HL Deb 01 March 1836 vol 31 cc1104-12
Lord Teynham

rose to present a Petition from Brighton, which he thought was well worthy of their Lordships' attention. The petition, which was signed by 300 respectable trades people of Brighton, complained generally of the administration of justice in that town, and particularly of an order some time since issued by the Bench of Magistrates, by which offenders who were brought before them were denied the advantage of the attendance of an attorney, or any professional man, to assist them in repelling the charge that might be brought against them. The Petitioners stated, that in cases of imputed felony, it had been customary with the Bench at Brighton to permit the attendance of a solicitor, or some experienced person, on the part of the accused; but that of late the chairman of Petty Sessions, Sir David Scott, had issued an order to the effect, that hereafter no person should be allowed to attend for any party accused in any case whatsoever, except under special circumstances, and by special permission of the Magistrates. This being the case, the petitioners prayed their Lordships, when the Prisoners' Counsel Bill should come before them, to insert a clause which should render it compulsory on Magistrates to allow parties accused before them the benefit of professional skill and experience, if they are disposed to employ them. There was one case of recent occurrence in the town, which had created a great sensation there, and which the petitioners had requested him to state to their Lordships. It was the case of a woman, named Mary Ann Booth, who was accused before the Magistrates by her employer, a chemist at Brighton, of a felony. When the case came on for hearing, the woman's attorney, whom she had employed to conduct her case, was silenced by the Magistrates; and, upon the prosecutor's evidence, added to some information which the Magistrates seemed to have obtained out of court, the woman was fully committed to Lewes gaol, upon the charge of felony. Subsequently, the Grand Jury ignored the hill; but the woman had been imprisoned for some time, and her character, of course, had suffered not only From that circumstance, but from the nature of the charge which had been brought against her. For this she had no redress whatever. She had written to the noble Duke (Richmond), the Lord-Lieutenant of the county, upon the subject, and she had also petitioned his Majesty and the noble Lord, the Secretary of State; but as far as he could learn, no satisfactory answer had as yet been given to those who interested themselves about the very important subject. It was not his intention to cast any imputation upon the Brighton Magistrates, but it was plain, from the facts he had stated, that the system upon which they acted required alteration. He had only further to observe, that the Magistrates were in the habit, as he was informed, of directing indictments to be prepared before the Grand Jury had found true bills. This he believed to be contrary to the law of England. He had also to observe, that although the Bill in the instance to which he had particularly alluded, had been ignored, the Magistrates allowed the fees of counsel for the prosecution, and made an order for the payment of 7l. 13s. out of the county rates.

