HL Deb 21 April 1831 vol 3 cc1748-54

On the motion of Lord King, the order of the day, "That the petition of John Joseph Lawson, printer of "The Times" newspaper, be taken into consideration," was read.

A noble Lord, whose name we could not learn, rose to present a petition, and insisted upon his right to do so, amidst loud cries of "Order."

The Lord Chancellor

said—I beg to remind your Lordships, that the order of the day has actually been read, and that you are now, properly speaking, in the consideration of it. If, under such circumstances, your Lordships receive petitions, or occupy yourselves with any other business, there will not be even the semblance of regularity in your proceedings. Besides, a matter of' privilege has always precedence; and, when you have a man in custody whose liberty depends upon your decision respecting this matter of privilege, I must suggest to your Lordships that justice, as well as the observance of regularity, demands in your proceedings that the consideration of it ought not to be deferred.

The same noble Lord again attempted to present the petition, but resumed his seat amidst loud cries of "Order."

Lord King

—My Lords, I have already given way once, when I believe that I was in possession of the House; but since the order of the day has been read, there can, I apprehend, be no dispute as to my being in possession of the House now. There will be no necessity, I trust, for my moving that the petition be read again, for I hope that all your Lordships bear fresh in your minds that petition,—that very proper petition, as I must call it,—which was yesterday presented by the gentleman now in confinement. I think that no petition could have been more properly worded, and I think that no man could have made a more becoming, or a more satisfactory apology, than Mr. Lawson has made to your Lordships. Under these circumstances, my Lords, I hope that there will be no difference of opinion with regard to the Motion I am about to submit to your Lordships; and I entertain that hope the more confidently, in consequence of the understanding—or what was tantamount to an understanding—to which we came yesterday. I cannot suppose, my Lords, that the gentleman who has been once at your bar, will be considered by your lordships as guilty pf contumacy, and as deserving of some greater punishment, because he refused to answer a question that was put to him. Such a course would, to say the least of it, be extremely inconvenient, and of that I trust your Lordships were convinced yesterday. Let me remind your Lordships, that to act so, would not be to act like a Court of Justice. A Court of Justice never asks a man who is tried for publishing a libel, whether he will give up the author of the libel. The Attorney-General, or the prosecutor, may ask such a question; they may say to the publisher "If you will give me up the author of the libel, I will drop the prosecution against you, and suffer you to go free;" but a Court of Justice never holds such language; no judge would be allowed to take such a course. If, therefore, my Lords, you should do this, you would do what I can compare to nothing but the conduct of a Judge who, after passing sentence upon a prisoner, calls the prisoner up to the bar again, in consequence of something which he has said, and alters the sentence: as, for instance, if a judge should sentence a man to seven years' transportation, and because the man made some observation upon the sentence, the Judge should call him back, and say, "I gave you seven years' transportation, but for that observation I give you fourteen. Nothing can be more indecent than such conduct in a Judge, and I am happy to say, that I believe it has never occurred but once. I heartily hope it will never occur again, and I am sure that your Lordships will never be brought to act in such a way,—that your Lordships will never, be brought to imitate he conduct of such a Judge. With regard to the question which Mr. Lawson refused to answer, I am sure that, as honourable men, your Lordships would have thought very badly of him if he had not refused to answer it. I am quite sure your Lordships, as a body of gentlemen, would have despised Mr. Lawson if he had been guilty of so gross a breach of confidence as he must have committed if he had answered that question. With these observations I have now only to move your Lordships "that Mr. Lawson be called to the bar; that he be reprimanded by the Lord Chancellor; and that he then be discharged upon the payment of his fees."

The Earl of Mansfield

said—I move your Lordships that the Standing Order for the exclusion of strangers be enforced. [Cries of" Withdraw" "Clear the bar."]

The Marquis of Londonderry

—I do hope that the noble Earl will not persevere in that motion, considering that the discussion yesterday was public.

The Earl of Eldon

said a few words, which were totally inaudible below the bar.

