§ Sir Francis Vincent
rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill 1208 "to alter and amend the law respecting libel." He said, it was his intention, by the proposed measure, to repeal that part of the Six Acts, and of a Bill afterwards brought in by the learned member for Norwich, which compelled individuals printing and publishing newspapers, pamphlets, &c, to enter into certain, securities to meet any action that might be brought against them. That this enactment was useless, that it had not the effect of checking the evil, was manifested by the atrocious libels which were published every day. It did not deter men of desperate character and fortune, but it prevented respectable people from running the hazard of becoming publishers. To his next proposition, he feared the learned Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench would not accede—that was, to do away with the practice of ex officio informations. That was comparatively a modern practice. It was unknown before the time of Henry 8th, and emanated from the proceedings of the Star-chamber. What was the present state of the law on that point? The Attorney General moved, on affidavit, for a criminal information, and, if it were granted, the defendant was directly held to bail, and if he could not put in bail, he was sent to prison; and the Attorney General might bring on or delay, as he pleased, the proceedings which he had originated. He did not mean to say, that this power was abused. It was not so much against what was generally done, as against what might be done, that he wished to provide. It was true that persons swearing an affidavit or affidavits on such occasions were liable, if they swore falsely, to be prosecuted for perjury; but as they only swore according to the best of their belief that such or such a person was alluded to in the libel, it would be found extremely difficult to convict. He would also, by his Bill, protect proprietors and publishers in every case where they could clearly prove that the libels complained of were published without their knowledge or privity. As the law now stood, persons knowing nothing whatever of the publication of a libel might nevertheless be prosecuted for it. He recollected a case where a servant, who put a letter containing a libel into the post-office, was prosecuted. He would, however, impose on publishers, &c, an obligation to give up the name of the author of any libel. He wished also to extend protection 1209 to booksellers who published works containing libellous matter, of which they happened not to be aware; provided such works had not previously been the object of prosecution. He now came to what would constitute the most material alteration in the law. He would, in all cases, allow proof of the allegation to be received as a justification of the defendant. He should also propose, that the defendant's counsel should be heard last. The speech of the prosecutor's counsel, being last addressed to the Jury, was likely to make a very great, and perhaps an undue impression on them. In the event of a verdict being given against the defendant, the Bill would provide, that the verdict, and part of the record should be published in any six weekly or daily papers that the prosecutor might select. By adopting that course those who had read the libel in any paper would have an opportunity of seing its refutation. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving for leave to bring in a bill, &c.
The Attorney General
said, he should be very sorry to throw any impediment in the way of any hon. Member who brought forward a measure for altering the law of libels. He had heard the details of the hon. Member, but he would not offer any comments on them. On the second reading of the Bill, however, he should feel it to be his duty to offer some few observations to the House on the subject of ex officio informations. He certainly had heard nothing to convince him that the practice was improper. He should not, however, endeavour to support the practice if it appeared contrary to the opinion and feelings of Parliament. With respect to the proceeding by indictment and action, he should not at present make any observation.
Leave given to bring in the Bill.