HC Deb 09 July 1890 vol 346 cc1227-33

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1.

*(3.45.) MR. GULLY (Carlisle)

Perhaps, as this Bill was read a second time after 12 o'clock at night, and without any discussion, it may be convenient, as this is the only clause which contains any operating part, that I should upon the clause say a few words in explanation of the object of the measure. As the law stands at present, any imputation, however gross and malicious, upon the chastity or virtue of a woman may be made with impunity, provided that it is made by word of mouth, and no direct pecuniary damage results to the woman. That has resulted in great hardship and injustice, and the state of the law in this respect was strongly denounced in the House of Lords 30 years ago both by Lord Campbell and Lord Brougham as unsatisfactory and barbarous. The object of the Bill is to put an end to this state of things. The only objection that I know of is that trivial actions may be brought if the Bill passes; but the existing law provides against that, because in cases in which it is shown that the words are used merely as vulgar abuse, the Judges always direct Juries that there is no ground of action. These are the grounds on which I have thought it necessary to bring in the Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Durham (Mr. Milvain) who has the first Amendment down, is not present, but I accept the Amendment, which is an improve- ment in the drafting of the Bill, and will move it in his stead.

Amendment proposed, in Clause 1, page 1, lines 6 and 7, leave out, "to an unmarried woman."—(Mr. Gully.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause."

*(3.50.) SIR R. WEBSTER

I am afraid that if this Bill is passed, where words are used which ought not to be used, and which, at the same time, ought not to be regarded as conveying a serious imputation, they will in many cases be made the ground of an action. It is well known that when temper gets the upper hand of a person, he or she very often uses words that ought not to be used, but which cannot be regarded as seriously imputing unchastity. Although there may be cases in which the Judge may direct the Jury that they ought to consider in what sense the words complained of were used, still there would be a number of cases in which hardships would be inflicted. Actions might be brought for words spoken rashly and hastily, and I cannot but think it is rather a dangerous thing to alter the law.

(3.52.) SIR C. RUSSELL (Hackney)

The speech of the Attorney General really goes against the Second Reading, which has already been accepted by the House. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL: Without discussion.] I am aware of that, but the objection taken by the hon. and learned Gentleman ought to have been taken on the Second Reading. The point is this. At present if an imputation has been made upon a man or woman which involves pecuniary loss or damage, he or she has a right of action. The Bill proposes to give a right of action in cases where the most serious imputation which can be made, and which does not result in pecuniary loss, is made. There may possibly be some cases in which actions are brought for the use of some objectionable phrase, but I submit that the safeguard lies in the protection which the good sense of Judges and Juries gives.

Question put, and agreed to.

Amendment proposed, Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out "married."—(Mr. Gully.)

Question, "That the word proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and negatived.

(3.55.) CAPTAIN VERNEY (Bucks, N.)

I have put down this Amendment because I think it is a very dangerous thing that there should be on the Statute Book anything which recognises that that should be lawful which is said of one sex, while it is not if said of the other sex. I propose to leave out the word "woman" in line 7, and insert "person." Whatever we may think and know about the way in which offences of unchastity in the case of one sex are regarded, it is a very serious thing that it should be on the Statute Book that the law of England recognises that it is not an offence to charge one sex with unchastity.

Amendment proposed, Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out "woman" and insert "person."—(Captain Verney.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'woman' stand part of the Clause."

*(3.56.) MR. GULLY

I quite agree that logically there is something to be said for the view the hon. and gallant Member has laid before the Committee, but practically no mischief would result from the law being what I propose it should be. The fact is, that men do not suffer under the imputation to the same extent that women do. There is not the same practical hardship, or the same danger of an imputation against men being made maliciously. And, moreover, when imputations are made against men they are almost invariably made with a view of damaging the accused in their profession. In such case there is a right of action. The justification of the Bill is that women do not suffer the pecuniary loss to give them cause of action, but they suffer in their characters. While I fully appreciate the spirit in which my hon. and gallant Friend proposes the Amendment I trust he will not think it necessary to insist upon it, because his insistence might endanger the passing of the clause.

*(3.58.) MR. KELLY

I cannot admit that unchastity is the same thing in the case of a man as that of a woman. To impute unchastity in the case of a woman really means ruin to her; but in the case of a man the imputation is generally a trifling matter, relatively speaking, and indeed may be sometimes regarded as a compliment. At any rate, an imputation of unchastity does not affect a man's future chance in life, but it is a serious thing to a woman. I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not press his Amendment.


The remarks of the hon. and learned Member amount to the very strongest argument in favour of the Amendment. If it is to be said gravely in the House of Commons that an imputation of unchastity is regarded as a compliment, I think the Amendment is absolutely necessary.

*MR. W. MCLAREN (Crewe)

The speech of the hon. and learned Member for Camberwell leads me to join the hon. and gallant Gentleman in the support of this Amendment, as I entirely approve of the principle which he has laid down. I do not specially advise my hon. and gallant Friend to divide the Committee, but if he goes to a Division I shall certainly follow him into the Lobby.

