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Stockdale v Hansard [1839]  9 Ad & E1; 112 ER 1112

Privilege of a single House of Parliament and court’s authority to review privilege

Facts

During the course of a prison inspection, a pair of inspectors found a used copy of a book named On Diseases of the Generative System by John Roberton, which had been edited by John Joseph Stockdale (who was a known pornographer). Sometime later, Hansard published a report for the use of and by order of the House of Commons, which noted that this book was in circulation in Newgate prison. While this was normally only for internal consumption at the House of Commons, certain reforms lead to it being published to the public. In that report the book was treated not as a scientific text but as an obscene book. The report stated specifically: “This last is a book " (meaning the said physiological and anatomical book) "of a most disgusting nature; and the plates are indecent and obscene in the extreme”. The claimant sued in libel. At trial he was unsuccessful. Hansard had argued that the publication is privileged since it was by the House of Commons, but this was not accepted by the court. However, the jury found that the publication had been indecent and obscene, which caused the claimant’s action to fail. The Claimant sued again however, the second time on the grounds of a response to the Hansard report by the city aldermen at Newgate who asserted the scientific nature of the book.

Issue

The issues in this case included whether each House of Parliaments is free to set the limits of their own privilege free from court interference.

Held

The court held that an individual house of Parliament cannot make resolutions which are not subject to the authority of the courts. This is an authority reserved for the Crown in Parliament.  In addition, the courts will in any event have the power to interpret the nature of the relevant privilege in cases where that privilege affects the rights of persons not connected to Parliament. The House of Commons could not therefore publish defamatory publications outside of Parliament (if the report had remained for internal consumption only this would not have amounted to libel). This case prompted the promulgation of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840  c. 9 (Regnal. 3_and_4_Vict) which laid out that publications made under the authority of the House of Commons will also be privileged.

“To speak of a contempt of the House, if "we assume to decide this question inconsistently with its determination," argues what I should call, if the language had not been used by those whom I am bound to revere, a strange obliquity of understanding. The cause is before us; we are sworn to decide it according to our notions of the law; we do not bring it here; and, being here, a necessity is laid upon us to deliver judgment; that judgment we can receive at the dictation of no power: we may decide the cause erroneously; but we cannot be guilty of any contempt in deciding it according to our consciences” (Lord Denman CJ).


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