HC Deb 22 July 1875 vol 225 cc1816-8

asked Mr. Attorney General, If his attention has been called to the case of William Smallbone, who was on the 30th of October 1874 committed to prison by the Judge of the County Court of Farnham for an alleged contempt of court for non-payment of a sum of £63 11s. 6d. costs recovered by the plaintiff in an equity suit in such County Court; that the said Smallbone, a farm labourer upwards of 72 years of age, suffered continuous imprisonment under such order until the 2nd day of July 1875, when he was discharged out of custody by order of Mr. Baron Huddlestone; whether such imprisonment of Smallbone for over eight months was legal, having regard to the Acts for Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt; and, whether he will insert in the County Courts Bill, now pending in this House, provisions for the purpose of preventing any such imprisonment being ordered by County Court Judges in future?


Sir, in consequence of the Notice of my hon. Friend I have made inquiries into the case of William Smallbone, and believe the facts of the case to be as follows:—Smallbone was defendant in a suit in Equity, instituted by his brother's widow and devisee, to compel him to convey upon the trusts of his brother's will a certain small property, purchased from Smallbone by his brother, and paid for, but which had not been conveyed though possession had been given. Smallbone not only defended this suit, but was prosecuting an action of ejectment for the recovery of the same land from his brother's widow. The decision, which was pronounced in April, 1874, was adverse to Smallbone; he was decreed to convey the land, and pay the plaintiff's costs. He conveyed the land, but, not having paid the costs, he was summoned in September to show cause why he should not be committed for contempt; on the 16th of that month he appeared and stated that he was about to sell some property out of the produce of which he intended to pay the costs. The Judge found him guilty of contempt; but, in consequence of his statement, directed that the warrant for his com- mittal should not be executed if within one month he paid £30 and the balance within two months. Not having paid any portion of the costs, he was on the 30th of October committed to Winchester Gaol. In February he applied, through his solicitor, to the Judge for his discharge, on the grounds of ill-health and inability to pay, and it was then admitted that the property which he had expressed his intention to sell, though worth £300, had been sold to his brother for £200, out of which £100 was retained by his brother for an alleged debt, and £80 was paid to his solicitor in discharge of his, the defendant's, costs. The Judge thereupon adjourned the hearing of the application to enable the defendant to make some reasonable offer, but, none being made, Small-bone remained in prison until the 2nd of the present month, when he was discharged by an order of Mr. Baron Huddlestone, on the ground of his age, ill-health, and inability to pay. Such, as I am informed, are the facts of the case; and, whatever opinion may be entertained as to the conduct of Smallbone, I am bound to state that, in my opinion, his imprisonment was contrary to law. All parties concerned—Judge, registrar, counsel, and solicitors—were apparently forgetful of the provisions of the Debtors Act of 1869. It is still more strange that the mistake which had been made was not discovered when the parties were before Mr. Baron Huddlestone, as the defendant was not discharged from prison on the ground of any illegality or irregularity in his committal, but, as I have already stated, upon grounds which were quite consistent with its, perfect legality and regularity. I may add that the Judge, by whom Smallbone was thus committed, has held his office for 10 years, during which time he has discharged his duties with great ability, and to the general satisfaction of those transacting business in his Courts; the present is the only committal for contempt in Equity ordered by him, though he has disposed of considerably more than 100 suits. No one can regret more than he does the mistake that has been made; at the same time, it is to be observed that, if those conducting Small-bone's defence had drawn the attention of the Judge to the state of the law, the irregular order could hardly have been made, or, if made, would have been immediately and successfully appealed against.