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Crown debtors.

been among the most popular arguments against duties of excise, 1 The repeal of many of these duties, under an improved fiscal policy, has contributed as well to the liberties of the people, as to their material welfare. But restraints and vexations were not the worst incidents of

the revenue laws. An onerous and complicated

system of taxation involved numerous breaches of the law. Many were punished with fines, which, if not paid, were followed by imprisonment. It was right that the law should be vindicated; but while other offences escaped with limited terms of imprisonment, the luckless debtors of the crown, if too poor to pay their fees and costs, might suffer imprisonment for life. Even when the legislature at length took pity upon other debtors, this class of prisoners were excepted from its merciful care. But they have since shared in the milder policy of our laws; and have received ample' indulgence from the Treasury and the Court of Exchequer. While Parliament continued to wield its power of commit.

ment capriciously and vindictively, - not in vindi

cation of its own just authority, but for the punishprivileges by Parliument, ment of libels, and other offences cognizable by the croachment law, — it was scarcely less dangerous than those upon liberty. arbitrary acts of prerogative which the law had already condemned, as repugnant to liberty. Its abuses, however, survived but for a few years after the accession of George III.S

Vindictive exercise of

1 Adam Smith, speaking of the frequent visits and odious examination of the tax-gatherers," says:-“ Dealers have no respite from the continual visits and examination of the excise officers.” - Book V. c. 2. - Blacktone says:—“The rigor, and arbitrary proceedings of excise laws, seem hardly compatible with the temper of a free nation." — Comm., i. 308 (Kerr's ed.).

2 Hans. Deb., 2d Ser., viii. 808.
8 53 Geo. III. c. 102, $ 51.
4 7 Geo. IV. c. 57, \ 74; 1 & 2 Vict. c. 110, $$ 103, 104.

5 Supra, Chap. VII.; and see Townsend's Mem. of the House of Commons, passim.

But another power, of like character, continued to impose - and still occasionally permits — the most cruel restraints upon personal liberty. A court of equity nients for can only enforce obedience to its authority by imprisonment. If obedience be refused, commitment for contempt must follow. The authority of the court would otherwise be defied, and its jurisdiction rendered nugatory. But out of this necessary judicial process grew up gross abuses and oppression. Ordinary offences are purged by certain terms of imprisonment; men suffer punishment and are free again. And, on this principle, persons committed for disrespect or other contempt to the court itself were released after a reasonable time, upon their apology and submission. But no such mercy was shown to those who failed to obey the decrees of the court in any suit. Their imprisonment was indefinite, if not perpetual. Their contempt was only to be purged by obedience, - perhaps wholly beyond their power. For such prisoners, there was no relief but death. Some persisted in their contempt from obstinacy, sullenness, and litigious hate ; but many suffered for no offence but ignorance and poverty. Humble suitors, dragged into court by richer litigants, were sometimes too poor to obtain professional advice, or even to procure copies of the bills filed against them. Lord Eldon himself, to his honor be it said, had charitably assisted such men to put in answers in his own court. Others, again, unable to pay money and costs decreed against them, suffered imprisonment for life. This latter class, however, at length became entitled to relief as insolvent debtors.8 But the complaints of other wretched men, to whom the law brought no relief, were often heard. In 1817, Mr. Bennet, in presenting a petition from one of these prisoners, thus stated his own experience:

Commit.

contempt

1 Hans. Deb., 2d Ser., viii. 808. 3 Ibid., xiv. 1178.

8 49 Geo. III. c. 6. 53 Geo. III. c. 102, $ 47; Hans. Deb., 2d Ser., xiv. 1 6th May, 1817; Hans. Deb., 1st Ser., xxxvi. 158. Mr. Bennet had made a statement on the same subject in 1816; Ibid., xxxiv. 1099.

"1

1818.

“ Last year," he said, “ Thomas Williams had been in confinement for thirty-one years by an order of the Court of Chancery. He had visited him in his wretched house of bondage, where he had found him. sinking under all the miseries that can afflict humanity, and on the following day he died. At this time,” he added, “ there were in the same prison with the petitioner, a woman who had been in confinement twenty-eight years, and two other persons who had been there seventeen years.” In the next year, Mr. Bennet April 22d,

presented another petition from prisoners confined

for contempt of court, complaining that nothing had been done to relieve them, though they had followed all the instructions of their lawyers. The petitioners had witnessed the death of six persons, in the same condition as themselves, one of whom had been confined four, another eighteen, and another thirty-four years."

