§ MR. CHARLES LEWIS
rose to move—That this House has learnt with concern and regret that, notwithstanding the plain provisions of 'The Debtors Act, 1869,' the County Court Judge at Farnham committed to prison one William Smallbones for non-payment of a sum of costs awarded against him in a suit in equity, such imprisonment being, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Attorney General, stated to this House on the 23rd of July, wholly illegal, and extending continuously over eight months; That, inasmuch as it appears that such imprisonment took place under an order of the Judge made as upon the Commission of a contempt of Court, this House is of opinion that the exercise of the power of committal for contempt of Court by County Court Judges ought to be placed under greater legislative restraint.The hon. Member observed, that this matter related to a grievous infringement of the liberty of the subject, and it was one which ought not to be passed over in silence. The answer which he received yesterday from the Attorney General was, he did not say intentionally, but unnecessarily offensive, and that seemed to him another reason why the matter should be pressed a little further. Under the existing law a County Court Judge might imprison a man who refused to obey an order for the payment of a debt which there was reason to believe he could pay, but the order for committal was limited to a period of six weeks. In this case William Small-bones, a farm labourer 72 years of age, had been detained in prison for eight calendar months, under an irregular order of the County Court Judge. When, on a writ of Habeas Corpus, Smallbones was brought before Mr. Baron Huddles-ton, he discharged him from custody on the ground that he had been illegally 292 arrested and illegally imprisoned. The Attorney General had stated that the learned Judge discharged him because of his ill health and inability to pay; but he had since admitted that those on whose authority he had made that statement had grossly misinformed him. He regretted that the Attorney General had declined to make any inquiry as to the cause of the inaccuracy of the information which had been communicated to him. It was a matter of the greatest importance that Judges should be kept within their power and authority; and, therefore, he (Mr. Lewis) asked the House to express its disapprobation of the conduct of the County Court Judge in having for eight months unlawfully imprisoned this man.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the "words" this House has learnt with concern and regret that, notwithstanding the plain provisions of 'The Debtors Act, 1869, the County Court. Judge at Farnham committed to prison one William Smallbones for non-payment of a sum of costs awarded against him in a suit in equity, such imprisonment being, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Attorney General, stated to this House on the 22nd of July, wholly illegal, and extending continuously over eight months; and that, inasmuch as it appears that such imprisonment took place under an order of the judge made as upon the commission of a contempt of court, this House is of opinion that the exercise of the power of committal for contempt of court by County Court judges ought to be placed under greater legislative restraint,"—(Mr. Charles Lewis,)
§ —instead there of.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, he had been charged by the hon. Member for Londonderry with discourtesy; but he appealed to the House whether it was his ordinary habit in answering Questions to act discourteously. He had always endeavoured to give full and complete answers where the public interest allowed it to be done, and he was at a loss to understand how the hon. Member or other hon. Members could consider his answer on the occasion alluded to as curt or discourteous. The hon. Member had urged as his reason for pressing his Motion that it related to an infringement of the liberty of the subject: this was true, but the man who had been illegally imprisoned had obtained his release. Having been misinformed as to the real facts of the case, he (the Attorney General) had made in the first instance an 293 inaccurate statement to the House as to the grounds upon which Smallbones had been released from prison; as soon as he discovered the mistake into which he had been led, he stated the fact to the House, and made what he had intended to be a full and complete apology for his mis-statement. He had since endeavoured to discover how he had been misled. He only got notice of the fact on Tuesday, and hon. Members, who were aware how greatly he had been occupied since, would know how very little time had been left him for making an investigation into such a matter. The County Court Judges were not responsible to him, and, as he had stated the day before, however anxious he might be to procure information, he could not do it himself, but only through the aid of others. With regard to the Motion itself, every hon. Member of the House must regret that a man should have been illegally imprisoned for eight months; but the House would hardly pass a Resolution affirming so obvious a fact. As regarded the second part of the Motion, its first paragraph appeared to answer the second, for when the House was called upon to affirm that what the County Court Judge had done in the way of committal, was contrary to law, he did not see why the power of committal should be placed under greater legislative restraint.
§ MR. W. M. TORRENS
, while admitting the courtesy of the Attorney General, contended that even if the law were sufficient and there had been an infraction of it, the House of Commons was the place where the matter should be taken notice of. He asked whether it was consistent with recent legislation that a County Court Judge should commit a man for not paying an instalment, should commit him again and again for the same reason, and so by repeated committals re-impose the law of imprisonment for debt? When an infraction of the law had been made by any Judge, it was the duty of the House to mark its sense of the matter as a warning to others.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
said, as to the personal question every one who knew how his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General conducted himself in the House would feel that there was no intentional discourtesy shown by him in the matter, 294 nor in reality any discourtesy at all. With regard to the more important principle of the question raised by the hon. Member for Londonderry, he thought the House ought to bear in mind that it was a somewhat delicate matter for one House of Parliament to interfere in a question relating to the administration of justice. And although he could not say that there there might be cases in which it would be quite right for the House of Commons to pass a Resolution reflecting on the conduct of the Judges, it was a matter in which the House ought to proceed upon full and authentic information. At present he considered they were not in possession of such authentic and full information as to enable them to interfere in the matter. The County Court Judges were not responsible to the House of Commons, but to the Lord Chancellor, and hon. Members did not know what information the Lord Chancellor might have on the subject. He hoped his hon. Friend would accept the assurance that the matter should not be allowed to pass without inquiry, and would be content that the case should be left in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, to whom it properly belonged.
§ Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 74; Noes 18: Majority 56.
§ Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.