The Lord Chancellor

, in reply to the noble Earl, said—I should not be at all sorry to avail myself of that, if I could, and go below the bar, for a momentary relief. My noble and learned friend well knows, that however enviable a seat on the Woolsack may be in many respects, the close confinement which is incident to it is neither agreeable nor enviable.

Loud cries of "withdraw" were repeated, and the Lord Chancellor said—"Strangers must withdraw." and the bar was cleared.

At the expiration of two hours and a half the public were re-admitted.

A discussion somewhat to the following effect, is said to have token place during the absence of strangers. As no contradiction has been given to it we think it right to preserve it.

The Marquis of Londonderry

repeated his observations respecting the atrocity of the libel, and the power of the House to punish either by fine, or imprisonment, or lay reprimand; he would not, however, press against the sense of the House his original intention of having the affidavits respecting the proprietors of The Times, lodged at the Stamp-office, laid before the House.

The Earl of Mansfield, in a long and elaborate speech, insisted upon the power of the House to impose a fine certain, and to imprison for a fixed period. He had no angry feelings against the individual now in custody, but as the noble Lord on the Woolsack had expressed considerable doubt as to the extent of the privileges of the House, he wished, in order to remove that doubt, and to make their right manifest, that the individual should be sent to prison for a time certain, however short that time might be. If, however, the House should be content with the milder punishment of a reprimand, there was another point for their serious consideration. The House had heard the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack pronounce an eulogy on the purity of the Press, he had also thrown doubt on their Lordships' privileges. Under these circumstances, was it likely that he would administer the reprimand with that severity befitting the nature of the case and their Lordships' dignity? Would it not be right for the House to move an instruction to his Lordship that he would not, in the reprimand, take occasion to hint any doubt of the authority of the House, and that he would impress upon the offender the full magnitude of his offence against their Lordships' privi1eges?

The Lord Chancellor

expressed his opinion as an individual Peer, that though the House had the undoubted right of imprisonment, as the House of Commons had, in order to remove an obstruction to their proceedings, yet, that he agreed with many great legal and constitutional authorities that their right to imprison for a time certain, and to fix a fine certain, was a disputable question. At all events, if he was in error on this point, he must say that it would be a strange sort of justice if the House should make the unfortunate printer the vicarious sufferer for his (the Chancellor's) fault. Surely the doubt might be solved in some better, way than by sending the printer to Newgate. A solemn decision of the House would be more convincing and more reasonable. He denied that he had eulogized the Press, though he certainly thought it purer and better conducted than it was twenty-five years ago, with the exception, indeed, of some Sunday papers, which, while they profaned the Sabbath by the grossest libels, indecent and blasphemous, yet professed the warmest attachment to the Church Establishment, and were, no doubt on account of that attachment only, so warmly patronized by the clergy and their friends. As to the concluding passage of the noble Earl's speech, he repelled its insinuation with the utmost indignation and contempt. Was it not monstrous to suppose, that he should be so wanting in a sense of the respect due to the dignified office which he held, so wanting in respect to the House, so wanting in self-respect, as to pervert the occasion of administering the reprimand ordered by the House into a paltry medium of spitting his spite against their privileges? Whatever doubt he might individually entertain as to one branch of those privileges, was it likely that when, called upon as their official organ to declare their will, he should, be at once so base and so foolish as to disgrace his important functions by abandoning the plain line of his duty? The imputation was unworthy of the noble Earl—it was unworthy of him (the Lord Chancellor)—and he flung it back with disdain.

The Earl of Eldon

entered into a long argument to demonstrate the power of the House to imprison for a time certain, and to impose a certain fine. He referred to the case of "Flower," quoted largely from Lord Kenyon's judgment, to show that the Court of King's Bench had fully recognized the powers of the House of Lords. He had so much taken it for granted that the individual in custody would have been discharged yesterday, on presenting his petition, without discussion, that he had not come down to the House; but seeing the Debate in the papers, he had thought it his duty to come and assert the authority of the House. As to the mode of the reprimand, he would give the noble Lord on the Woolsack credit for administering it with due solemnity; if not, the House had the means of animadversion in their power. The noble Earl, as well as Lord Mansfield, hinted that they had privately advised that this matter should not be brought before the House.