The Duke of Richmond

wished to say a few words upon the subject of the petition which the noble Lord had just presented, and also upon the remarks which the noble Lord had made upon the case of Mary Ann Booth, which was not contained in the petition. In the first place, the noble Lord stated, that the feeling of the town was embodied in this petition, which he stated, further, was signed by 300 persons. The population of Brighton amounted to 40,000 souls. This petition, then, signed by 300, was, of course, to be taken as expressive of the unanimous feeling of the town. He must be allowed, however, to state, that, as far as he had listened to the petition, it appeared to him to contain no charges whatever against the Magistrates, The petitioners did not deny that the Magistrates of Brighton, like every other judicial body in the kingdom, had the power to frame laws for the maintenance of order and decorum in the courts over which they presided. If that point were disputed he (the Duke of Richmond) could quote many cases in which such a power had been confirmed by decisions of the Court of King's Bench As far as the petition was concerned, therefore, there appeared to be no specific charge against the Magistrates. He came next to the case referred to by the noble Lord. Mary Ann Booth was charged with a felony, and was attended before the magistrates by an attorney. In the course of the investigation, this gentleman behaved with considerable impertinence and insolence to the magistrates, who, at length, were compelled to say to him, "if you do not behave in a more becoming manner, we will not allow you to plead." In consequence of the treatment which the Magistrates received on this occasion, they made an order, which he would read to their Lordships, and which he was sure their Lordships would at once perceive was different from that set forth in the petition:—"Resolved, that, in future, no attorney, unless especially permitted, shall appear as an advocate for any party accused before us; but it is not intended by this resolution to prevent any attorney from being present and taking notes, nor from generally making suggestions or giving advice to his client." These were the terms of the order; yet the noble Lord asserted that the Magistrates positively prohibited the attendance of attorneys except in special cases, under special circumstances, and by special permission. The only object of the Magistrates in drawing up the order was, to enforce the respect necessary to be observed to the Bench; and he had the authority of the clerk to the Magistrates for stating, that in no one instance, during the twenty years' experience of that officer, either before or after passing the resolution in question, had he ever known a single case in which the Magistrates had refused an attorney to appear before them, except in the case of this one man, who was employed by Mary Ann Booth, and whose conduct to the Bench was indecorous and intolerable. If there were any real ground of complaint against the Magistrates, was it probable that out of so populous a town a petition should be sent up to be presented to that House, containing no more than 300 signatures? He knew no gentlemen who devoted more time or more attention to the public service than the Magistrates of Brighton. Every one who knew that town would be aware that its population was of a very fluctuating Character, and, consequently, requiring at all times great vigilance on the part of the Magistracy and police. The facility of communication between London and Brighton had rendered the character of the population very similar in both; and this similarity of late years had been greatly increased; for whenever the police of London made the neighbourhood here a little too hot for certain celebrated metropolitan characters, these distinguished gentry immediately determined on taking the advantage of a change of air, and usually sought the seashore at Brighton as the place best calculated to suit their particular cases. The Magistrates at Brighton held Petty Sessions twice a week. Did they keep a close court? On the contrary, it was notorious to every person who bad ever been at Brighton, or whoever read a Brighton newspaper, that two or three reporters for different publications were invariably present. The wholesome control of public opinion was always upon the Magistrates of Brighton, It was plain that the order complained of was intended to apply only to the individual who had misbehaved himself, and was not intended to prevent the attendance of attorneys in ordinary cases. He now came to the case of Mary Ann Booth. It was true, as the noble Lord had stated, that Mary Ann Booth had addressed a letter to him (the Duke of Richmond), to which he replied that he knew not what power the Lord-Lieutenant of the county had to control the decisions of the Magistracy; adding, however, that if the Magistrate misconducted himself, if he illegally committed any person to gaol, or exhibited on the Bench anything of partiality or favour, the ordinary courts of law afforded immediate means of redress. If this woman had any real ground of complaint against the Magistrates of Brighton, the proper mode of proceeding, instead of addressing him, would have been to direct her attorney to commence proceedings in the Court of King's Bench. It might be said that she had not the means to adopt such a course; but he (the Duke of Richmond) knew enough of the people of Sussex to feel convinced, that where a woman was injured, and sought redress, she would not long be allowed to want the means of obtaining it. It was true also, that petitions upon the subject had been sent to his Majesty and to the Secretary of State. The complaint was, that the woman was sent to gaol illegally. In reply to that charge, he would simply read the deposition of the prosecutor in the case, who was a chemist named Colvil, residing in Castlesquare, Brighton, and being the owner of a lodging-house in a different part of the town, in which he employed Mary Ann Booth, as a servant, at the rate of 7s. a week wages, and an allowance of five per cent, on the rent of the lodgings whenever they were let. Mr. Colvil complained to the Magistrates that his servant, Mary Aim Booth, had robbed him; and in his deposition he stated, that alter giving the woman repeated notices to leave the house, which she as repeatedly neglected to do, he at length went to the house in person, and on looking over the inventory with the accused, he found that a number of sheets, silver spoons, and other articles, were missing. Booth denied any knowledge of them, but subsequently, in searching the house in Preston-street, to which she had retired on quitting the prosecutor's premises, a number of spoons, sheets, and other articles, having the prosecutor's name upon them, were discovered, and a number of duplicates were also found in Booth's possession for articles which the pawnbroker produced, and which the prosecutor proved to be his. Booth, when these discoveries were made, at once admitted that the articles found upon her, and those which she had placed in the hands of the pawnbroker, were the property of the prosecutor. This was the deposition of the prosecutor, and he (the Duke of Richmond) would venture to say that no stronger or plainer case of felony was ever made out. With such a deposition before him, added to the prisoner's own admission, the Magistrate had no other alternative than to commit her to gaol. But then the noble Lord said, that the bill was thrown out by the Grand Jury. He (the Duke of Richmond) did not pretend to know how that had happened; bills were often thrown out by Grand Juries. It was possible that the prosecutor did not make the same statement before the Grand Jury that he had done before the Magistrates; but he (the Duke of Richmond) would ask whether any Magistrates, having such facts as he had described sworn before them, could have done otherwise than commit. If the parties who complained in this case could not afford to bring it before a court of law, they ought at least to have rested content with the opinion of the Secretary of State, to whom they applied upon the subject. Lord John Russell, in reply to the application made to him, gave it as his opinion that there was no case made out at all; and that it was one of the most frivolous and vexatious charges ever brought against a body of gentlemen. Such was the opinion of Lord John Russell, after he had made the fullest investigation into all the circumstances of the case; and with the repetition of that opinion he would leave the case, as now explained, in their Lordships' hands.

