Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Colonel Dickson's case

Of all the strange and wearisome trials that ever filled the columns of a newspaper for more than a week, the case between Colonel Dickson and Lord Combemere, Lord Wilton, and General Peel, is entitled to be viewed as the most wearisome. An old proverb asserts that there is luck in odd numbers, and Colonel Dickson appears to have thought so; for after twice succeeding in two actions arising out of the same set of transactions, he entered into litigation for the third time, apparently under the impression that his concluding performance could not fail to be crowned with success. The proceedings stretched out to a monstrous length, but when the essential points are extracted from the enormous mass of matter given in evidence, they lie in a moderate compass. The facts of the case are shortly as follows:—

The 2nd Tower Hamlets Militia was embodied in March 1855; Lord Wilton being Colonel, Colonel North Lieutenant-Colonel, and Colonel Dickson being Major. In August, Colonel Dickson succeeded Colonel North, who retired, and in June 1856 the regiment was disembodied. Disputes arose as to the regimental accounts, and Colonel Dickson, being dissatisfied with Captain Dixon, the mess president, applied to Lord Wilton, by whom three officers were appointed, in May 1857, as a Regimental Board, to investigate the accounts. The Board reported in July, and their report was unfavourable to Colonel Dickson, who drew up and forwarded to Lord Wilton a. detailed reply upon the subject. On Colonel Dickson's behalf it was said that the charges of the Regimental Board were false, and that Lord Wilton knew that they were false, and that the appointment of the Board was a device by which junior officers who were interested in Colonel Dickson’s dismissal were appointed to sit in judgment upon him. To this it was replied, that the Boar was appointed, not to sit in judgment on Colonel Dickson, but to investigate the accounts; that it was a pointed at his own re nest; that he himself named the officers of whom it would, according to the ordinary course of business, be composed; and that, though the result of its inquiries was to put forward charges against Colonel Dickson, there was no round for asserting that that result was contemplated when the Board was appointed. These arguments, which seem to have been borne out by the evidence, appear conclusive upon the subject.

After the Board had reported, Lord Wilton transmitted the charges arising out of the report to Lord Combermere, the Lord Lieutenant o the Tower Hamlets. In March 1858, Lord Combermere applied to Colonel Dickson for an explanation, and in April certain tradesmen sued Lord Wilton for expenses which it was said ought, if the accounts of the regiment had been in roper order, to have been defrayed from the mess fund. It was alleged that the irritation caused by this was the reason which inspired Lord Wilton with the intention to get rid of Colonel Dickson at all events, and by means of false and malicious charges. The charges said to be false and malicious were those which were made in the report of the Regimental Board, and no doubt they were di roved to this extent—that, in 1859, Colonel Dickson recovered damages against Lord Wilton, as for a libel, for a letter which embodied them. He, however, recovered only £5 damages —a decision not very easy to understand, for the charges were made by the Board, and the reasons given already appear to show that there is no ground whatever for imputing impropriety to Lord Wilton at the time of its appointment.

In 1858, Lord Combermere and Lord Wilton went to General Peel, at the War Office, to inquire about the course which ought to be taken for having a Court-martial or Court of Inquiry on Colonel Dickson, on the subject of these charges. General Peel saw them on the subject; and as there were various technical difficulties in the matter, arising from the fact that the retirement was not then embodied, he sent for the head of the Militia Department of the office, Mr. Marshall, who gave them the information which they required. To ordinary minds, this would appear to have been as simple and straightforward a proceeding as can possibly be imagined. Indeed, it is hard to say what the use of a public office can be, if persons in subordinate official positions are not to resort to it for advice on such occasions as the one in question. It was, however, described by Colonel Dickson as a conspiracy, in which General Peel, who knew nothing at all about him, combined with Lord Combermere and Lord Wilton to crush him by false charges. The word “conspiracy ” has been put to strange uses, but this is about the strangest use to which it as ever been put. If the jury had taken the view which Colonel Dickson wished them to take, they would have made it dangerous for any two Government officials to have any conversation together the effect of which might be disadvantageous to the prospects or position of any third person.

