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Privilege—Committal Of A Member For Contempt

Volume 218: debated on Friday 20 March 1874

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A Select Committee Appointed

said, he had very specially to solicit the favourable consideration and indulgence of the House for a few remarks—and they should be very few—which he desired to address to the Speaker in reference to the communication from the Lord Chief Justice which the right hon. Gentleman had read to the House on the previous day. He was not present when that letter was read, or a very few words at the close would, perhaps, have disposed of the matter so far as he was himself personally concerned; but acting under the best advice he could obtain, he considered it was due to the House—though emulating, in some small degree, the excellent example of the Lord Chief Justice himself in paying due respect to that House—that he should not allow the circumstances which he had thought fit to bring to the notice of the House to pass without notice; he (Mr. Whalley) being the person concerned in that transaction —being the Member of the House who had the misfortune to come under, as it were, a two-fold penalty, as communicated by the Lord Chief Justice to the Speaker. In the first place, he had been so unfortunate as to commit the offence of contempt of Court, and having committed that offence, and having been fined for the same, he had refused to submit to that fine, and had elected to be sent to prison. He felt it was right that he should at all events place himself before the House, offering any explanation that might be demanded as between himself and his hon. Colleagues as to the circumstances, and then leave the matter. Nothing could have induced him to avoid cither fine or imprisonment, or to obtrude himself and his personal affairs, his penalty, or his imprisonment on the attention of the House, unless a sense of the absolute and imperative necessity of public duty justified him in doing so. The transaction took place during the last Parliament, of which he was a Member, as he had the honour to be of the present. That would not have deterred him in reference to this transaction; though it was a matter in which he had doubts whether it was one which required him to communicate to the House, or which demanded the cognizance of the House. The Lord Chief Justice had himself admitted in the letter which was read from the Chair yesterday that he had doubts as to the propriety of the course which had been pursued; but nevertheless he had made a communication to the House by a Letter which would, he presumed, be placed upon the records of the House; and if that was the case, he ventured to say—acting upon advice of high authority—that the formal intimation by the Lord Chief Justice that a Member of the last Parliament had been imprisoned by the Court of Queen's Bench, was a matter worthy of the consideration of the House. Under the circumstances, and acting on the spur of the moment, he had to submit a suggestion—which he would have made at a later period of the evening, on the Motion for Adjournment, but he found that no Motion for Adjournment was made that night—the suggestion that he now therefore ventured to make was that the letter of the Lord Chief Justice be referred to the Committee of Privileges, with a view to their reporting whether the Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench in committing a Member of the late Parliament to Prison for contempt of Court had done anything wrongly affecting the privileges of Members of that House? The question of Privilege was one of great importance, not only to individual Members, but to the House at large, and their Privileges ought, therefore, to be most jealously and carefully guarded and maintained. In the course which he had taken with regard to the late trial he acted to the best of his humble abilities, and with a full sense of the responsibilities which he thereby incurred. He believed, further, that the propriety of that course had been recognized by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the late Government, who, in answer to a Question put to him, said he saw no objection to measures being taken to provide the defendant in the late trial with means to bring up witnesses and conduct his defence. Such a course was all the more necessary because, if the defendant had been committed for trial in the ordinary way, the means would have been provided under statute. In consequence of what the right hon. Gentleman had so stated, he (Mr. Whalley) wished to explain the course he had taken in the matter. He ventured to submit that if ever there was a person who could lay claim to the privileges of a Member of Parliament in regard to anything done outside the House, he (Mr. Whalley) was that person. ["Oh!"] He trusted he was saying nothing to obtrude upon the House what might be called his peculiar, or even eccentric, views upon this matter. He had acted with perfect honesty of purpose and according to the best of his judgment, and without any idea that he was in any way infringing the Privileges of the House, when in soliciting aid for the defendant at public meetings, he was carrying on what had been called an agitation, and had been denounced by the Lord Chief Justice, and in consequence of that he had been fined and also imprisoned. He was acting in what he believed to be the discharge of his public duty, and for which he had the assent of the House—["Oh!"]—so far as what he had stated to the House was not contradicted. With regard to what he had to submit to the House now, in Sir Erskine May's work on the Law and Practice of Parliament, it was distinctly recognized that the Committee of that House would not take cognizance of any interference with the Privileges of this House, or with the liberties of its Members, without first inquiring into all the circumstances of the case. The passage referring to Lechmere Charlton's Case was to the effect that, although the Lord Chancellor had power to declare what he deemed to be a contempt of the High Court of Chancery, it was necessary that the House of Commons, as the sole and exclusive judge of its own Privileges, should be informed of the particulars of the contempt before they could decide whether the contempt was of such a character as to justify the imprisonment of a Member. Now, he thought the circumstances of the present case were well worthy of attention. They simply amounted to this—that he had ventured to state, in a letter which he wrote for the information of his constituents, that it was his belief that a man committed on a charge of perjury in the Court of Queen's Bench was not guilty of perjury so far as regarded one particular portion of the evidence given in Court, and he felt that as an Englishman he had a right to express that view. It was the result of extreme labour undertaken at his own risk and cost—he referred to his journey to America. He gave his reasons why he believed that certain parts of the story or narrative of a particular person committed for perjury were true, and held that a man put upon trial, and not yet found guilty, was innocent. That was really the whole ground of his offence—the whole ground upon which he had been found guilty of contempt of Court. The reason why he had made an effort to address the Court was that he might take the opinion of the Exchequer Chamber on the subject of this law of contempt, than which nothing could be more repugnant in connection with the course of our English jurisprudence. That was the general outline of his offence, and he ventured to submit that this matter, which had been brought under the notice of the House by the Lord Chief Justice, ought to be referred to the Committee of Privileges for inquiry into the circumstances with a view to their reporting whether it was desirable that the House should take any further steps in the matter.

