HC Deb 14 June 1808 vol 11 cc870-6
Sir C. Pole

rose in pursuance of the notice which he had given, to call the attention of the house and the country to the mode of conducting the business of the Navy in the High Court of Admiralty. It was a subject which he had considered of the first importance to his majesty's naval service, and on which he had more than once endeavoured to express his sentiments to the house, and to urge and pray for amendment; but, he was sorry to say, the influence which the right hon. and hon. members connected with that court possessed, had hitherto effectually prevented the alteration required: this was not to deter him from exerting his utmost to correct evils which were notorious, and which must continue to exist whilst the court was conducted as at present.—It was his intention to move two Resolutions, the one purporting that the duties of the King's Proctor or Procurator-general were so numerous, that no one person was equal to discharge them; the other, that an humble address be presented to his majesty, praying that he would appoint three or more persons to be employed as Proctors in the High Court of Admiralty and High Court of Appeal.—It would require little argument to satisfy any impartial mind with the necessity of these Resolutions, without meaning to cast the smallest cen- sure on the character of the individual who held the office of Proctor, or those connected with him. On the contrary, he was ready to give them due credit for exerting themselves to their utmost; but the business of that court was so increased since the establishment of one Proctor was deemed sufficient, that it was impossible it could be executed in a manner to do justice to the individuals in his majesty's navy. Great delay, enormous charges, and injustice, must be the natural and is the actual consequence.—In the course of the last four years, more than 3,000 ships have been libelled by the King's Proctor; on an average each of those ships may be said to produce three distinct causes, which would increase them to 9,000. Be it always remembered by the house, that the whole of what he was now stating, and about to state, is the special duty of the King's Proctor, who is exclusively employed for the whole navy of England in all matters of prize, besides all cases in which the interest of his majesty is agitated; in all appeals to the privy council, as well as in all memorials and reports: the number of appeal cases in the last four years have not been less than 500, all of which are under his immediate direction; on many of them very intricate and difficult questions arise; the papers on the table of the house shew the number of ships libelled in the last four years by the King's Proctor are above 3,000; there are other papers on the table which shew the amount of the Proctor's bills on ships condemned as Droits. If gentlemen will take, the trouble to average those bills, they will find them to give an average of 95l. on each case; but taking the average profit on the Proctor's bills at less than a moiety of that sum, the 500 appeal cases, at an average of 100l. will produce a sum which, he was satisfied, the house would deem sufficient for at least three or four King's Proctors: to the cases of ships libelled, and appeals to the privy council, must be added the numerous list of memorials and reports, which make a large portion of the profits of the office. But it was not the enormity of the sum that he so much objected to, it was the impossibility of justice being rendered to the British navy, by the system now persevered in, that induced him to offer his Resolutions; and if he was not so fortunate as to succeed this day, he still flattered himself the period was not afar off, when his majesty's government would see the necessity of re- vising this court. He was aware he should be told, that vessels captured by men of war did not belong to the captors, but to the crown, therefore his resolution and address were an improper interference with the prerogative. Most sincerely should he regret such an objection to rendering justice to a most valuable portion of his majesty's subjects. The delays and expences of the Admiralty Court, with the numerous evils and abuses which have occurred, were so well known to almost every individual connected with the navy, that he had not troubled the house with a long list of them in detail, meaning to rest the expediency of his motion on what must be obvious to every impartial man in or out of this house; namely, the impossibility of one Proctor executing the duties allotted to him: he had never been able to collect any substantial objection to the appointment by his majesty of three or more learned and discreet Proctors to officiate as King's Proctors in the said courts. With this view of the subject he should take the liberty of moving the Resolution and Address as before recited.

The Advocate General

felt it necessary to oppose the Resolutions, as injurious to the interests of the nation, and of the navy itself. If the hon. officer felt so strong an impression upon the subject, it was rather matter of surprise that he had not persuaded any one of the various boards of admiralty, which had existed since he had first mentioned this subject, to think with him. And, certainly, there had been amongst those boards, some with which the hon. officer had some influence. It was to the executive or to the board of admiralty that any application should be made, and not by address from this house. The right hon. gent. then entered into a detailed statement, to shew that it was the interest of the navy itself, that the king's proctor should be employed on their behalf. Numberless complaints had within the last four years been made against privateers, and the reason was, that the owner of the privateer was his own dominus litis, and at liberty to conduct his business, so that many vexatious proceedings were the consequence. It was desirable that the king's proctor should be independant of the navy agents. As to the statement of the number of causes, that could not be a ground for the motion, unless the hon. officer had shewn that those causes had been neglected. The king's proctor would have as much assistance as he want- ed, and if more proctors were to be appointed, the reasons of the case would apply with more force to the king's advocate, who was obliged to discharge all his duties personally. The fact was, however, that the business was regularly and diligently attended to, and as no case had been made out, he was confident the house would not agree with the motion of the hon. officer. The king's proctor, when appointed, had given up ail private practice, and, if his present emoluments were to be divided amongst others, how was he to be indemnified? His former clients would not come back to him, and he did not think the hon. officer would be of opinion that the king's proctor should be allowed to act for parties as well as for the captors. After shewing by reference to the original prize act, and to several subsequent public documents, that the employment of the king's proctor for the captors was consonant to ancient practice, he concluded by declaring, that he should give his negative to the motion, as injurious to the interests of the navy, and interfering with the prerogative of the crown.

