HC Deb 09 May 1873 vol 215 cc1763-70

in rising to call attention to the case of George White-foot, lately sentenced to a month's imprisonment for laughing before the bench of magistrates at Shifnal, Salop, said, the statement appeared in various newspapers a fortnight ago, calling forth much criticism and a good deal of indignation, and, if the fact was true, he thought hon. Members would agree with him that a very impolitic, and probably an illegal, act had been committed. At any rate, the judgment was most impolitic and much to be regretted, for it was of great importance not only that justice should be fairly administered, but tempered with mercy; and that more especially, where the party administering the law was dealing with a class not his own. He thought, then, that he was in no degree exceeding his privilege as a Member of Parliament, when he ventured to ask the Home Secretary whether the case had been brought under his notice, and what course he was disposed to take in regard to it? He had reason afterwards to believe that another hon. Member had previously made a similar application, and the right hon. Gentleman had addressed himself to the bench of magistrates to ascertain whether they had acted with "their usual virtue and discretion." The magistrates no doubt answered that they always did act with due discretion, but that on this occasion they had even exceeded themselves both in virtue and discretion. The right hon. Gentleman had rolled that answer up into the consistency of a bullet and discharged it at his head. The magistrates were not discreet enough to content themselves with saying that the man who was condemned for being drunk had been guilty of something like contempt of Court; it did not appear whether they went so far as to deny altogether that there was any laughing in Court; but they distinctly said there was no re-call of the prisoner, and no second sentence. The man had been condemned at the first to one month's imprisonment; not to the payment of a fine, because it would be paid out of the earnings of his mother. He felt that the good nature of the right hon. Gentleman had been imposed upon, and that his popularity in that part of the country would be endangered by the extreme facility with which he had swallowed this most improbable story, amounting to the invention of a whole romance by the reporters for the Press, which should have been recommended to the consideration of that body traditionally notorious for their credulity—the Marines. He therefore resolved to interpose for the right hon. Gentleman's protection, and, applying a large phrase to a small question, to send down a "Special Commissioner" to the disturbed district, who might obtain the real facts on the spot. He would now state them to the House. The hon. Member then proceeded to read a letter from a gentleman of the neighbourhood, a member of the school board, who filled several important local offices, to the effect that he knew Whitefoot well; that he had been twice before the magistrates; that he was summoned before them in March last, and that instead of attending he sent his mother, whom, although it was a common practice in that Court for relatives to appear, the magistrates would not hear in his absence. However, since the death of his father he had become a steady fellow; and on the day in question, expecting to be heavily fined, Whitefoot was so much pleased at being only condemned to pay 30s. and costs that he smiled at his brother, upon which Colonel Slaney called him back and said—"You are treating the Court with contempt; I will see if we cannot send you to gaol for six months." That, however, he found they could not do, but they sent him to gaol for one month with hard labour. The hon. Member then read a statement from Mr. James Turner, the reporter to The Shrewsbury Chronicle, to the effect that Whitefoot smiled—not at his mother—but at his brother. He also read the statement of the mother to the same effect, and that the money was the son's, as she lived on his earnings; and he likewise read the statements of two gentlemen of the neighbourhood that the man only smiled at his brother. There was no charge more frequently made against Members of this side of the House than that they were continually setting class against class. But bethought nothing they could say or do could have a more decided tendency to produce that result than such a judgment as this. It had every bad element of classism. In the first place there was the great positive severity of the first punishment. If one of themselves played the fool and made night hideous in the Haymarket, they were not mulcted of a twentieth or a thirtieth part of their income. Still less were they sent to gaol if they smiled as they paid the fine. Then, secondly, the class assumption involved in sending a man to gaol because he laughed, or was supposed to laugh. They were told, the hon. Member proceeded to say, that a cat might look at a king; but it appeared that a labouring man should think twice before he smiled in the face of such a mighty man as a county magistrate. But last, and worst of all, what was the moral of this case to the sufferers under such harsh and unjust decisions? What could it be but of their hopeless helplessness under the infliction? When a case of this kind happened, which got into the papers—and there was some troublesome Member of Parliament who gave Notice of his intention to ask the Home Secretary a Question regarding it—the magistrates concerned had nothing to do but to draw up an inaccuracy, and it would be swallowed by the official mind, and be applauded to the echo by hon. Gentlemen opposite. In this instance, the result was, that the feeling of the neighbourhood was one rather of disgust than astonishment, because they regarded what had been done in this case as characteristic. Those on that—the Ministerial—side of the House were frequently charged with setting class against class, but nothing could have a greater tendency to produce that result than such a case as he had stated. He hail done his duty, painful though it was, in bringing the matter forward, and he now left it to the Government and to the wholesome influence of public opinion.