In the latter end of April I858, Colonel Dickson sent Lord Combermere a statement of account, of which Lord Combermere said he “could make neither head nor tail;” but, on the 9th June 1858, Lord Combermere wrote to General Peel, then Secretary of State for War, a letter stating the charges of the Regimental Board, and concluding by saying—“I beg to forward the various documents corroborative of the above charges, which I have carefully perused; and, in conclusion, I be to say they fully prove the total unfitness of Lieutenant-Colonel Dickson for the command of the 2nd Tower Hamlets Militia.” Certainly there appears, at first sight, a considerable discrepancy between this and the statement that Lord Combermere could “make neither head nor tail” of Colonel Dickson's defence; and this was increased by the account which Colonel Dickson gave of an interview between Lord Combermere and himself some little time before the date of the letter. On that occasion Lord Combermere pressed him to resign, saying that he ought to do so, as Lord Wilton had been sued for the regimental debts, and that “Lord Wilton wished it.” The explanation of this, given on the part of Lord Combermere, was simply that he thought that the regimental affairs had been allowed to fall into a highly discreditable state, into which they would not have been allowed to fall if the Colonel had done his duty; and that this was apparent u on the patent facts of the case, without going into all the items of the accounts. We think that any one who will take the trouble to wade through the interminable reports of the trial will be much disposed to come to the same conclusion.

After considering Lord Combermere's letter, General Peel called upon Colonel Dickson to resign. As he refused to do so, a Board of Inquiry, appointed by the Horse Guards, sat at the War Office. They opened their proceedings on the 11th of August 1858, and reported on the 13th of September. Great complaints were made of the way in which their proceedings were conducted; and certainly, if the Board was assumed to be a court of law tied down to the common rules of judicial procedure, something might be said against them. It appeared, however, from the evidence of several military authorities, that their functions were rather those of a grand jury than of a court of law, and that their duty was to report and not to try. However this may have been, the attempt to show that General Peel was in any way responsible for their proceedings, or that he even knew about them in any special way, utterly failed, and the case against him was accordingly given up at a comparatively early period of the trial. After the Board had reported, and after Colonel Dickson had given in his own version of the case, the minutes and his explanations were submitted successively to a variety of military authorities, including Lord Hardinge, the political Under Secretary, and Sir Percy Douglas, the Inspector-General of Militia. They were of opinion that Colonel Dickson ought to be called upon to resign, and upon his repeatedly refusing to do so, he was summarily removed under authority conferred upon the Secretary of War by an Act of Parliament. Upon this he brought actions, first against Lord Wilton, for libel, in adopting the charges preferred by the regimental Board of Inquiry, in which he obtained a verdict for £5 in the early part of 1859; and next against Colonel Walker, his successor in command of the regiment, in 1860. This action ended in a withdrawal of imputations, and a verdict for the plaintiff. Besides this, he sued Lord Wilton for verbal slander, and has another action pending against him for breach of a compromise relating to a fourth action.

There is a variety of the human race which is pretty well known to lawyers, and is by no means unprofitable to them— persecuted men, beset with grievances which are constantly ripening into all sorts of legal proceedings. Such men probably do not get ideal justice done to them more than other members of the human race, and they are viewed by the peaceable part of the world with a mixture of terror and pity. There is something awful in the notion of passing five years in a constant succession of litigations, military and civil; and it is not altogether easy to be quite impartial in criticizing a man who has had the bad luck to go through such an experience. In this particular instance, however, we can hardly be wrong in expressing an opinion that Colonel Dickson has, to say the least, taken rather strong measures. All the skill and zeal of his counsel could not present his case to the jury even in a moderately plausible shape. He charged the defendants first, jointly, with a conspiracy; and secondly, severally, with knowingly getting up false charges to deprive him of his command. The simple statement of facts, given above, seems to prove that each of these charges was without foundation. There was, no doubt, some colour for the assertion that Lord Wilton was hostile to Colonel Dickson, though it was not proved that he did a single thing which he would not have done if he had known as little of him as General Peel or Lord Combermere; but there was not the faintest reason to suppose that the Secretary for War or the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets had so much as any sort of personal knowledge of the man whom they were said to have conspired to persecute.

A verdict in Colonel Dickson's favour would have been a public calamity. It has often been said, and with great truth, that the right to bring actions against public servants for official misconduct is the most characteristic, and certainly the most important, of all the constitutional liberties of an English subject. There is no other country in Europe in which Colonel Dickson could have appealed to a court of law against the decision of public officers; and it is, highly important that the power to do so should be studiously preserved and acknowledged whenever the occasion calls for it. It is, however, a power of which the abuse would be absolutely fatal to all authority. Public men could never take the steps which the efficiency of the public service requires, if they were held to be libellers and conspirators whenever they dismissed a public servant upon grounds less clear than those which would procure a conviction for a crime at the Old Bailey. It is quite as important that Colonels who allow their regiments to fall into a bad state should have the fear of dismissal before their eyes, as that Ministers of the Crown should not be shielded by their rank from the consequences of illegal acts. On the present occasion, it is at least equally satisfactory that Colonel Dickson should have been able to bring his action, and that he should have utterly and absolutely failed in establishing his charge.

Saturday Review, July 4, 1863.

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