HC Deb 12 February 1823 vol 8 cc105-10
Mr. Spring Rice

requested the attention of the House while he brought before it a subject of the greatest importance. He alluded to the administration of justice in Ireland, and particularly the charges contained in the 9th and 11th reports of the commissioners of inquiry against chief baron O'Grady. He did not wish to go into the merits of this great question at the present moment. He would now only state specifically what had been done on this sub ject, and ask the government, what course was by them intended to be pursued re garding it? In 1814, his right hon. friend, the member for Waterford, moved an address to the crown for the appointment of commissioners to inquire into the conduct of the officers connected with the administration of justice in Ireland. Very few parliamentary efforts reflected more honour on their author. Few public men had been able to do more good to their country than his right hon. friend had by this single motion, and he would add, in perfect sincerity that, as far as government was concerned in the furtherance of the inquiry, and with regard to the selection of commissioners, it had deserved well of the country. A more painful duty could hardly by imposed upon men, nor could any set of men have performed it in a more fearless or uncompromising manner than these commissioners had done. In April 1821, a report was made from these gentlemen, reflection very seriously on the chief baron of Ireland. That learned lord was thereby involved in charges of the gravest importance; for they went the length of imputing to him that, in the execution of his duties as a judge, he had been guilty of extortion on the suitors in his court, in taking as fees more than was due, or that which was not due at the time it was taken. In June 1821, he (Mr. Rice) brought this subject before parliament, and he then moved a series of resolutions founded on the report of the commissioners. The noble marquis (Londonderry) then the organ of government in that House, asked, him to suspend his measures, and promised to bring the subject forward in another shape. At a future time a select committee was appointed, to which the whole subject was referred. The House would recollect, that this committee was appointed on the motion of the noble marquis. The report of that committee (of which two of the ministers were members), was not conclusive on all the points of inquiry. They required more information to arrive at a decisive judgment. The noble marquis pledged himself, that the subject should be referred to the competent authorities in Ireland. At the commencement of the last session the subject was again referred to the same commissioners of inquiry, who made another report. These documents were now on the table of the House. The charges, it should be remembered, were against a high judicial personage, and were preferred by a commission of legal inquiry issued by government, under a parliamentary authority. To these charges the lord chief baron had pleaded not guilty, and the parties had joined issue on that plea. Dating the last session he (Mr. S. Rice) had given notice that he would bring this important subject before parliament, and he was ready, if necessary, to fulfil his engagement. But such a proceeding ought not fairly to be cast on any one individual. Government ought to interfere. They ought not to stand by as a neutral party in this great question. Either they ought to protect the character of the judge, from the attack of the commissioners, or they ought to protect the administration of justice from the abuses of an unworthy depository of judicial power. If the chief baron was correct in his assertions, the commissioners ought to be regarded as a gang of calumniators, not as a reputable body of impartial judges. If, on the other hand, the commissioners were correct in their charges, then the chief baron was unfit to continue in the administration or the law, and ought forthwith to be dismissed from the bench which he disgraced. There never was, he believed, a more important subject submitted to parliament. The prosecution of the inquiry ought not to be cast upon the shoulders of any individual. The Irish government had lately undertaken the task of revising the lists of the magistracy; an act for which every lover of his country felt grateful, though perhaps it was valuable rather for the admission of the principle of reform, than for the mode in which that principle was carried into practice. However, having admitted the principle, that unworthy magistrates ought to be dismissed from trusts they could not execute, was the government prepared to have it said, that while, with much of parade and affectation, they struck oil ignorant and corrupt magistrates, whose principal fault was probably their folly, more exalted offenders, on whose character and conduct the highest interests of society were dependant, should be passed by, not only without punishment, but, as far as ministers were concerned, without accusation? The commission for inquiring into the administration of justice in Ireland, was now proceeding in its researches. It had cost upwards of 100,000l.of public money. If all this money was not actually wasted; if the reports of that commission were to be considered as any thing better than waste paper, why were not these reports made the foundation of measures of practical reform? It was clearly the duty of government to have acted in this case as they had in all others. Confiding in the integrity and ability of this commission, government had undertaken an entire re-modification and reform of the administration of justice in the higher courts of Ireland. They had legislated on the faith of these reports: they had dismissed clerks and regulated offices on the recommendation of the commissioners of inquiry. Were they prepared now to desert their duty, and neglect to bring higher personages to justice? Why were not judges as tit objects of reform as inferior officers? He was perfectly willing to go on with this inquiry himself, painful and invidious as it was; but be called upon government to take the necessary steps; and it was only in their default that he would step forward. As to the probable issue of the inquiry, he would not say one word. If the charges were not maintainable, no man was more anxious than himself, that chief baron O'Grady might be honourably acquitted; but it was doe to public justice, now that he was accused by so respectable a body of prosecutors, that he should at least be tried. He moved, for Copies of all Correspondence between the Irish government and the judges and officers of the courts of justice in Ireland, on the subject of the ninth and eleventh reports of the Commission of Inquiry, and the Letters of chief baron O'Grady, since the 1st of 1822.