Will the hon. Member be good enough to bring up the terms of his Motion?

accordingly handed up his Motion in writing—as follows—"That the Letter of the Lord Chief Justice, read by Mr. Speaker to the House on the 19th instant, he referred to the Committee of Privileges to examine and report whether any of the matters referred to therein demand the further attention of this House."

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That the Letter of the Lord Chief Justice of England to Mr. Speaker, informing the House of the commitment of Mr. Whalley, a Member of this House, be referred to the Committee of Privileges, to consider and report whether any of the matters referred to therein demand the further attention of the House."—(Mr. Whalley.)

Sir, any question which involves the Privileges of the Members of this House should always be treated with great attention and consideration. In regard to the present case, I am not prepared in any way to give an opinion on its merits. I am not sufficiently aware of the circumstances, nor have I myself had time to consider them. But certainly, primâ facie, there has been an apparent violation of the Privileges of a Member of this House, and whenever such a violation occurs the House cannot, I think, be too cautious in the course it pursues. The proposition of the hon. Member for Peterborough is however, one which I think it would hardly be convenient for the House to adopt. The Committee of Privileges is a body which we should all of us at all times speak of with great respect, but it is not, upon the whole, a very convenient body to appeal to; and, unless the subject is complicated, I should hardly advise the House to have recourse to such a Committee. The Committee of Privileges is a heterogeneous body, and it is not expedient to appoint one unless the case is of great complexity. It appears to me that the merits of the present case would be met if we were to appoint a Select Committee. My suggestion is that we appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the circumstances.

