked for Papers which I think it would be altogether out of the ordinary course to print at the public expense. I may, however, observe that in those Papers no charge of defalcation or fraud was made against Mr. Edmunds. He was charged simply with being a debtor to the Crown; and the information asked that an account might be taken. It was a mere statement that Mr. Edmunds had held an appointment under the Crown, and that, while holding that appointment, he became a debtor to the Crown. On that information a decree was subsequently granted. I do not mean to say anything about the other part of the proceedings taken on the advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir Roundell Palmer); but I believe there were ample reasons why this information should have been, as it was, filed in the Court of Chancery instead of the Court of Exchequer. In the Court of Chancery there is a better machinery for the investigation of complicated accounts. The information stated two items—one a deduction made by Mr. Edmunds for discount upon stamps, and the other a deduction of 12s. 10d. from the fees on patents, this latter deduction being made for each skin of parchment. The issue was whether Mr. Edmunds was right in making those deductions before paying the money over to the Crown. The Vice Chancellor held that he was not. I am glad my hon. Friend has read to the House that passage in the judgment of his Honour which states that Mr. Edmunds had a duty to discharge under an Act of Parliament which it was difficult to construe, and that he erred, not through fraud, but through a mistake. Now, as far as I understand my hon. Friend, he asks this question—"What advice does the Attorney General intend to give to the Government in reference to the Papers which Mr. Edmunds has laid before the Government." I admit that those Papers have been laid before me for my advice. The hon. Member, speaking irresponsibly, or simply upon his responsibility as a Member of this House, has been good enough to tell me what advice I ought to give to the Government; but for myself I can only say that the Papers are now under my consideration, and that my advice will be given in a few days. The House must see that it would be highly inconvenient if I were now to state to the House what advice I shall give—whether I shall advise the Government in favour of arbitration, or for having the account taken through the medium of the Court of Chancery. I have taken the matter into consideration without any prejudice, and I hope I shall, with fairness, advise the Government as to the best course to adopt, having regard to the public interests, and, I will add, having regard also to the interests of Mr. Edmunds.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at a quarter after, Five o'clock till Friday.