Viscount Strangford

would not follow the noble Baron through his anticipatory eulogium of a Bill yet to be brought before the House, because he thought such a course extremely irregular and inconvenient. He would confine himself to the petition just presented, with all the facts connected with which he had been made acquainted. What was more, he knew (what, perhaps, the noble Lord did not suspect that he knew) the secret history of the mode in which, and the objects for which, the petition had been got up. But a sense of what was due to the dignity of their Lordships restrained him from saying all he knew. When the noble Lord gave notice of his intention to complain of the mal-administration of justice at Brighton, he concluded that, during the noble Lord's stay there, some act of felony or fraud had been committed: that the Magistrates had suffered it to go unpunished, and had thus supplied the noble Lord with a natural and becoming occasion of standing up in that House to vindicate the insulted law, and to arraign those through whose corruption or collusion its behests had been interfered with. He was, however, happy to find that the noble Lord's complaint against the Magistrates was, not that they had suffered an offender to escape, but that they had fearlessly and manfully done their duty in endeavouring to bring the offender to justice. The noble Lord thought it hard that the prisoner should have been committed for trial in the face of the prosecutor's subsequent declaration that he believed the goods were not taken with a felonious intention. Did the noble Lord forget that the law had most wisely determined that the Magistrates, and not the prosecutors should decide upon the character of an offence, and whether an offender should be committed for trial or not? If it were otherwise, what would happen? Why, the feelings and the interests of prosecutors would be constantly practised upon, and, either through false lenity or less worthy motives, they might be induced to withdraw their charges, and thus men of whose guilt no doubt could be entertained by any rational person would be suffered to escape. He believed that such things had actually happened. He believed that cases had occurred where prosecutors had been bribed or bought off— and thus that notorious offenders had escaped all punishment, except that which to some minds was no punishment at all— the scorn and the loathing of every society in which they had yet the audacity to rear their unabashed front. He regretted extremely that the noble Lord had not known, or had forgotten to inquire into all those circumstances of the case which had come to his knowledge, for sure he was, that the noble Lord would not then have lent the sanction of his high moral character, and the powers of his parliamentary weight and talent, to the support of a case which he believed to be the most paltry and the most pitiable that had ever been suffered to weary the patience or waste the time of their Lordships' House.

The Earl of Chichcster

, as a Magistrate resident in the neighbourhood of Brighton, begged to state that there was not the slightest foundation for any of the charges brought against the Magistrates of Brighton, either in the petition or in the case of the woman alluded to by the noble Lord. He begged further to state, that instead of the feeling of dissatisfaction which was alleged in the petition to exist against the Magistrates in consequence of the manner in which justice was administered by them, he believed that the universal feeling of the town and neighbourhood was exactly the reverse.

The Lord Chancellor

wished to offer a few words upon this subject. Feeling as he did the great responsibility under which Magistrates at all times acted, he considered it to be the bounden duty of every man to protect them whenever they were unjustly or vexatiously charged with misconduct. The circumstances of this case were made known to him some time since. A petition was sent up to his noble Friend, the Secretary of State, containing certain allegations. This petition was communicated to him, and on looking it over there seemed to be one allegation which required I explanation, It was alleged that the Ma- gistrate had acted not only upon the evidence which had been produced before him in court, but upon some other information which he had obtained by means which were not known. Upon that point therefore, a communication was made to the Magistrate; in reply to which he (the Lord Chancellor) received a most satisfactory answer. The ground of the allegation originated in a mistake, which arose in this way: After having heard the whole of the facts of the case, the Magistrates, as usual, retired into their private room to consider what course they should take. Coming back into the presence of the prisoner, and communicating the result of their deliberation, it was possible that they might have made some allusion to what had passed between themselves during their consultation, as well as to the facts which had been adduced before the public, and thus an impression arose in the minds of the prisoner's friends that they had been hearing evidence out of court. The Magistrates, on being written to by the Secretary of State, positively denied that they had acted upon any other evidence than that which had been adduced before them in open court. Their Lordships had heard from the noble Duke (Richmond) the nature of the evidence given before the Magistrates. He would abstain from making any observation upon that evidence; but he would ask if, upon such a deposition as that of the prosecutor, the Magistrates had not committed the party, they would not have been guilty of a gross and unpardonable breach of duty? What took place before the Grand Jury it was, of course, impossible for their Lordships to know; but they did know what had taken place before the Magistrates; and looking at the facts there sworn, he would say that a more clear case of felony could not be. As to the order complained of in the petition, with respect to the attendance of attorneys, upon that point the Magistrates did nothing more than they were allowed to do by law; and in this instance they no doubt acted from good cause. From all that had been stated, as well as from all he knew of the circumstances of the case, he had not the slightest doubt but that the Magistrates did in this case merely what they were in duty bound to do.

Lord Teynham

said, it was true that this petition was not signed by the majority of the town; but it was signed by three hundred persons, all of whom, as he was in- formed, were very respectable. He begged that the petition might be read, in order that the House might judge whether it was worthy of the treatment it had received.

Petition laid on the Table.

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