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Imprisonment Of A Member (Mr Laurence Ginnell)

Volume 183: debated on Wednesday 29 January 1908

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acquainted the House that he had received the following Letter from Mr. Justice Ross, relating to the Imprisonment of Mr. Laurence Ginnell, a Member of this House:—

Land Judge's Court,

Four Courts,


2nd January, 1908.


I beg to inform you that, by order of this Court dated 20th day of December, 1907, it was declared that Lawrence Ginnell, esq., Member of Parliament, was guilty of contempt of court, and was ordered to be imprisoned in Kilmainham Prison, for the term of six calendar months from the date of his arrest or until further order.

In pursuance of the said order the hon. Member was arrested on the 23rd of December, 1907.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Your obedient servant,


Judge of the High Court of Justice,

Chancery Division.

To the Right Hon. The Speaker of the House of Commons.

said he paused for a moment expecting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make some Motion upon the communication which had just been made to the House. Those hon. Members who had taken the trouble to make themselves acquainted with the precedents and history of the House must be aware that there was no instance in which a letter of this kind had been received without a Motion being made to appoint a Committee to enquire into the matter, and report to the House whether there were any circumstances connected with it which required the further attention of the House. He would not delay the House by reading precedents, because it was only a short time since a similar case arose, and then the precedents were gone into fully. In that case the late Government was in office, and the then Prime Minister took the course which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was now taking—he left it to a private Member to make the Motion. The right hon. Gentleman then explained that he had not himself moved the Motion because the offence was not one of simple contempt, but was complicated by the magistrates taking action under the Statute of Edward III. But for that the right hon. Gentleman said he would have made the Motion according to precedent. But the present was not a complicated case; it was a simple case of contempt of court, and should be dealt with in accordance with precedents. But when the Motion was made, and it was pointed out what the clear and unvarying precedent had been, the then Prime Minister accepted the Motion he (Mr. Redmond) made. When in a former case he endeavoured to raise the question of privilege, he was told that privilege did not arise until the arrest had actually taken place. No such objection could be raised now, and he submitted that there was no instance in the whole history of, Parliament where a Member had been imprisoned for contempt of court, where a Committee had not been appointed. He was sorry it had been left to him to move in this matter. He thought it would have been better if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had followed former precedents and moved the Motion himself. However, he was the best judge of what was his duty towards the House and towards questions of privilege arising in the House, and he had no right to blame him. He would, however, do what he did in 1902, in the case of the hon. Member who sat for North Sligo. He would move a Motion in the exact terms as that which was then adopted by the House, viz.—

"That the letter of 2nd January, 1908, from Mr. Justice Ross to Mr. Speaker, informing the House of the attachment of Mr. Laurence Ginnell for contempt of court, be referred to a Select Committee for the purpose of considering whether any of the matters referred to therein demand the attention of this House."


By this Motion my functions are really brought into operation. I have to consider, when a Motion of this kind is made, whether prima facie the question of privilege is raised. I have been refreshing my memory as to the precedents, and I find there are a number of cases in which committees have been appointed to consider matters similar to the one now brought before the House. Five out of the last six cases dealt with were referred to committees, and the committees invariably came to the same conclusion—namely, that the privileges of Parliament do not extend to cases of Criminal contempt, and the hon. Member for Waterford has asked the House once more to reopen a question which I cannot help thinking the House has decided over and over again. I base myself on what occurred in 1903, when a similar case arose on the arrest of the hon. Member who then sat for North Sligo, and my predecessor declined to allow such a motion as the hon. Member now proposes to be made on the ground that in a case of criminal contempt there was no privilege. I find myself unable to get away from the precedent my predecessor laid down on that occasion. It is for me to say whether there are prima facie grounds for supposing that there has been any breach of privilege in the committal of this hon. Member, and in the absence of any distinction having been drawn, I am bound to say I do not think there is any prima facie case of breach of privilege.

asked who was to decide whether this was a case of civil or criminal contempt. He respectfully called attention to the fact that in the document the Speaker had read there was no intimation from the Judge as to the nature of the contempt. He further contended that the decisions of committees did not bind the House unless the House specifically adopted them, and the report of the committee in 1902 was never discussed or adopted by the House.


In answer to the two points taken by the hon. Member, I would like to say that the reports of the Select Committees which have been referred to, always recommended that the House should take no further action, and the very fact that the House took no further action is to my mind proof that the House approved the decisions of those committees and assented to their findings. The second point put, is how do I know this hon. Member was committed in respect of criminal contempt? If there were any suggestion that the hon. Member had only been guilty of a civil contempt the matter might be different, and there might be a matter to be inquired into; but I have never heard it alleged that there is any question of civil contempt. Civil contempt I understand to be a refusal to pay a debt adjudged to be due. I have no official intimation of what occurred. I can only use the same means as the hon. Member of informing myself, and, subject to its being shown that the contempt of which the hon. Member was guilty was a civil and not a criminal one, I do not see how it can be dealt with as a matter of privilege.

pointed out that the decisions in previous cases were decisions of magistrates at petty sessions or of a common law Judge, and seeing that Mr. Justice Ross was a Judge of the Chancery Division, it seemed to him the point was well worth inquiring into before a committee.


I think I am right in saying that Mr. Justice Ross was the Judge in the 1902 case, and committed the hon. Member for North Sligo.

said that was a committal by the magistrates in the exercise of criminal jurisdiction.


I may be wrong about the 1902 case; but, at any rate, in the 1903 case Mr. Justice Ross was the Judge, and he then clearly had a criminal jurisdiction.

asked how it was to be proved that a Member had been guilty of only a civil contempt. So long as there was doubt as to that it was better that the House should follow the old precedents even at the risk of erring in being too lenient. He hoped he would be allowed to move his Motion.


I should be very glad to allow the Motion to be moved if I thought it compatible with my duty. I can assure the hon. Member that it is very disagreeable to me to have to decide these matters. I would much rather the House should decide them. At the same time the duty is cast on me to decide whether a prima facie case is made out, and I am bound to say I do not think it has been made out or even suggested that this case is one of civil and not of criminal contempt.