said, he had received very many letters, all confirming the original statement which he had made, that there had in this case been a miscarriage of justice. And not only that, but the Press of the Metropolis and of Birmingham had taken the matter up and cited it as an instance of "Justices' justice." The ease was a very painful one, one that had created a very deep and painful feeling throughout the county of Shropshire, and one which was not at all creditable to the magistracy of this country. He did not blame the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, who had stated only what had been put into his mouth; but he would beg of him to make further inquiry.


regretted it had become his duty to address the House on this subject instead of the Home Secretary, for by the rules of debate the Home Secretary, having spoken on the Motion before the House, could not reply to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), and therefore it was that he (the Attorney General) had undertaken to do so. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Leicester, moreover, had declined to accede to his right hon. Friend's request to postpone the Question until an occasion when the Rules of the House would permit the Home Secretary to reply himself; but the House would no doubt bear with him although he failed to speak with the authority of his right hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Leicester had said he was discharging a painful duty in bringing forward this matter. Some men possessed great power of concealing their feelings, and apparently the hon. Member was one of them, for he had succeeded admirably. The hon. Member had spoken of the Home Secretary as prone to believe improbable stories, but really there seemed to be no story reflecting on the magistracy, however improbable, which the hon. Member would not credit. It would have been better if the hon. Gentleman, instead of dealing in strong insinuations, had studied the facts. He ought to have known that the Home Secretary was not the constitutional superior of the magistrates, but that the Lord Chancellor was, and all that the Home Secretary undertook to do was not to defend the magistrates from attacks made upon them, but, as the organ of that House and as a matter of courtesy, to receive what answers the magistrates charged had to make, and communicate it to the House. The Lord Chancellor being entrusted with the power of appointing magistrates, it was to hint that recourse should be had whenever there was a case of gross misconduct on the part of magistrates that called for his interference. A complete review of the facts, too, would show that a great deal had been made of a very little, and that the errors which had been committed were trifling, and had not been committed by the magistrates. The young man White-foot was described by the hon. Member as being gifted with qualities seldom found united in the same person—as a decent and tidy fellow who occasionally got mad with drink; and he had been four times before the magistrates in consequence of having got mad with drink. [Mr. P. A. TAYLOR: In four years.] He did not know whether the hon. Member thought a decent and tidy fellow might reasonably be expected to get mad with drink once a-year, but, however that might be, Whitefoot, it appeared, had been from time to time fined by the magistrates for being mad with drink. It appeared, also, that his mother had paid the fines, but it was now ascertained that the money the mother paid was first handed to her by Whitefoot. The magistrates, however, could not be blamed for supposing that the person who actually tendered the money was the person who paid the fine. There appeared to have been a little reticence on both sides in this matter. The information furnished to the Home Secretary had not been as full as it should have been; but, on the other hand, the newspaper writer who had inspired the hon. Member had indulged in the artistic style which some of those writers affect, and in a very luminous and striking paragraph had omitted the fact that this young man had been from time to time mad with drink, and had been taken up and fined. Nobody who read the statement in the newspaper would suspect that this decent and tidy young man had been dealt with before, but would assuredly believe he had been atrociously treated in this instance. On the first occasion upon which he was brought up he was described as having been wild with drink, but the writer went on to observe that though a cat might look at a king this youth might not look at Colonel Slaney. That was all very well as a piece of smart writing; but in this case it was not unfair to observe that the cat certainly seemed to have been a wild cat. Upon the Home Secretary applying to the justices for information on the subject of the hon. Member's question, the following reply was received on the 26th of April— I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 23rd inst., calling for the opinion and observations of the committing magistrates in the case of George Whitefoot, and to inform you that he was not sentenced to a month's imprisonment for contempt of Court, but upon a charge fully proved against him of being drunk and riotous on a highway. George Whitefoot had on several previous occasions been convicted and punished by fine for similar conduct, and his demeanour in the Court of Petty Sessions fully satisfied the justices that no fine they could inflict upon him would be any punishment, as it would be paid, as heretofore, by his widowed mother, who is little able to afford it. His right hon. Friend was justified in assuming from this that the sentence was a single sentence upon a single offence. When the Home Secretary found the subject was to be discussed that night, a suspicion appeared to have crossed his mind that he had not been put in possession of all the facts, and he telegraphed for fuller information. The following reply was received— I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your telegram, and, in reply, I have to inform you that the charge 'drunk and riotous' having been proved against George Whitefoot, the bench, with some hesitation, in consequence of the previous convictions recorded against him, imposed a penalty of 30s. and costs. His widowed mother producing the money, the prisoner showed by the levity of his behaviour that the fine imposed was no punishment to him. The bench instantly rescinded their decision, and desired him to await their further consideration. After deliberation, and before entering upon any other business, the bench committed him for one month's imprisonment. He (the Attorney General) withheld the name of the writer because he considered that these two communications were not creditable to him. His right hon. Friend was in the hands of those of whom he asked information, but it was plain that although the first answer might be true by the card, it was not true in spirit, and his right hon. Friend was naturally misled by it when answering the hon. Member. It was also due to those who had espoused the cause of Whitefoot to say that the second communication put a different colour on the case. It was only fair to separate the magistrates from the writer of those letters. It was not his business, or the business of anyone, to say more. He did not suppose that the magistrates had any intention whatever to mislead the right hon. Gentleman. The facts were before them, but they were not candidly represented by the writer of the letter, and under the Licensing Act they had a perfect right to do what they did, Section 12 leaving it to their discretion to inflict either a fine or a month's imprisonment. In their opinion, a fine was not an adequate punishment under the circumstances, and they did what was not an uncommon thing—something passed which at the last moment induced the Court to alter the original sentence and pass another. At any rate, the punishment inflicted was within the law; and though magistrates did go wrong sometimes, and, like other people, had their feelings and might sometimes inflict punishments which were too severe, still in the main they did their duty and meant to do their duty; and the hon. Member might rest assured that, by taking up cases of small importance in an exaggerated spirit, a re-action was produced in every fair mind, which only did mischief to the cause of fairness and justice, which no doubt the hon. Member, in common with himself (the Attorney General) had sincerely at heart.


