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ATTORNEY - GENERAL WEBSTER AGAIN.

On June 6, in the course of an article dealing with the House of Commons's debate on Sir Richard "Webster's conduct in relation to the Special Commission, we said : "And the " Attorney - General 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." As the accuracy of these words has been impugned, and as all the information likely to be available upon this important matter is now to hand, it is perhaps wortli while explaining, with some little detail, what the position really seems to be. It will be remembered that the Attorney-General, when replying to Sir William Harcourt, asserted that he had handed to Sir Charles Russell, live days before the examination of Pigott, a letter from Pigott toMrSoAMES ('The Times's' solicitor) of November 17, which contained a self-revelation of the writer's infamy. " I Tnyself gave that information," cried Sir Richard Webster, and he evidently intended to convey the idea that his action had been voluntary. Next came Mr George Lewis, the famous solicitor, who, in the following

morning's paper, pretty plainly told the Attorney-General that he had been dreaming. He stated that the only letter put in by the AttorneyGeneral was one from Soames to Pigott of November 15, which was, in the Attorney-General's own words, " the arrangement in writing" between Pigott and' The Times' re the former's security, and which was only produced a few minutes before Pigott's examination. A day or two afterwards Sir Charles Russell referred to the matter in the House of Commons, and backed up Mr Lewis's statements, adding that even the letter of November 15 he had never really received, though it had been tendered. " Supposing I had got "thatletter of November 15, and had " read it, what would that have told "me in relation to Pigott? There " was no reference to the matter "in the letter." The AttorneyGeneral, in reply, " admitted at once " that he had given rise to some mis- " apprehension. He had only his " memory to rely on on Priday, and he "made a mistake." He confessed to having muddled the letters in that unreliable memory of his. He pointed out, however, that the letter of November 15 commenced: "lam in "receipt of your letter of the 11th " enclosing a copy of a letter you have ."addressed to Mr Houston," and argued that ,if Syr Charles Russell had read the letter of the 15th "he "(the Attorney-General) could not "have withheld that of the 11th." Moreover, "his recollection was that " he handed the letter in question to " Sir Charles Russell in a bundle of "papers some days before. He did "not say his honorable and learned " friend had received it, but his ; papers " might be searched for the documents." Sir Charles Russell knew nothing of this mysterious " bundle." There is small reason why, under ordinary circumstances, the .opening sentence of that letter of the 15th should produce suspicion ; under the circumstances that existed there was still less. For this letter was referred to by the Attorney-General as "the arrangement letter," and Sir Charles Russell would have had no ground for supposing that the previous letter, acknowledged in it, contained intelligence of such momentous importance as was really the case. Of course, as a matter of fact, Sir Charles read neither letter. Mr Asquith summed the matter up thus after the Attorney-General's reply: " Instead "of this letter, if it ever was " produced, having been produced " voluntarily, it was produced in re- " sponse to a call upon cross-examina-"tion, which must be responded to. " Instead of being produced five days " before Pigott was put into the box, " upon the Attorney-General's own " admission it was entered by him in " evidence just as Pigott was about to " enter the box. With reference to " the letter itself, he asserted,—and he "had as clear a recollection of the " matter as of anything that ever took "place in his life—that neither Sir " Charles Russell nor himself, be- " tween whom there was the closest "and most intimate communication, " had the most glimmering notion that " there was in existence a letter from " Pigott in which he announced that "his testimony would be shaken." Mr Asquith had no difficulty in showing how completely the Attorney - General had altered his tone. We will quote one more pithy passage :—" The statement, on the one "hand, was that some days before " they had actually been put in posses"sion of letters in Pigott's hand, " spontaneously admitting lie was-r-he "would not say an infamous, but a " discreditable witness ; and the other ' ( statement was that he had, the moment "before Pigott entered the box, "tendered in evidence a letter re- " ferring to another letter, from which " it might be inferred there was some- " thing suspicious. Did his honorable "and learned friend really mean to say " that those two statements amounted " to the same thing V It will, perhaps, be objected that we have not produced much evidence in support of our previous assertion that the Attorney-General had eaten humble pie, and we are free to confess that the undesirable comestible in question was forcibly stuffed down his reluctant throat, rather than volun-

