1902 Encyclopedia > Petition


PETITION is an application for redress by a person aggrieved to an authority capable of relieving him. It may be made in the United Kingdom to the crown or its delegate, or to one of the houses of parliament.

The right of petitioning the crown was recognized in-directly as early as Magna Charta in the famous clause, Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus, rectum avl justitiam, and directly at various periods later, e.g., in the articles of the Commons assented to by Henry IV., by which the king was to assign two days in the week for petitions, it being an honourable and necessary thing that his lieges who desired to petition him should be heard (Rot. Pari., 8 Hen. IV., p. 585). The case of the seven bishops in 1688 confirmed the right, and finally the Bill of Rights in 1689 declared "that it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal." Petitions to the crown appear to have been at first for the redress of private and local grievances, or for remedies beyond those possessed by the courts. As equity grew into a system, petitions of this kind tended to become superseded by bills in chancery (see CHANCERY). Statutes were originally drawn up by the judges at the close of the session of parliament from the petitions of the Commons and the answers of the crown. In the drawing up of the statutes frauds were at times committed, the judges not always reciting correctly the tenor of the petition or answer. To obviate this danger complete statutes in the form of bills began to be introduced into parliament in the reign of Henry VI. The crown could accept or reject them, but could not alter them (see Hallam, Middle Ages, ch. viii. pt. 3). A relic of the old form of the statute founded upon petition still remains in the preamble of Appropriation Acts and other statutes creating a charge upon the public revenue. It runs thus : " We, your majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom ... do most humbly beseech your majesty that it may be enacted; and be it enacted, etc.," from this point following the en-acting words common to all statutes. Petitions to the crown from the House of Commons in other matters now usually take the form of addresses. The crown may refer petitions presented to it to be adjudicated upon by a dele-gated authority. This is the course pursued in the case of peerage claims, which are referred to the House of Lords, and by that House to the committee for privileges, and in the case of petitions to the crown in council, with which the judicial committee in most cases deals (see below); or the crown may delegate the power of receiving petitions in the first instance. Examples of petitions to the delegated authority are those addressed to a court of justice or those addressed to the home secretary for the pardon or mitigation of punishment of a convicted criminal. Petitions to the houses of legislature seem to have been later in origin than petitions to the crown. The political importance of petitioning dates from about the reign of Charles I. The developments the practice of petitioning had proceeded so far in the reign of Charles II. as to lead to the passing of 13 Car. II. c. 5 against tumultuous petitioning. This is still law, though it has ceased to be enforced. It provides that no petition or address shall be presented to the king or either house of parliament by more than ten persons; nor shall any one procure above twenty persons to consent or set their hands to any petition for alteration of matters established by law in church or state, unless with the previous order of three justices of the county, or the major part of the grand jury. Up to 1688 petitions usually dealt only with some specific grievance; from that time dates the present practice of petitioning with regard to general measures of public policy. Since 1833 more than 700,000 petitions on public matters have been presented to the House of Commons. Petitions to the crown need not apparently be in any particular form, but no doubt they would not be received if couched in unbecoming language. Petitions to the Houses of Lords and Commons must be framed in a prescribed form. They must be properly superscribed, and must conclude with a prayer. They must be in writing (in the Commons), must contain none but genuine signatures, and must be free from disrespectful language or imputations upon any tribunal or constituted authority. They must be presented by a member of the House, except petitions to the House of Commons from the corporation of London, which may be presented at the bar by the sheriffs, and from the corporation of Dublin, which may be presented by the lord mayor. Though a petition is made to the House, in practice petitions to the Commons are referred to the committee on public petitions, under whose directions they are classified and analysed. In the Lords receivers and triers of petitions are still appointed, though their functions have long been obsolete. Petitions may be sent free by post to members of either house, provided they fulfil certain conditions as to weight, &c. (see May, Parliamentary Practice, ch. xix.).

In the United States the right of petition is secured by Art. 1 of the Amended Constitution, which enacts that " Congress shall make no law abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Petitions to a Court of Justice.—Strictly speaking these are no doubt an indirect mode of petitioning the crown, for in the theory of English law the crown is the fountain of justice. But it is more convenient to treat them sepa-rately, as they now form a part of the practice of the courts. Appeals to the House of Lords and the privy council are prosecuted by petition of appeal. The House of Lords has now no original jurisdiction in judicial matters; the original jurisdiction of the privy council in such matters is confined to petitions under certain statutes, such as the Endowed Schools Acts 1867 and 1873, the Public Schools Act 1868, the Universities Act 1877, and the Patents Act 1883. In most cases the petitions are referred to the judicial committee of the privy council. Petitions may be addressed to the lord chancellor in a few instances, such as the sealing of patents and the removal of coroners and county court judges. The most important use of petitions in England is in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice. They may be presented either as interlocutory proceedings in the course of an action, or as original proceedings where no litigation exists,—a petition being generally a more cheap and speedy form of remedy than an action. Petitions in the course of an action are usually presented to the court in which the action is brought. Examples of original petitions are those under the Lands Clauses Acts, the Trustee ActSj the Companies Acts. In a few cases they may be brought by way of appeal, e.g., under the Charitable Trusts Act 1860. Peti-tions are also modes of procedure in other courts with juris-diction in equity, as the chancery courts of the county palatine of Lancaster and the county courts, in the latter only in certain cases falling within the County Courts Act 1865, 28 and 29 Vict. c. 99, s. 1 (5) and (6). They are used to initiate proceedings in bankruptcy and divorce, but are almost unknown in the Queen's Bench Division; the only case of procedure by petition in that division seems to be the petition to sue in forma pauperis. Evidence in support of a petition is usually given by affidavit.

