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ATTORNEY-GENERAL WEBSTER., Issue 7926, 6 June 1889
Ox March 22 the House of Commons was asked to vote the salary of the Attorney - General, whereupon Sir William Harcourt rose to call attention to what he termed, with apt sarcasm, " certain charges and allegations " against the Attorney-General's conduct in the matter of the Parnell Commission. The debate which ensued was one of the most acrimonious of the numberless angry discussions to which the Irish question in its various phases has given rise; and though it dealt to a large extent with matters of detail into which we neei not enter, a few general points are worthy of notice. Sir William Harcourt, who spoke with singular moderation, asked whether Sir Richard Webster's position in connection with the Commission was to be regarded as that of a private barrister, or that of a quasi-public prosecutor. Assuming that Sir Richard was acting in a private capacity, had he not exceeded the limitations which public policy and the fitness of things mußt impose upon the rights of private practice enjoyed by the law officers of the Crown 1 One duty of the. Attorney-General was to advise the Government in any matter of policy. Was it consistent with that duty for the Attorney-General to debar himself from giving such advice in a matter so vitally affecting the constitutional welfare as the establishment, progress, and outcome of the Special Commission 1 ? Or might it be that he had indeed given, and was still prepared to give, such advice despite his private, interest in the case 1 Another duty of the office was to advise the House in any matter concerning the honor of its members. How could the AttorneyGeneral do so now in the present momentous instance, where the honor of eighty-five members was concerned?. Why, then, should they be asked to pay him £12,000 fordutieswhich he had not discharged, and which he was not in a position to discharge 1 Again, regarding the time involved, surely the Attorney-General, though entitled to engage in private practice, was merely offering the public service the " leavings " of his time and energies. "If you are to have private business "occupying nine months, and which "may occupy three months more, " what becomes of the service of the "State? If that is to go on you " will have to pay your Attorney- " General by piecework." If the At-torney-General had indeed appeared all along for 'The Times' as a private advocate, his proceedings had hardly tended to the performance of a third duty of the office, viz., the presentment of a high example to the English Bar. Sir William Harcourt next turned to the alternative supposition that Sir Richard Webster had really, though in some rather complicated way, appeared as a quasi-public prosecutor, and argued that, if this were so, his conduct of the case had been utterly unworthy of his position. He had adopted methods which would be of doubtful justification in a private advocate, while conducting what was, practically, a State inquiry. If the; Attorney - General's appearance in Court partook in any degree of a public character, it was his duty to be strictly impartial, to serve the cause of truth rather than of partisanship, to put every legitimate advantage and aid in the way of the accused persons, and tobe very careful as to the nature of the evidence which he produced against such persons. This multiform duty Sir Richard Webster had pertinaciously neglected. His connection with the Pigott episode needed, to say the least, explanation, and his conduct of the case for' The Times' had been that of a thoroughgoing, not to say unscrupulous, advocate. This, put briefly, was the pith of the "charges and allegations" advanced by Sir William Harcourt, who, by the way,, expressed the confident hope that Sit Richard Webster was merely the mouthpiece, and not the author or instigator, of the " mean, shabby, and unmanly" apology offered by his clients to Mr Parnell after the discovery of Pigott's iniquity. The Attorney-General, in replying, wore (to borrow a racy expression from the New Zealand political vocabulary) big hobnailed boots. He was very indignant, very passionate, very full of the argumentum ad homi' nem, but withal very astute. He desired it to be understood once and for all that in appearing for 'The Times' he appeared as a private practitioner, such appearance having nothing whatever to do with * his official position; but he considered it unnecessary or inconvenient to reply to Sir William Harcourt's argument that he had exceeded the limitation* which should qualify a law officer'sright of private practice. He "could imagine " that there might be a question whether or not, "from his personal point of view," it was a prudent 1 thing to do as he had done. His personal point of view ! Not a word about the point of view of the public service, the House of Commons, or the traditions of the English Bar! Sir William Harcourt did not want a half - admission from Sir Richard Webster that, as all the world knows; he has made a prodigious mistake "from his personal point of view"; he wanted a demonstration from th» Attorney-General that he had been, guiltless of any important mistake from the public point of view. Yet Sir Richard had nothing more to say
in reference to what was really the most important point involved. He proceeded to attempt an answer to the assertion that he had conducted the case unfairly, ignoring the fact that Sir William Harcourt's charges on this point rested upon the hypothesis that he did not appear as a private practitioner. It was not, however, entirely supererogatory of Sir Kichard to enter upon this attempt, because, in the first place, though he may have appeared nominally in a private capacity, it is quite evident that he did not so appear entirely and practically; and secondly, some of the charges in relation to his conduct of the case were almost equally applicable to his appearance in that private capacity. How far he was successful in his defence may be judged from one very important instance. Sir William Harcourt had asked ■when the Attorney-General became acquainted with the existence of a letter dated November 17, 1888, from Pigott to Mr Soames ('The TimesV solicitor), which practically admitted the writer's infamy and incredibility ; and had intimated that, when the Attorney-General knew of it, he ought to have given the information to Sir Charles Russell. Sir Richard Webster, in his reply, passionately asserted, amid exulting cheers from the Conservative benches, that he " knew " of the letter in the middle of Decern- «' ber. Five days before Pigott went 11 into the box I put that letter into the >• hands of Sir Charles Russell. So, 11 if it was desirable that the other side " should know that that man's character was discredited, I myself had " given that information." This was a great point, and it was generally admitted that Sir Richard had scored heavily. But what followed 1 Why, Mr George Lewis wrote next day to ' The Times' characterising this statement of the Attorney - General as "an amazing misstatement," and asserting u that neither the existence, much less "the contents, of these letters was "known, or in any way communi- " cated to Sir Charles Russell, or to " any of the other counsel, or me, and "it was only after Pigott's flight, " when Mr Soames was put into the "box, they were produced for the " first time !" And the AttorneyGeneral has had to eat humble-pie and to admit that the letter he offered to Sir Charles Russell was one from Soames to Pigott, which by no means contained evidence of the latter's incredibility. So much for Sir Charles Webster's virtuous indignation. We may add, by the way, that Sir Richard frankly, not to say jubilantly, admitted his authorship of the now historical "apology." The most interesting, and, perhaps, really most important, incident of the debate centred in a short speech from Mr Parnell. Sir W. Harcourt and other Gladstonian speakers, in alluding to the shameful inadequacy of ' The Times's' apology, had noticed the fact that several Conservative politicians— Lord Salisbury, we regret to say, in particular—were still in the habit of hinting that the authenticity of " the letters " was after all a subject of some doubt. Accordingly, Mr Parnell took the opportunity of speaking thus: " I have risen for the purpose of asking " this question of honorable gentlemen " opposite—ls there any one of them "who will get up in his place, or "sitting in his place, by a shake of " his head, or a nod, or a word, will " venture to say he believes that there "is any doubt whatever as to the " forgeries of these letters which have '•been alleged to have been written "and signed by me?" Needless to say, no member rose; and shake, nod, and word were alike unforthcoming. Sir Robert Fowler, one of the doubters, sat motionless. Moreover, Sir Henry James, one of the leading counsel for ' The Times,' speaking subsequently, expressed his opinion, amid loud cheers, that Mr Parnell had "shown that he did not write those letters." This, as Mr John Morley observed, was the most valuable outcome of the debate ; and henceforth even Lord Salisbury's cynical scepticism will hardly again venture to find expression in words.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL WEBSTER., Issue 7926, 6 June 1889
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