said, they were not called upon to form any opinion as to the merits of the case, but certainly he did not think this was a case which ought to be passed by without the appointment of a Committee to inquire into it. He was not going to be so impertinent as to express his admiration of the Lord Chief Justice, or of the manner in which he discharged the duties of his high position, but he might say he was very glad that learned Judge had arrived at the conclusion that he ought to acquaint the House with the fact of his having committed one of its Members for contempt. He would venture to point out one or two considerations which appeared to him to make it imperative on all the Courts, whenever they committed a Member of that House, whether during the Recess, or when the House was sitting, to acquaint the House of the fact. What were the facts of the present case? A Member was committed almost immediately before the Dissolution of Parliament. It would have been quite possible, therefore, that he might have been prevented from presenting himself to his constituents for re-election. A Member might be committed—if any other doctrine held good—the day after Parliament was prorogued, and released again the day before Parliament met; and yet no official information might be conveyed to the House on the subject. He did not think the House would be content with any sort of record, or that a County Court Judge might commit one of its Members to prison during the Recess,. and yet that it should receive no official intimation of the fact. If, therefore, a Committee were in the present instance appointed, a good opportunity would, he thought, be afforded for expressing some opinion on the part of the House that information should be conveyed to it whenever any Court of justice happened to commit one of its Members. As to the appointment of a Select Committee instead of a Committee of Privileges, he had only to say that for such a case as that under discussion a Select Committee might command the confidence of the House; but, on the other hand, the unbroken rule had been to refer such cases to a Committee of Privileges. There were instances in which some hon. Members were named specially to serve on a Committee of Privileges, the Committee, with the exception of those names, being constituted in the ordinary way. Such wore, perhaps, not convenient precedents to be followed; but whenever a case arose, of the committal of one of its Members, in which the House took a serious and deep interest it might be of advantage to have a large Committee of Privileges, in whoso proceedings almost the whole of the House might take part. He should not like to see the old practice done away with of referring such cases to a Committee of Privileges. The House had inherited the Privileges which it possessed from those who had established and sustained them in difficult times, and though in the present day they were not often infringed, he thought they should always be jealously watched.

I cannot help thinking that the advice given to us by the right hon. Gentleman at the head of Her Majesty's Government is the one that we should do wisely to adopt—that we should refer the matter to a Select Committee of moderate numbers, where it can be very much more conveniently dealt with than it could be by the Committee of Privileges, which embodies practically the House at large. It must be observed that the Lord Chief Justice has informed us of the fact that a Member of this House has been committed for contempt, but has not stated the circumstances of the ease. It will therefore be the duty of the Committee to ascertain those circumstances, and I think that can be better done by a moderately sized Select Committee of inquiry than by a very largo Committee of Privileges. I therefore quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is very desirable that we should have a Select Committee to inquire into the circumstances. It is quite right, I wish to add, that the House should always be jealous on this subject, and that it should allow nothing to pass without investigation. At the same time I hope it will be fully understood that in appointing a Committee to ascertain the circumstances, that appointment does not imply the slightest censure on the Lord Chief Justice.

said, he was a Member of the House when Mr. Wellesley was committed by Lord Brougham for contempt of his Court. He believed that on that occasion a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the circumstances, and he therefore wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair whether a precedent had not been furnished in that case which might very properly be followed in the present instance?

The precedent to which the hon. and learned Member referred was of this sort. The matter was referred to the Committee of Privileges. That, I am bound to say, has been the ordinary course. At the same time, it has been found in practice somewhat inconvenient, because the Committee of Privileges is composed of all knights of the shire, all gentlemen of the long robe, and all merchants. It must, therefore, be obvious to the House that the composition of such a Committee would, to say the least, be inconvenient, and it will be for the House to determine for itself whether this matter shall be referred to a Select Committee or to a Committee of Privileges.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That the Letter of the Lord Chief Justice of England to Mr. Speaker, informing the House of the commitment of Mr. Whalley, a Member of this House, for Contempt of Court, be referred to a Select Committee, for the purpose of considering and reporting whether any of the matters referred to therein demand the further attention of the House.—(Mr. Disraeli.)
And, on March 26, Committee nominated as follows:—Mr. DISRAELI, Mr. GOSCHEN, Mr. SOLICITOR GENERAL, Mr. KNATCHBULL-HUGESSEN, MR. SPENCER WALPOLE, Mr. WHITBREAD, Mr. STEPHEN CAVE, Sir CHARLES FORSTER, Sir SEYMOUR EITZGERALD, Sir HENRY JAMES, Viscount HOLMESDALE, Sir EDWARD COLEBROOKE, Sir GRAHAM MONTGOMERY, Mr. MASSEY, Viscount CRICHTON, Mr. ATTORNEY GENERAL, and Mr. ROEBUCK:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Five to be the quorum.