The celebrated case of Stockdale against Hansard calls for a special notice. It became historical, and, indeed, it marked an epoch in the history of the House of Commons. No other such curious complication has arisen in modern times - no such direct antagonism had been known before or is likely to be ever known again, between the rights of the House of Commons and what seemed at the first consideration to be the rights and interests of the public in general. The facts are simple, and the story is easily told and will be easily understood. The Messrs. Hansard were then and are now the recognised printers for Parliament; and in 1840 they had printed and published certain Parliamentary Reports on Prisons, in the course of which it so happened that a book published by J. J. Stockdale, and found in some of the prisons, was condemned in the strongest terms. Stockdale at once proceeded against the Messrs. Hansard and claimed damages on the ground that they had printed and issued a libel upon him. The Hansards in their defence pleaded the authority of Parliament for the publication; but Chief Justice Denman, before whom the case came on for trial, decided that the House of Commons, being only one of the two Houses of Parliament, had no authority of its own to sanction the publication of libels against private citizens, and out of this decision arose a quarrel which at one time became a great public scandal. The House of Commons formally insisted on its privileges and would not give them up. The Law Courts held by the decision of Chief Justice Denman and would not admit that there was any parliamentary authority to shelter the Messrs. Hansard. It will be observed that Chief Justice Denman did not in any way set himself against the authority of Parliament; he only insisted that the House of Commons did not constitute Parliament, and had not of its single power any right to sanction the publication of a libel.
As the law then stood it would appear that the Chief Justice was in the right, nor was he in the least likely to give any judgment which could pretend to set aside the over-ruling power of Parliament. Everybody will understand that a Member of Parliament speaking in the House of Commons and keeping within its rules of order cannot be proceeded against for any state-ment that he makes there in good faith, no matter how severely it may criticise the words or the actions of any private individual whose case has been brought under the notice of the House. In fact, it would be impossible to conceive of the utility, or even of the existence, of a House of Commons in this country whose members were not free to express their opinions on any case brought up for discussion. Judgment was given by default against the Hansards in one of several actions for libel which arose out of the whole question and the decision of the Courts of Law. The Sheriffs of London were directed to seize and sell some of the property of the Hansards in order to satisfy the demands of the plaintiff in one of these actions. Nothing could be more embarrassing than the position in which the Sheriffs of London thus suddenly found themselves placed. They were ordered by the Court of Queen's Bench to seize the property, and if they had refused to do so that Court would undoubtedly have directed their committal to prison for their refusal to obey the command. But, on the other hand, if they touched the property of the Hansards they would have been acting in contempt of the privileges of the House of Commons; and the Speaker would be sure to order their committal to Newgate. That theirs was no imaginary difficulty soon became known to the public. Messrs. Hansard paid in to the Sheriff's Court the amount of damages claimed; but they paid it under protest. The House of Commons ordered the Sheriffs to refund the money to Messrs. Hansard; and the Sheriffs were committed to the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms for acting in contempt of the privileges of the House of Commons. The House, through its Speaker, directed the Sergeant-at-Arms to make known to the Court that he held the Sheriffs in custody by the express order of the Representative Chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms took the Sheriffs with him as captives into the Court of Queen's Bench, and made his announcement there; and the Court did not see its way to interfere directly; and so the Sergeant-at-Arms marched off in triumph with his municipal captives following in his wake. The whole business created immense public excitement not unmingled with loud outbursts of popular laughter. A dilemma more ridiculous and more unseemly it would be hardly possible to conceive. The curious fact was that public opinion at first was almost altogether in favour of the Law Courts and of the captured Sheriffs. The general impression for awhile seemed to be that it was simply a struggle between the rights of private individuals and what appeared the arrogant claim of the House of Commons to over-rule law and order and all civil rights.
Edward Augustus Freeman. 1825-1892.
Especial and very general sympathy was felt with the unfortunate Sheriffs, who had done nothing more than to carry out the orders of the Court of Law, and who, if they had not been put in prison by one of the great conflicting authorities would most certainly have been put into prison by the other. There was no way out of the whole unseemly dilemma but by some legislative action, and the Government took prompt steps to settle the matter in that way. On March 3, 1840, Lord John Russell brought in a Bill to afford full protection to all persons employed in the publication of Parliamentary papers issued and authorised by either of the two Houses. Lord John Russell's Bill set forth in its preamble that "whereas it is essential to the due and effectual discharge of the functions and duties of Parliament that no obstruction should exist to the publication of the reports, papers, votes or proceedings of either House as such House should deem fit, it should be lawful for any person or persons against whom any criminal proceedings on account of such publication should be taken, to bring before the Court a certificate of the Lord Chancellor or the Speaker stating that it was published by the authority of the House, and the proceedings should at once be stayed." The measure was passed very quickly through both Houses, although some grumbling was made in the House of Lords, and it became law on April 14th. The Sheriffs and other prisoners were discharged from custody, and the whole public excitement soon settled down into quietude.
The common sense of the country decided the question in favour of the House of Commons, and it is now the rule of the law, as well as of parliamentary usage, that either House of Parliament may authorise the publication of its debates, its papers, and its orders without let or hindrance from any court of law. No grievance whatever that the public could be inclined to complain of has arisen since from any misuse of parliamentary power; nor, even if any such misuse were probable or possible, could any evil arising from it have approached in any degree to the magnitude of the evil which must come from any law that restricted the publication of the parliamentary papers. No great reform for the benefit of the public in general could have ever been passed through Parliament if it were in the power of private individuals, who believed that their interests might suffer from such a reform, to bring actions against members of either House for their speeches on the subject, or against the parliamentary printers for publishing the authorised papers of either House, containing all the information needed for an accurate judgment on the necessity of the reform. Take, for instance, the legislation to abolish slavery in our Colonies. Think of the details which had to be brought out in such debates, the descriptions of the lives led by some of the slaves in the Colonies, of the manner in which certain owners of plantations overworked and flogged and branded their slave men and their slave women, and think what possibility there would be of carrying such a reform if the mere publication of the proceedings were to subject the parliamentary printers to damages, or to criminal prosecution, for libel. Think of the legislation pressed forward and carried by men like Lord Shaftesbury to protect women and children from ill-treatment, and let us ask ourselves how such legislation could possibly have been carried if it were in the power of every mine-owner, and every factory owner, to prevent the public from obtaining any accurate knowledge of the systems actually existing.
The poor climbing boy in the chimney might have been followed by other climbing boys to this day, under the same abominable system, if the House of Commons were not free to conduct its debates and publish its papers without the intervention of the Courts of Law, set in motion by some master-sweep. The poorer the victim, the more helpless the class of victims, the greater becomes the necessity that those who endeavour to have justice done to them shall not be subjected to actions or prosecutions for libel, started by the very wrongdoers whom Parliament is trying to deprive of their unjust powers. Nor is this the most serious consideration involved in the whole question. Men like Lord Shaftesbury, and others equally philanthropic and equally brave, might have defied all terrors of civil and criminal action; but how were they to be supported by the public out of doors if the public were not allowed to get at the parliamentary papers, on which they rested their claim for justice and humanity ? The legislation introduced and carried by Lord John Russell set each House of Parliament free to instruct the public, and to invite the cooperation of the public, in every measure of philanthropic reform; and the final settlement of the case against Messrs. Hansard carried with it the triumph of parliamentary freedom, and secured the right of men in either House of Parliament to turn the full light of publicity on the darkest evils of our social system.