tarily consumed in a spirit of dutiful contrition. The operation, however, was thorough, if ungraceful. Moreover, in his own shuffling and peculiar way, the Attorney-General did own that he had made a mistake. As a matter of fact the important issue does not rest upon differences as to the dates or contents of letters. The vital question is this : Did Sir Richard Webster believe, at the time Pk:ott was called to the witness-box, that Sir Charles Russell was really aware that this precious witness had confessed his iniquity, and that his evidence was nob worth the paper upon which it was reported 1 Sir Richard's " recollection was " that the information had been conveyed to Sir Charles in "a bundle of papers"; did he believe that the contents of that problematical bundle had really been gathered by Sir Charles'* And could he help knowing 1 Surely Sir Charles would have betrayed in some way his knowledge of such momentous developments, and surely it was Sir Richard's duty to satisfy himself beyond shallow of doubt that the understanding was complete. The two barristers are good friends; would a personal inquiry and explanation have been out of place ? But no; the Attor-ney-General's conscience was quite easy on this score. His " recollection was " that the letter had been given, mid it might (on March 2">) be "searched for" in Sir Charles Russell's papers ! To speak frankly, it is a rather black business.

After Sir Richard Webster's " explanation " and Mr Asquith's relentless rejoinder, a very old, moderate, and generally respected member of. the house interposed with a few telling words. Mr Whitehead "wanted to know, you know," why the Attorney-General had not given any proper answer to one of the most serious of Sir William Harcourt's charges. " How came it that, know- " ing (as the Attorney-General must "have known) that Pigott was a «' doubtful witness, to say the least—- " how came it, in Heaven's name, " that the Attorney-General still kept " the charge alive ? Not one word of "justification had been offered for "that, and that seemed to be the real "gravamen of the charge." Such answer as Sir Richard Webster had given to this criticism rested upon the fact that he was acting as a private advocate, and was only answerable to his clients ; but a very remarkable occurrence shows fhat, upon this matter at least, either his conscience is uneasy or his pride touchy. Lord Chief Justice Coleridge recently presided at the annual dinner of the Birmingham Law Students' Society, and delivered some observations upon the obligations of an advocate. The words are so important that we need make no apology for quoting them: "A man," said the Chief Justice, " might not lie for him"self, neither might his advocate for " him. A man might not deliberately "deceive or accuse a man of a crime "of which he knew him to be inno- ' cent, or devise a slander, or, without "careful inquiry, disseminate one. " Neither might the advocate. If in " the case of a man making an attack " upon the character of another, which " turned out to be unfounded, and the "advocate took reasonable care to "inquire into the evidence and " character of the witness, he was no "more to be blamed than a man " who repeated anything on authority "he knew to be unimpeachable. "But if a man made a statement, " without making careful inquiry into " the truth of the statement, he was "absolutely without excuse, and deserved the scornful condemnation of " all men." Of course the Lord Chief Justice spoke generally, whatever circumstances may have caused him to choose the topic. But the cap fitted too exactly for the Attorney-General to resist the temptation of recognising his own property, and the luckless "advocate" has called upon Lord] Coleridge for an explanation. Such a course in connection with the unfettered liberty of an English Judge is, we believe, unprecedented, and shows, at any rate, how unerringly the words went home. For in those words, intentionally or otherwise, is clearly summed up the « scornful condemnation" of Sir Richard Webster's negligence in satisfying himself as to the adequate foundation of 'The TimesV case, and also of his subsequent conduct, referred to in the words we have quoted from Mr Wjjitbuead. It is stated that Lord Coleridge has promised to publish the address in full. The one coasolatory reflection in the whole sad affair is that the proceedings of the last few months can hardly fail to prove a lasting lesson, alike to "advocates," newspapers, and politicians. No law officer of the Crown will ever again assume the position so disastrously occupied of late by Sir Richard Webster; no respectable newspaper is likely again to act at once so stupidly and so criminally as ' The Times'; and, it may be hoped, no political party will again lend itsek 20 readily to the work of damning opponents on inadequate or non-existing evidence as the Tory party has clone during the past two years.

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https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18890624.2.2

Bibliographic details

ATTORNEY – GENERAL WEBSTER AGAIN., Issue 7941, 24 June 1889

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1,699

ATTORNEY – GENERAL WEBSTER AGAIN. Issue 7941, 24 June 1889

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