In Scotland petitions in the Court of Session are either original or in a pending action. Original petitions are presented to one of the divisions of the inner house, unless they are included in any of the matters mentioned in 20 and 21 Vict. c. 56, s. 4, when they are brought before the junior lord ordinary, or unless, by special statutory provision, they may be brought before any lord ordinary, as in the case of petitions under the Conjugal Rights Act 1861, or the Trusts Act 1867. In the sheriff court actions are commenced by petition (39 and 40 Vict. c. 70, s. 6). A petition and complaint is a process of a quasi-criminal nature by which certain matters of extraordinary jurisdic-tion are brought under the notice of the Court of Session. It lies against magistrates and officers of the law for breach of duty, against parties guilty of contempt of court, <fec. The concurrence of the lord advocate is necessary to a petition and complaint. A reclaiming petition, obsolete in the Court of Session, is a form of process of appeal in the sheriff court. See 39 and 40 Vict. c. 70, ss. 28, 30.

In the United States petitions can be presented to the courts under much the same circumstances as in England. " It is a general rule in such cases that an affidavit should be made that the facts therein contained are true as far as known to the petitioner, and that those facts which he states as knowing from others he believes to be true" (Bouvier, Law Diet.).

Election Petition.—The article ELECTIONS must now be read subject to the' Parliamentary Elections Act 1879 and the Judicature Act 1881. By the Act of 1879 the trial of an election petition is conducted before two judges instead of one, as before. If the judges differ in opinion as to whether the member petitioned against is duly elected or not, he is deemed to be duly elected. The Act of 1881 provides for the annual appointment of three judges of the Queen's Bench Division for the trial of election petitions, and makes the judgment of the High Court of Justice in election cases final unless leave be given to appeal to the Court of Appeal. No appeal lies to the House of Lords, nor can any judge who is a peer sit on the trial of an elec-tion petition.

Petition of Right is a term confined to English law. It is used in two senses. (1) It denotes the statute 3 Car. I. _. 1, a parliamentary declaration of the liberties of the people. (See ENGLAND, vol. viii. p. 345.) (2) It denotes a mode of prosecuting a claim against the crown by a sub-ject. This remedy is said to owe its origin to Edward I. It lies as a rule for obtaining possession of real or personal property, or for breach of contract, not for breach of public duty, as failure to perform treaty obligations, or for tres-pass, or for negligence of crown servants. The remedy where the crown is in possession of property of the sup-pliant, and the title of the crown appears by record, as by inquest of office, is a somewhat different one, called mon-strans de droit. The procedure on a petition of right is either at common law or by statute. At common law the petition suggests such a right as controverts the title of the crown, and the crown indorses upon the petition Soit droit fait al partie. Thereupon a commission is issued to inquire into the truth of the suggestion. After the return to the commission, the attorney-general pleads or demurs, and the merits are then determined as in actions between subject and subject. If the right be determined against the crown, judgment of ousterlemain or amoveas manus is given in favour of the suppliant. The Petitions of Right Act 1860 (23 and 24 Vict. c. 34, extended to Ireland by 36 and 37 Vict. c. 69) preserves to the suppliant his right to proceed at common law, but gives an alternative remedy. In proceedings under the statute the petition is left with the secretary of state for the home department for her majesty's consideration. She, if she think fit, grants her fiat that right be done, whereupon the fiat is served upon the solicitor to the treasury, and a statement of defence is put in on behalf of the crown. The proceed-ings are thenceforth assimilated as far as possible to those in an ordinary action. A judgment in favour of the sup-pliant is equivalent to a judgment of amoveas manus. Costs are payable to and by the crown. A petition of right is tried in the Chancery or Queen's Bench Division, unless the subject-matter of the petition arises out of the exercise of belligerent right on behalf of the crown, or would be cognizable in a prize court if the matter were in dispute between private persons. In either of these cases the suppliant may at his option intitule his petition in the Admiralty Division (27 and 28 Vict. c. 25, s. 52). (J. W†.)

The above article was written by: James Williams, B.C.L.

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