In 1820, Lord Althorp presented another petition ; and Aug. 81st,

among the petitioners was a woman, eighty-one

years old, who had been imprisoned for thirty-one years. In the eight years preceding 1820, twenty prisoners had died while under confinement for contempt, some of whom had been in prison for upwards of thirty years. Even so late as 1856, Lord St. Leonards presented a petition, complaining of continued hardships upon prisoners for contempt; and a statement of the Lord Chancellor revealed the difficulty and painfulness of such cases. " A man who had been confined in the early days of Lord Eldon's Chancellorship for refusing to disclose certain facts, remained in prison, obstinately declining to make any statement upon the subject, until his death a few months ago."

1820

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2 Hans. Deb., 1st Ser., xxxviii. 284.
8 Hans. Deb., 2d Ser., i. 693.
4 Ibid., xiv. 1178; Mr. Hume's Return, Parl. Paper, 1820 (302).

5 Hans. Deb., 3d Ser., cxlii. 1570. In another recent case, a lad was committed for refusing to discontinue his addresses to a ward of the court, and died in prison.

Mesne Pro

Doubtless the peculiar jurisdiction of courts of equity has caused this extraordinary rigor in the punishment of contempts; but justice and a respect for personal liberty alike require that punishment should be meted out according to the gravity of the offence. The Court of Queen's Bench upholds its dignity by commitments for a fixed period; and may not the Court of Chancery be content with the like punishment for disobedience, however gross and culpable?

Every restraint on public liberty hitherto noticed has been permitted either to the executive govern- Arrest on ment, in the interests of the state, or to courts cess. of justice, in the exercise of a necessary jurisdiction. Individual rights have been held subordinate to the public good; and on that ground, even questionable practices admitted of justification. But the law further permitted, and society long tolerated, the most grievous and wanton restraints, imposed by one subject upon another, for which no such justification is to be found. The law of debtor and creditor, until a comparatively recent period, was a scandal to a civilized country. For the smallest claim, any man was liable to be arrested, on mesne process, before legal proof of the debt. He might be torn from his family, like a malefactor, at any time of day or night, - and detained until bail was given ;' and in default of bail, imprisoned until the debt was paid. Many of these arrests were wanton and vexatious ; and writs were issued with a facility and looseness which placed the liberty of every man — suddenly and without notice at the mercy of any one who claimed payment of a debt. A debtor, however honest and solvent, was liable to arrest. The demand might even be false and fraudulent: but the pretended creditor, on making oath of the debt, was armed with this terrible process of the law. The wretched defendant might lie in prison for several months before his cause was heard; when, even if the action was discontinued

1 An executor might even obtain an arrest on swearing to his belief of a debt. Report, 1792, Com. Journ , xlvii. 640.

1

or the debt disproved, he could not obtain his discharge without further proceedings, often too costly for a poor debtor, already deprived of his livelihood by imprisonment. No longer even a debtor, - he could not shake off his bonds.

Slowly and with reluctance did Parliament address itself to the correction of this monstrous abuse. In the reign of George I. arrests on mesne process, issuing out of the superior courts, were limited to sums exceeding 101. ;but it was not until 1779, that the same limit was imposed on the process of inferior jurisdictions. This sum was afterwards raised to 15l., and in 1827 to 201. In that year, 1100 persons were confined, in the prisons of the metropolis alone, on mesne process.

The total abolition of arrests on mesne process was frequently advocated, but it was not until 1838 that it was at length accomplished. Provision was made for securing absconding debtors; but the old process for the recovery of debt in ordinary cases, which had wrought so many acts of oppression, was abolished. While this vindictive remedy was denied, the debtor's lands were, for the first time, allowed to be taken in satisfaction of a debt ; 4 and extended facilities were afterwards afforded for the recovery of small claims, by the establishment of county courts. The law of arrest was reckless of liberty: the law of exe

cution for debt was one of savage barbarity. A , Imprisonment for debt. creditor is entitled to every protection and remedy, which the law can reasonably give. All the debtor's property should be his; and frauds by which he has been wronged should be punished as criminal. But the remedies of English law against the property of a debtor were

1 12 Geo. I. c. 29.
2 19 Geo. III. c. 70.

8 Hans. Deb., 2d Ser., xvii. 386. The number in England amounted to 3662.

41 & 2 Vict. c. 110. 6 9 & 10 Vict. c. 95.

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