Mr. H. Martin

supported the motion. Neither the prerogative of the crown, nor the interests of the nation, would be at all injured by the appointment of more than one proctor, for all the proceedings would be as much under the eye of government as before. The proctor considered himself as totally independant of the captors. It would be much better for the navy that they should be enabled to choose a proctor who would be responsible to themselves. He stated various inconveniences that resulted to the captors from the present mode of proceeding, and said, that the navy felt the utmost anxiety for the success of this motion. If it were adopted, the proceedings would be much more rapid, the captors would be much benefited, and no disadvantage whatever would result to the crown or to the public.

Mr. Stephens

observed, that the business could not be better managed than it was by the king's proctor and his assistants. He had heard no reason for an alteration in the system. Every reason, on the contrary, was against it. He affirmed that the officers of the navy would be very much injured by having the choice of their own proctors, as appeared from what actually took place from their having the appointment of their own agents. They had at present all the advantage that resulted from the connection between the king's proctor and the king's advocate. A vast expence was often saved to the captors, which they would be put to in prosecuting bad causes, if they chose their own proctors.

Mr. Bastard

contended, that it was the duty of that house to watch and be jealous of every office. He hoped, as the right hon. gent. had said, if the hon. baronet should carry his motion, that he would extend his motion to the office of that right hon. gent. There were certainly in the commons many persons who were as well qualified as the king's proctor to conduct the business. It had been said, that the interests of the navy itself were better provided for by the present practice; but the contrary was the impression universally felt in the navy, though most unwarrantable measures were employed by the admiralty to stifle their complaints. He knew the fact, because a petition had been put into his hands, complaining of gross abuses, and signed by many of the most respectable persons in the navy, some of whom withdrew their names, in consequence of their having been menaced with the vengeance of the admiralty; and he had refused to present the petition afterwards, lest he should thereby draw down that vengeance upon the parties. Upon these grounds he should support the Resolutions.

Mr. Farquhar

stated that if a cause extended beyond the period of two years, it must be from the fault of the parties. He bore testimony to the respectability and integrity of the present king's proctor, and expressed his surprise that this proposition should have come from any person connected with the navy.

Mr. Johnstone

observed, that all the advantages which at present resulted from the king's advocate having the management of the prize causes, would exist, though there should be two or more king's proctors; and that all the arguments about the injurious effect of an unrestricted liberty of choice were altogether inapplicable. Proceedings, he said, had often been retarded, owing to the management being in one person; and justice to the neutrals, as well as to the captors, required that some alterations should take place. He could not see why the inconveniences might not be remedied without sacrificing any of the advantages.

The Solicitor General

dissented from the motion of the hon. admiral, because, if any inconveniencies were felt from the present mode of conducting business in the admiralty courts, it would not tend to remedy them. He opposed it in the second place, because it was perfectly novel in its nature: thirdly, because it was directly contrary to a former decision of the house, by which it had been rejected when it was formerly proposed: fourthly, because it proceeded upon a principle directly the reverse of that on which all causes were instituted in the court of appeals, namely, that these suits were conducted, not for the benefit of the captor, but for the benefit of the crown. He contended, that the navy were not interested in the fate of the motion, and that no inconvenience had been shewn to result from the business being confined to a single proctor.

Mr. Whitbread

asserted, that so far from the question being indifferent to the navy, there was a general outcry, he might say, in the navy respecting it. He was willing to concur in all the praises which had been bestowed upon the person at present holding the office of king's proctor. But abuses had taken place before he filled the office, and such abuses might occur again. The hon. and learned gent. might as well argue, that it would be proper and fit for him to conduct every cause in the court of king's bench, as that one proctor should engross the whole business of the court of appeals. Formerly two clerks did the business of the house of commons, and continued to do so till the time of the union, when the increase of business made it necessary to have a third. But the hon. and learned gent, upon his principles, would argue, that because two had been sufficient at one time, they would be sufficient still.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

opposed the motion, because it had not been shewn that the delays which took place, in the decision of causes in the courts of prize jurisdiction arose from a want of proctors. On the contrary, it would be easy to shew, that the interests of the captors were materially benefited by a vast number of causes passing through the hands of a single person.

Sir Samuel Romilly

thought that the best time to reform the constitution of a court of justice was when the offices in the court were respectably and unexceptionably filled; because, at such a time, all personal and party motives must necessarily be excluded. He did not pretend to be intimately acquainted with the mode of proceeding in the admiralty courts; but he conceived it to be a very extraordinary principle, and one contrary to that which was recognised in all other courts, that one person, however able and however distinguished either by his talents or integrity, should engross the whole practice of the court.

Mr. Robert Ward

said, that if it had occurred in times past, that the king's proctor had been employed on both sides of a cause, such regulations were now adopted, as to preclude the possibility of its happening in future.

Mr. Windham

argued, that if the king was dominus litis when there was only one proctor, he would be equally dominus litis when there were three proctors, and that therefore there was no objection to the motion of his gallant friend, from its tending to alter the principle upon which causes were conducted in the prize courts. And if it had no injurious tendency in this way, he thought it desirable to adopt a measure which would be highly satisfactory to such a numerous and meritorious class of persons as the officers of the royal navy.

Sir Charles Pole

made a short reply, in which he stated, that some causes had been pending in the admiralty courts more than ten years, and that a majority had been pending more than seven years. He should think that he was wanting in his duty if he did not take the sense of the house upon the motion which he had the honour to propose.—The house then divided upon the hon. baronet's motion:

Ayes 16; Noes 35. Majority 19.