HL Deb 30 March 1855 vol 137 cc1373-6

House in Committee (according to Order).


said, that this Bill consisted, as it came from the other House, of two parts. As to one part, that which abolished prospectively all proceedings in the Ecclesiastical Courts for slander and defamation—there could be no doubt. With respect to the second part—that which enabled the Ecclesiastical Courts, under certain restrictions, to liberate persons who were already imprisoned for the non-payment of costs, some difficulties had been found to exist. There was every disposition to enable Ecclesiastical Courts to liberate such persons; but there was great difficulty in such retrospective provisions, particularly where the private interests of individuals were concerned. But it appeared to those who had considered this matter, that the Act which was framed in the year 1840, by his learned friend Dr. Lushington, to give to the Judicial Committee, and to the Judges of the Ecclesiastical Courts, power, under certain restrictions, of dealing with the cases of those persons who had been sentenced, and who had afterwards been detained in prison for the non-payment of costs, might be extended so as to apply to the class of cases he now contemplated. The provisions of that Act applied chiefly to church-rate cases; but they might, he thought, be very well extended to cases of slander and defamation. He thought, and those who assisted him, that they might be able, before the third reading of the Bill, to frame some clause instead of the second of this Bill, to which, as it now stood, he had a great objection; but it did not appear a hopeless task so to modify the clause as to make it entirely unobjectionable. One of the most venerable ornaments of the Church, the Chancellor of the diocese of Carlisle, had written to say that he suffered severely from the pressure of the present law. It often happened that a woman in some brawl, possibly a squabble in an alehouse, was overheard, unhappily, by some practitioner of the law to use defamatory expressions; and a suit was instantly commenced, un- deniably for the purpose of obtaining costs. The poor woman paid a little, and being unable to pay the rest, she went to prison, and was imprisoned for a long time. The Chancellor justly observed that it was very painful to him to be put in a position where he had no choice allowed him; he must pronounce sentence, and order the payment of costs, and then the commitment for non-payment. He (Lord Brougham) did hope, therefore, some means would be devised of relieving, not only the parties against whom the suits were instituted, but such excellent persons as the Chancellor of the diocese of Carlisle, from being subject to those malpractices. There could be no doubt that, prospectively, such jurisdiction ought to be taken from the Ecclesiastical Courts; but with respect to the case of Charlotte Jones, a woman who had been incarcerated for a long period under such a sentence, he (Lord Brougham) might be allowed to remind their Lordships that, in presenting her petition the other day, he made no allusion whatever reflecting on the Ecclesiastical Court which had pronounced that sentence, and to which the same remark would apply as he had just used with reference to the Chancellor of the diocese of Carlisle—that they were passive in the matter, and could not act otherwise than as they did. It had gone forth, however, that some remarks were made against the particular court by which she was sentenced, whereas the contrary was the fact; and in the other House of Parliament, when this Bill was brought forward by his learned Friend (Dr. Phillimore), the case of Charlotte Jones was never mentioned. The Chancellor of that diocese, Dr. Williams, was, he understood, one of the most respectable members of the Church, and had been for thirty-five years in high ecclesiastical office; and during the whole of that time there had not only been no appeal against, but no exception taken to any of his proceedings.


said, he would bear witness that not a word fell from the noble and learned Lord reflecting on the tribunal which had committed Charlotte Jones, which had only done what it was bound to do, and could have done nothing else. But, with regard to the difficulty suggested of a retrospective remedy, it would be better to strike out the second clause of this Bill.


consented that the clause should be struck out, in order to its being amended in the next stage.


said, that in the Court of Chancery, when a person had been discharged from his utter contempt of court, and was only in custody for contempt in not paying the costs, those costs were now, by a measure which he (Lord St. Leonards) introduced for that purpose, made a subject for the Insolvent Court; and, therefore, a person might always get out of prison, and discharge himself of any amount of costs under the Insolvency Act. It would not be unreasonable to adopt a similar arrangement with respect to the costs of suits in the Ecclesiastical Courts, but as their jurisdiction of slander and defamation was intended to be abolished, he should not object to give power to the Judge of the Ecclesiastical Court to mitigate, in certain circumstances, the costs incurred by persons on whom sentence had been already passed. Undoubtedly the case of Charlotte Jones was one of those to which relief would so be given; but he believed there never was a case that was less entitled to their Lordships attention; because in that case, he was informed, six months were allowed to elapse before any proceedings were taken to recover the costs, and every reasonable proposition was then made to spare her; but some persons were determined to be made martyrs, and so a great outcry was raised about that particular case—which, indeed, as well as others, he desired should have the benefit of this Bill. The noble and learned Lord then said that he hoped to receive any assurance from the noble Lord on the woolsack that the Government would be prepared this Session with a solution of that difficult, but most important, question, the transfer of the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts. He hoped the Government would not proceed with this Bill until every other part of the subject had been fairly brought before the House.


said, that the subject was proposed to be dealt with in a series of Bills, one of which, the Bill for providing an improved jurisdiction in testamentary cases, would be introduced by the Solicitor General in the other House that evening. Among the other measures which would be brought in were a Bill dealing with divorce cases, and a Bill for the amendment of clergy discipline. But substantially the whole subject of the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts would be before Parliament at one and the same time.


expressed his satisfaction at the prospect of legislation upon this matter, and acknowledged that cases of defamation generally were exceedingly unfit for an Ecclesiastical Court; but there were certain exceptional cases in which defamatory words were alleged to have been spoken by one clergyman against another; and his Lordship referred to a very recent case of that character, and to state his apprehension lest, in some instances, where the defamatory words that were spoken could not be made the subject of any civil action, and were injurious more especially to the plaintiff in his ministerial and spiritual character, no remedy should be left by this Bill.


said, he would recommend the suggestions of the right rev. Prelate to the consideration of their Lordships and the Government during the interval that must elapse before the Bill should pass through its next stage.

An Amendment made.

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