Question put, and negatived.

*(4.0.) MR. KELLY

I have every sympathy with the main object of the Bill. It is, undoubtedly, desirable that a woman should have every protection against a man who endeavours to defame her character. But it must be known to the House that there are no graver scandals in our Courts of Justice than the enormous number of trivial actions brought for libel and slander, especially slander. Although the person who defames the character of an honest and virtuous woman should be made to smart for his conduct in a sensible degree, I think we ought not to provide undue facilities for bringing actions for indiscreet or trivial expressions. Let me point out that unless we introduce some such proviso as this I now have to propose, there will be no sort of power in a defendant, however innocent of the charge he may be, to defend himself against it, except at very serious expense. Even should he prove his innocence of the charge, and the plaintiff is a married woman, he will, if the wife has no separate property, have no sort of remedy against the husband, and though successful in the action will have to pay his own heavy costs. I cannot see there is any injustice in making this limitation; it does not take away, it cannot take away, any right of the woman to vindicate her character in open Court. But, on the other hand, the Bill as it stands gives an advantage to a woman who, at the instigation of an unscrupulous attorney, may commence an action for slander upon trivial grounds, in the hope that a man will be unwilling to face the ordeal of the Court with the prospect of having, in any case, to pay costs, even though he may get a verdict. Such a proviso will prevent, in some degree, the Act being taken advantage of by those who make a living out of bringing frivolous and vexatious actions.

Amendment proposed, In Clause 1, page 1, line 8, after the word "damage," to add the words, "Provided that in any action brought by any married woman under this Act, the defendant shall be entitled, upon appearing to the writ, to an order for a stay of proceedings until the husband of such married woman shall have been found as a co-plaintiff. Provided also, that in any action brought under the provisions of this Act, the plaintiff shall not be entitled to recover any larger sum, by way of damages other than special damages, than £200."—(Mr. Kelly.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."


The hon. and learned Member has shown no reason why in this Bill, of which he prefesses himself to be in favour, we should make an exception to the general law. I cannot but think he has forgotten the "Married Women's Property Act," which provides that a married woman can sue and can be sued without joining her husband in an action of contract or tort. I do not find any reason why this particular form of action and means of redress should be taken out of the general rule. It seems to me there is strong reason in the other direction. Cases may possibly arise in which a woman is anxious to vindicate her character, but for reasons not creditable to himself, her husband is not willing to join in an action for the purpose; he may be a party even to the very offence. So far, the Amendment would destroy the usefulness of the Bill.

*(4.6.) MR. KELLY

An Order will be made for good cause shown. I do claim that this is a different action to ordinary action, and particularly liable to abuse. If a person is injured in an ordinary action, the fact is provable, but I think the hon. and learned Gentleman, with his experience, must acknowledge that such actions as these are very liable to abuse. I think it cannot be an injustice to a wife to say her husband shall be joined with her as co-plaintiff. Such extraordinary cases as the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, of a husband conniving with a third party to destroy his wife's character, would be amply provided for by the addition of such words as "unless the Court for good cause shown should otherwise order," which I should be quite ready to add to the proposed proviso.

Question put, and negatived.

Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

*(4.8.) MR. KIMBER

I hope the Attorney General will not consider it his duty to oppose the Bill further. As illustrating the necessity for such a measure, it is only necessary to point a case. A woman, keeping a shop, may be maligned as regards her business, and is entitled to recover damages without proving special damage, but if her personal character is assailed in the worst terms that can be applied to a woman, she cannot recover a verdict unless she can show she has sustained special pecuniary damage. Or contrast the position of two women living side by side, one in a private house, the other in a shop. The latter can recover for damages sustained in her business by reason of opprobrious epithets being applied to her, but she may have no such redress, because she cannot perhaps prove that pecuniary loss has resulted. It is, I think, a position that cannot be defended.

(4.10.) MR. A. ELLIOT (Roxburgh)

I would also ask the Attorney General not to offer opposition. Although I admit a certain amount of weight attaches to the objection that words thoughtlessly used may be made the subject of action for the benefit of solicitors of a certain class, that should not prevent the passing of a useful Bill. Words might very well be introduced, at a subsequent stage, so that it should be made clear that the intention of the speaker in using the language complained of was to impute unchastity or adultery. I shall certainly vote for the clause as it stands.

(4.11.) SIR R. WEBSTER

I was speaking my own private opinion, but it is not my intention to put the Committee to the trouble of a Division.

Question put, and agreed to.

*(4.11.) MR. GULLY

In moving a new clause that the Bill shall not extend to Scotland, I do not mean that Scotland shall not have the advantages of the Bill, but I am informed by those who are skilled in Scotch law that the application of the Bill to Scotland is unnecessary, inasmuch as the law in Scotland in regard to slander is already substantially the same as is here contemplated.

New Clause ("This Act shall not apply to Scotland,")—(Mr. Gully,)—read a first and second time, and added to the Bill.

Bill reported, as amended, to be considered to-morrow.