[From Bullock's History of IoM, 1816]
Comments on the State of the Laws, with some Cases adduced in Proof of the Assertion that they require Amelioration.
I Am aware, that the contents of this chapter will be so entirely local, that it will afford little to amuse, or interest, the general reader; but as the facts I mean to state, have recently occurred, and the ill consequences attending the abuses of the laws which I am about to point out, are felt or acknowledged by all, (yet without the smallest attempt being made to redress those grievances and oppressions), I think it my duty, as an impartial historian, to hold them up to public view, in the belief which I entertain, that. this negligence of fundamental principles has, perhaps, originated in the want of a fair statement, or it may be in the very nature of the society, as it was constituted previous to the non-protection act.
I am ever ready to admit, that whilst impunity from foreign claims existed, the frequent resort of unprincipled and extravagant persons demanded an extraordinary degree of coercion in the debtor and creditor laws of the island, to protect the natives from encroachment and injury; and that it was under these circumstance equal justice to grant immunities to one class and hold up severe penalties against the other; but now that this protection is done away, and tho both the trade and agriculture of the island loudly demand an increased population to revive their drooping vigour, it must be an obvious policy to grant equal privileges to the settler and the native. None are likely to visit this place in future but persons of moderate fortunes, and consequently of habits consonant to their property. If such are to he exposed to the harassing effects of the laws, as they now stand, a very short trial would suffice to make them seek a retreat elsewhere; to illustrate my assertion, I need only adduce a few instances, which are recent and too well known in the island to be controverted.
And first, in matters of debtor and creditor, the Manx laws, with regard to a native, prohibit personal imprisonment, but with great justice, subject the whole property of the debtor to the claims of his creditor; this exemption from personal suffering has certainly, in some cases, been diverted to purposes of fraud. The native has been known to make false assignments, or to turn his effects into cash, and then, under cover of the law, to set his creditors at defiance; but as no human institutions are perfect, the impossibility of entirely guarding against the ingenuity of knavery, can never be brought forward to abrogate a principle, which the enlarged views of society causes at this time to be adopted into the jurisprudence of nearly all trading countries, and it is probable, a modification of the bankrupt laws of England would he the best defence against the frauds complained of; but this it is not my concern to determine, all I have to do is to point out the errors that exist, and leave the legislature in its wisdom to correct them.
With regard to strangers, as our fellow subjects from Great Britain and Ireland are insidiously termed, the case is wholly diferent; actions on a simple affadavit of debt, subjects the person to incarceration, and the effects to sequestration ; and that, not merely to the value demanded, but the law as it now stands, authorizes the constable to take possession of all the property of the person arrested, to hold it till the question of right is decided, and the to sell, not to the amount of the debt only, but,the words of the statute are, "that he is to sell the whole effects, and first paying a year's rent if due, and the servants' wages for the same time then to satisfy the creditor with all costs and charges, and afterwards to deliver the overplus to the right owner." No words can be requisite to point out the injustice of such a system by which on a disputed account, a person might be thrown into prison, his trade ruined, his effects wasted, and his family starved, whilst the matter was under discussion, and which, according to law, cannot be decided under four months; and if on the issue, the creditor only succeeds in establishing a small part of his demand before the sufferer can he released, he must wait the sale of property, ruined, perhaps, by mismanagement, or it is not unlikely remain for life in prison, on a deficiency created by the measures adopted against him. Another strong feature appears in the principle on which bail is conducted. The law obliges the stranger who wishes to contest an unjust demand, to give Manx bail; and, as if this was not throwing sufficient difficulty in the way, it also provides, that such bail becomes to all intents and purposes liable for so much of the debt as, on investigation, shall be found due to the claimant, from which liability he is not exonerated, as in England, by the surrender of the debtor to gaol.
But as facts speak move forcibly than arguments, I shall adduce some recent occurences in illustration of my statement. In one case an English farmer having given offence to a native with whom, he had been in habits of strict intimacy, he was arrested without any previous notice, or even the formality of demanding a settlement. The demand on which the action was grounded, originated in a running account between the parties, and the real balance due was in reality a mere trifle. The action, however, was taken out for the full sum that appeared on the books of the plaintiff; and as he was a man of extensive connexions, and the other a stranger, no one chose to offend the native by becoming bail, and consequently the farmer, who was also an inn-keeper, was hurried to prison, his farm work stopped, his house shut up, and all his affairs thrown into confusion, as indeed was the design of the plaintiff, whose object was to harass and, if possible, ruin his adversary and although after six months incarceration, he was released upon bail, and that finally a judgement was given, reducing the demand of his adversary more than two thirds, yet was this tardy and insufficient act of justice a very poor recompence to a man, who returned, to find his farm unseeded, his stock and crops wasted, his trade fallen into other hands, and his whole affairs in a state of irretrievable ruin, though at the moment of his arrest, all had been prosperous and easy. Can it be wondered at, that spirits sunk under the affliction, and in a short time he fell a victim to the malice of his persecutor.