Mr. Goulburn

was confident that the hon. member must anticipate the reply he should give to the inquiry contained in what had been just stated, and he trusted that the House would concur in the propriety of the course which government thought itself called upon to pursue. True it was, that the marquis of Londonderry occasioned a further inquiry into a part of the case; but it did not follow, that it was the duty of ministers to proceed with the other parts of it. The committee had been appointed to obtain further information for the general satisfaction of the House; and it seemed to him (Mr. G.), that for government to take up the charge under the particular and especial circumstances, would be a great injustice to the individual inculpated, and a gross violation of an important public principle. He saw no analogy between the cases of the inferior magistracy and that of a judge in the first case, it was the undisputed right of the crown to appoint and remove; but a high judicial officer, though named by the crown, was not removable by it, and stood quite upon a different footing. For ministers to proceed in the accusation, would be to make this solemn question a party matter, and would be highly prejudiced to the interest of justice. He did not say that cases might not occur in which the government would be called upon to interpose, but he contended that the present was not one of them. It had been begun by the hon. member fur Limerick; he had persevered in it through several sessions, and he had even that night followed it up by moving for additional documents. The charge could not he in better hands.

Mr. Abercromby

contended, that the marquis of Londonderry, by the proceeding he had recommended, and by the committee he had appointed, had, in point of fact, adopted this accusation. There was no duty more important than for a government to watch over the due administration of justice. He also objected to this being made a party question; but the way to render it so, was to leave it in the hands of an individual member, and to direct against him all the influence of ministers. This charge had for several years been depending against the chief baron, during which time he had gone the circuit, and had tried criminals, when perhaps he himself ought to have been put upon his trial. If government did not proceed, they would be guilty of an abandonment of their duty. If the hon. member for Limerick would take his advice, Le would recommend him to drop the subject, in order to see whether ministers would venture to remain passive spectators.

Mr. Secretary Peel

observed, that the real question was, whether government ought to take the case out of the hands of the hon. member for Limerick, who had commenced the proceeding in 1821. Was there any reason why he should relieve himself, and throw the burthen upon the shoulders of others? Ministers must, of course, be at all times anxious to facilitate these proceedings, and had done their utmost to carry the reforms recommended by the commissioners into effect. They were by no means desirous of shrink- ing from their duty; but, because the marquis of Londonderry wished to obtain further information, it was not to be inferred that he meant to undertake the prosecution. He was then only acting in his judicial capacity as a member of parliament. The ends of justice would be best promoted, by leaving the case in the hands of the hon. gentleman who had originally undertaken it.

Mr. Grant

by no means agreed, that in moving for a committee, the marquis of Londonderry had pledged government to prosecute the complaint. He thought, however, that the best course which could be taken at present, would be to refer the whole matter to a committee anew.

Mr. S. Rice

said, he never meant to assert that the marquis of Londonderry had given any distinct pledge on the part of government; yet certainly the moving a committee of his own nomination, was a most extraordinary way of leaving the matter in the management of himself (Mr. Rice). Though he had been the proposer of this inquiry, he had never discussed it in any other way than by calling on government to do its duty. Not that he shrunk from any responsibility; but as this was a great public inquiry, and as it had now received the sanction of a committee, and was borne out by facts and documents, he did think that he might call upon the government for a more marked and earnest declaration of opinion than they had as vet given. He protested against the supposition, that this was to be considered as the charge of any individual member. It was the charge of the parliamentary commissioners, after a judicial inquiry; it was the charge of a select committee above stairs, and he was only the instrument, on the present occasion, of bringing the case under the notice of the House.

The motion was agreed to.