HC Deb 26 July 1875 vol 226 cc55-7

Sir, I must ask the indulgence of the House for two or three minutes while I make a few observations by way of personal explanation. It will be in the recollection of the House that on Thursday last I answered certain Questions, put to me by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Charles Lewis), relative to the imprisonment in Winchester Gaol, under an order of the County Court Judge, of a man named William Smallbone, and of his subsequent release from prison by an order of Baron Huddleston. I have this morning received a letter from that learned Judge, who appears to consider that not only did my answers unfairly reflect upon him, but that my statement of facts, so far as it had reference to the proceedings before him, was essentially inaccurate. I need hardly state that my high esteem and respect for Baron Huddleston would at all times prevent my intentionally expressing, either in this House or elsewhere, except under a pressure of duty which certainly does not exist in the present case, any opinion reflecting upon the performance of his judicial duties; and I do not think that the words which I used, and which are accurately reported in The Times of last Friday, can be considered as haying that effect. The learned Judge appears to be under the impression that I charged him with forgetfulness of the Debtors Act of 1869. The inaccurate reports in some other newspapers may have led him to that conclusion, but I am sure that upon reference to what I said it will be clear that my expression, "Judge, Registrar, counsel, and solicitors were apparently forgetful of the provisions of the Debtors Act of 1869," had reference to the County Court Judge who committed the man to prison, and not to the learned Judge who released him from it. My further observation that the mistake was not discovered when the parties were before Baron Huddleston had reference to the legal advisers of Smallbone, who, according to the information afforded to me, were asking for his release, not upon the ground that the order for his committal was illegal, but that he was an old man, ill, and unable to pay. That such was the impression which it was my intention to convey, is, I think clear from the context. But, however that may be, I should not be acting consistently with my own views of what is right were I not at once, and unreservedly, to say that, if any observations of mine were so made as to cause pain or annoyance to Baron Huddleston, I extremely regret it. That learned Judge, however, further complains that my statement was inaccurate in so far as I said that Smallbone had been released by him from prison on the ground of old age, ill-health, and inability to pay. He informs me in his letter that the Act of Parliament of 1869 was referred to in the proceedings before him, and all its provisions carefully discussed, and that very little was said as to the man's age, health, or inability to pay, and he adds that he discharged the man on the ground of the illegality of his imprisonment and the irregularity of his committal, and upon no other grounds, and that the other circumstances did not in any way affect his judgment. Sir, I of course accept the statement of the learned Judge, though it entirely contradicts the information which had been given to me, and I again express my regret that I should have been misinformed and thus led into mistake. I must. Sir, however, remind the House that the subject-matter of the Questions of the hon. Member for Londonderry was one in no way under the cognizance of the Attorney General; that the County Court Judges are in no way responsible to him for their conduct; and that he possesses no means of investigating any cases, or alleged cases, of mistake or error of judgment on their part. A gentleman connected with the legal department of the Treasury, and of great experience, procured for me, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, the information upon which I answered the Questions of the hon. Member, and into the accuracy of such information I had no means of inquiring, even if I had had any reason to doubt it. Inquiry will, of course, now be made into the cause of the inaccuracy of the information so procured as to the proceedings before the Judge in Chambers.