Lord Wynford

followed. He re-asserted the privileges of the House, and said he believed there was not a lawyer—he was sure there was no Judge—in Westminster-hall, who had a doubt on the subject. He professed himself a friend of the liberty of the Press, but thought that Government should keep a strict watch on its excesses.

The Earl of Fife

thought it would have been better, both for the House and the country, if this Debate had been public. He regretted that their Lordships' time was wasted on such inquiries: if their privileges were to be asserted, let them wait for some great offence against their body, and not take up a mere attack on an individual Peer, who had other means of redress. Some of their Lordships pretended to undervalue the Press; but if he was not misinformed, there were some Lords who had shares in newspapers. He concluded by passing an eulogy on the Queen.

The question was then put for calling in Mr. Lawson, reprimanding, and discharging him.

Mr. Lawson

was immediately put to the bar, when

The Lord Chancellor

addressed him in the following words;—"John Joseph Law- son—the paragraph of which you have acknowledged yourself to be the printer and publisher, has been pronounced by the unanimous voice of this House to be a gross and scandalous libel upon Edmund Henry, Earl of Limerick, a Member of this House, and it has also been pronounced to be a high breach of the privileges of this House. Those privileges of this House are conferred upon it by the Constitution of the country, and they have been recognized most amply in all times by the law of the land. Those privileges are possessed by this House, not for the benefit of any individual Member of the House, nor to confer power or aggrandizement upon the Members of the House collectively, but they are possessed for the protection and for the defence of this Assembly, and for the better execution of those high functions which, for the benefit of the State, the Constitution had conferred upon it. It would be a strange thing, indeed, if these privileges, which are enjoyed, not only by the other, the inferior branch of the Legislature, but also by every Court of Record in the realm, should have been denied either by the policy or the justice of the law to this illustrious Assembly, which combines in itself the character of being the hereditary counsellors of the Crown, of being the superior branch of the Legislature, and of being the highest Court of Judicature in the kingdom. These functions, that of hereditary advisers of the Crown, that of enacting laws, and that of deciding as Judges in the last resort, and without appeal to any human authority, on all cases, as well criminal as civil—these high functions, these great powers, and this solemn and important duty, are enjoyed by this Assembly for the sake of the whole people of England; and in order that they may be exercised with advantage, and in such a manner that the country may enjoy the benefits which result there from, it is absolutely necessary that the undoubted privileges of such an Assembly should be unquestioned and inviolate. It is, therefore, the duty of this House, to deal with you, a self-acknowledged culprit, in such a manner as the grave offence which you have committed merits, in order that you may be deterred from the repetition of it, and in order also—which is the sound end of all punishment—that others may be deterred from the commission of a similar offence. But the House mingles mercy with justice, and is anxious to take into consideration the mitigating circumstances which are connected with the situation in which you are placed. You have freely and at once acknowledged, that you are guilty of the offence: you have acknowledged that you are guilty in fact, by admitting that you are the publisher of the libel; and you have acknowledged that you are guilty in law and in substance, because you have expressed your contrition for that publication. You have also most amply, by petition, and in your own person at that bar, made submission to the House, and to the noble Earl who was the object of the slander. Moreover, you have suffered, not a long, but a close confinement, by the authority of this House, and in the custody of the officers of this House. For these reasons, and because the House is anxious to temper justice with mercy, their Lordships have thought proper to impose on me the painful duty—which I have now performed—of reprimanding you; and having thus reprimanded you, I have to tell you, that you will be forthwith discharged out of custody, upon payment of your fees."

Lord Farnham

then moved that the reprimand be entered upon the Journals.

Agreed to.