in justifying the magistrates, said, that they had not acted from the motives which seemed to be imputed to them by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), and it was most mischievous to hold up the administrators of the law to ridicule and contempt. From what the magistrates had told him, he was satisfied they only acted for the best in the interests of justice in the neighbourhood, and in the interests even of the young man himself, for a punishment like that they inflicted was far more likely to bring him to his senses than a mere fine.


thought that when one sentence had been passed upon a poor man, and another and heavier one was substituted for it on account of some supposed levity shown by him, that was the way to set class against class. The case was a serious one, and the Home Secretary, in the answer he gave to a Question put on a former occasion, had misled the House on the subject, though quite unintentionally. Therefore, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would thoroughly investigate the circumstances under which he had been misled into giving the answer he had.


said, there was no evidence to show that the additional sentence was imposed upon the prisoner for levity, and there was quite as much reason for supposing that he was im- prisoned because the money was paid by the mother, and not by the prisoner. At the same time, while giving the magistrates in this case every credit for acting honestly in the discharge of their duty, he thought it undesirable that when one sentence was passed it should be altered for another of greater severity.


said, that in his experience sentences were often altered by Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, and by Judges. The magistrates acted entirely within their power here in sentencing the man to a month's imprisonment.


said, no one disputed the right of magistrates or of any Judge in a Criminal Court to alter, for good cause appearing at the time, the sentence passed on a prisoner; but as to the sentence of which the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor) complained, a more injudicious—he was about to say a more cruel—sentence he had never heard of. Because the man, having been fined for being drunk, smiled when his mother handed him money to pay the fine, he was sentenced to a whole month's imprisonment—a sentence which he had often seen inflicted at Quarter Sessions for much more serious offences. He was pained at the tone of the Attorney General's speech, and thought that there was no foundation for imputing to his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester in bringing forward this question, the desire to set class against class.