HC Deb 12 May 1874 vol 219 cc201-5

rose to move that a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report to this House as to— The circumstances set forth in Petitions from the Electors and others of the City of Peterborough, on the 31st day of March and on the 24th day of April last, in relation to the fine and imprisonment of Mr. Whalley, a Member of this House, and others, for Contempt of Court, by the Court of Queens Bench; and whether any and what steps are requisite or expedient for defining or restraining the exercise of the powers assumed by Courts of Justice to inflict fine and imprisonment without trial by jury. The hon. Member said, that the Petition, which was presented on the 31st of March, was signed by 1,658 persons, all with a few exceptions being electors of Peterborough; consequently as the number of signatures exceeded by above 500 those who recorded their votes for him at the recent election, it was obvious that it was not on personal grounds that they thus approached that House—the prayer of these Petitioners being that the circumstances under which he (Mr. Whalley) was fined and imprisoned be fully inquired into, and the authority and power of the Court of Queen's Bench or other Courts of Judicature to fine or imprison without trial by jury be so defined and restricted as to protect the liberty of Her Majesty's subjects and the right of freedom of speech and writing. This Petition was presented on the same day that the Committee of Privilege which had been appointed on the Motion of the Prime Minister made their Report, and was therefore not in time to be brought under their consideration. It was possible that if a Petition so signed had been brought before that Committee they might have been induced to enter into the circumstances under which the Court of Queen's Bench had in his case inflicted fine and imprisonment; but there were many reasons why, although that Committee did not think fit to enter into those circumstances, there should now be a further inquiry. The reference to that Committee was merely as to whether the Letter which had been addressed by the Lord Chief Justice to the Speaker, and by him read to the House, demanded further notice, and it was not incumbent on them nor, as they considered, were they called on to enter into any other circumstances than those which were set forth in that Letter. He had himself made no complaint of any Breach of Privilege, for the transaction had not in any way interfered with his attendance to his duties in that House; and having occurred in a previous Parliament, the Committee found in all these features a distinction between this case and those which were quoted in the Letter of the Lord Chief Justice—the cases of Mr. Lechmere Charlton and Mr. Long Wellesley. But because the Committee had not deemed it requisite to go into the circumstances so far as they related to the Privileges of that House, it did not follow that no inquiry thereon should take place; on the contrary, he submitted that the attention of the House was by this Committee distinctly directed to those circumstances by their publishing with their Report a written statement thereof, read to them by himself. In referring in their Report to this statement, they pointed out that notwithstanding that it was not relevant to the inquiry to which by the terms of reference they were restricted, they thought it right to publish it; and he was himself fully aware of that fact, and called their attention to it. He submitted that their having thus published his statement was in effect to call the attention of the House thereto. The House, therefore, had before it that statement, and he was prepared to accept the responsibility of every part of it. The House had also before it, as printed by the Petition Committee, the grounds on which his constituents demanded on their own behalf this further inquiry; and as to the statements contained in that Petition he also accepted the full responsibility of establishing every allegation therein. He had also to call the special attention of the House to a second Petition from his constituents, referred to in his Notice as having been presented on the 24th of April. This Petition was signed by only 12 of his constituents; but they acted in the character of a committee appointed by their fellow-citizens, and they were so appointed unanimously at a public meeting, and their action had been approved, also unanimously at several public meetings. The prayer of this second Petition was as followed:— That inasmuch as the foregoing matters were deemed irrelevant to the question of privilege, your honourahle House will be pleased to cause further inquiry to be made as to the circumstances of Mr. Whalley's fine and imprisonment, with a view to such redress and to such protection against the wrongful exercise of authority under the plea of contempt of Court as to your honourable House may seem to be called for.


rose to Order. He submitted that as on the previous day the hon. Gentleman had expressed a desire, in deference to the opinion of the hon. Member for Walsall (Sir Charles Forster), Chairman of the Committee on Petitions, to withdraw that Petition, it was not now open to him to comment upon it.


The Petition was duly presented to the House, and was ordered to lie upon the Table in the usual manner. The document, having once been laid upon the Table of the House, could not be withdrawn without the formal sanction of the House. The hon. Member is, therefore, quite in Order in referring to it.


This second Petition had not been printed, and he therefore gave Notice to move the House that it should be, with a view to support the present Motion. His hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, the Chairman of the Petitions Committee, was good enough to call his attention to the paragraphs in this Petition, which in the opinion of the Committee, and according to their rules, prevented them from ordering it to be printed; and he considered it to be due to the Committee and to the House not to press his Motion for the publication of this Petition by printing it until the opportunity should have been afforded of proving or justifying its statements. Those paragraphs, however, presented, as it seemed to him, some of the grounds on which the inquiry that he asked was requisite; and it was therefore necessary that he should read them to the House. And in doing so, he begged to state that he accepted the full responsibility of justifying them, and of proving them, so far as concerned the facts stated therein. One of those paragraphs was as follows— That your Petitioners humbly submit that such fine and imprisonment is totally at variance with the law and Constitution of this country, and an assumption of authority by the Court wholly in excess of any authority possessed by them under the plea of contempt of Court or otherwise, and that the conduct of the Judges in that respect does demand the attention of your honourable House as a gross and unwarrantable violation of the law, by which no man can be fined or imprisoned without trial by jury. Another paragraph, which appeared to the Committee to preclude publication, ran as followed— That Mr. Whalley did further, in the statement so published by the Committee of your honourable House, allege as the fact was that the Lord Chief Justice had himself taken such action and exercised such influence against the defendant in the Tichborne case as had called forth declarations and public protest in open Court by the defendant that the Lord Chief Justice was thereby disqualified, according to the usages of the Bench, to preside as one of the Judges on his trial, and that such declaration by the said defendant was not noticed by the Court when it was so made, or at any other time, otherwise than that he, the said defendant, was, by Mr. Justice Blackburn, who presided on that occasion, complimented on the propriety of his defence, and your petitioners humbly submit that, as well with reference to the complaint thus publicly made of partiality and prejudice on the part of the Lord Chief Justice against the said defendant, as of the other allegations made by Mr. Whalley in the statement so published by your Committee, the verdict of the Lord Chief Justice does demand the attention of your honourable House, and especially in respect of the exercise of authority in other cases besides that of Mr. Whalley of fine and imprisonment under the plea or pretence of contempt of Court, whereby all public discussion, either by speech or writing, was completely suppressed for more than a year in relation to the said trial, and the defendant was thereby deprived of the means of obtaining money necessary for his defence, and that about 200 witnesses, who but for want of money to pay expenses would have given evidence on his behalf, did not do so; and in other respects the defendant was thereby deprived by such unauthorized exercise of the power of fine and imprisonment for contempt of Court of a fair trial. Such were the two paragraphs to which his attention had been drawn on reading this Petition of his constituents, not suitable for publication by the order of this House; and it might be quite right that such grave statements, and to some extent personal charges, should not be so published unless those who made them showed that they were justified, and especially until those who were affected thereby should have the opportunity of replying to and refuting them. As to establishing those statements and charges, he should not have presented this Petition, and still less have now read it to the House, did he not believe that he was in a position, on the part of those petitioners, fully to substantiate each part of their statement; and he ventured with the utmost confidence to state that if this Committee were granted, he should be able to do so. As to the Lord Chief Justice, of whom complaint was there made, he stated on a recent occasion in open Court that he could not condescend to reply to the imputatation on his partiality made by such a man as the defendant. The question involved was whether the Lord Chief Justice did or did not exercise his influence against the defendant previous to the trial coming on—

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

House adjourned at half after Seven o'clock.