Another, and somewhat similar instance, occurred in the town of Douglas, only that in this case the misfortune resulted purely from the state of the laws, without premeditation or design. A petty brewer was arrested and imprisoned for a demand of £140, by the administrators of a deceased merchant, who founded their charge, as they themselves acknowleged simply on a conjecture that a quantity of barley, at which no account was to be found in the books of the deceased, must have been sold by him to this brewer, because they were known to have dealings together, and. because the said brewer was believed to be of a character likely to take advantage of any neglect or omission on the part of the merchant, in order to evade payment. On no better grounds than these, this action was maintained through four months, during which the man lay in prison, his wife and child were reduced to absolute want ! his stock of beer entirely spoiled-! and his trade, depending wholly on his personal exertions, completely annihilated. At the end of that time it turned out, that the only claim which could be proved against him was for £3. And the only justification attempted to be set up in extenuation of proceedings so harsh and oppressive, was founded on the previous character of the sufferer: An apology which can never be admitted as sufficient, since it is obvious, that what was done in this case might just as well occur again to any other person, at the pleasure of a vindictive creditor, or indeed of no creditor at all; and assuredly to sequester effects upon a doubtful point, to deprive a family of support, and subject property to arbitrary removal and injury, as well as to detain the body of the debtor, is utterly inconsistent with all, the principles of justice!
But that such, notwithstanding, is the law of the land. I have the authority of one of the highest legal officers to assert. A question having been submitted to him, in the case of a person incarcerated for a debt of two hundred pounds, (the debtor having effects on the island in farm produce and stock to at least the value £1200,) whether his family might subtract so much from the bulk of grain and other articles as would support them till the matter came to a decision ? The answer to which was a positive and unqualified negative, with a declaration that pending the question nothing must be touched. the whole being virtually under arrest, and subjected to the demand.
Unreasonable as these proceedings may appear, they are yet exceeded by the existing law or, perhaps, I should speak more accurately if I was to say, the existing practice, between landlord and tenant: to which, however both natives and strangers are equally liable. A landlord immediately, on payment of one year's rent or within fourteen days after it becomes due, can arrest the property on the premises for the ensuing year. This is done by the coroner for that sheading, who takes a jury of four persons to value the effects; and as the law provides, that if such effects when sold do not realize the valuation, the said jury are compellable to pay for them at the prices affixed, it may therefore easily be imagined, they will take good care to make ample allowance for contingencies.
If the property arrested is growing corn, or hay grass, the farmer is restrained even from cutting or carrying it, at the harvest all he has a right to do is to give notice to the proper officer, who is enjoined to use due diligence to protect the grain. Few farmers, however, could he very easy under the exertion of this secondhand diligence! Meantime an attempt to sell any part of the property, or in any way to-alter the state of what is so arrested, (though it shall be proved to be with the intention of applying the proceeds to pay the rent,) subjects the tenant to imprisonment, from which he can only be released on giving bail to double the amount of the current debt. To dwell longer on this would be absurd ; the bare statement is fully sufficient, borne out as it is by a recent case well known in the island, and which I have no doubt will awaken attention, and may probably procure redress.
Perhaps no maxim can be more true than that to comprehend an evil in its full extent, we must be in some way exposed to its operation or influence : for on no other ground can we account for the jealousy evinced by the Manx legislature in guarding the personal liberties and privileges of natives, and the complete indifference exhibited by that body on the same subject as referring to strangers. To such a pitch, indeed, has this coercive spirit been carried, that an insolvent act, though loudly called for in the island, and even recommended by the interference of the House of Commons of England, was withheld and opposed in all its stages; nor, I believe, would it ever have been granted, had not a very plain intimation been given, that if such a measure for the relief of the unfortunate did not originate with the insular government, the British parliament would exert their own authority in the cause of humanity. In consequence of this hint, and its being warmly supported in the house of keys by Mr. Curwen, then member for Carlisle, and also one of the keys, who declared, if it failed there he move it in his place in England, the act did pass, by which a prisoner, after an imprisonment of one year, might be released usual conditions of a complete surrender of effects ; but the term of this act being limited to, two years, is now nearly expired. It is remarkable that by the Manx laws, a debtor has an allowance of only 3s. per week from his creditor, on delivering up his whole effects, or I should rather say, after his property has been taken from him ; which allowance is eventually to be added to the original debt. Whereas a person confined under a criminal charge, receives 1s. per diem during his imprisonment, and retains his effects; so that it should seem in the eyes of this legislature, the crime of poverty is estimated as deserving much more severe punishment than is inflicted on breaches of the law ; more especially as it is a rare thing to see the heaviest offences visited with any other penalty, except a temporary incarceration. Even in a case of murder, and that pretty well proved, the verdict returned being manslaughter, the criminal escaped with only three weeks confinement,* whereas I have known a debtor languish in Castle Rushen eight years after he had relinquished the last remnant of his property.
*I allude to the case of one Coux [?Cowx],
who was indicted for the murder of his wife; and on whose trial, before the
late deemster Lace, it appeared, that he had perpetrated this crime with so
much deliberation, as to wait the heating of a poker, with which he struck the
blows which occasioned her death - yet was the verdict such as I have recorded
[fpc - this would appear to be Henry Cowx of Maryport, the victim his wife Ann, also of Maryport, both were residing in Douglas, with first commital on 18th March 1809 (thanks to John Morrison for sleuthing this)]