HC Deb 29 March 1809 vol 13 cc832-6

Sir Samuel Romilly moved the second reading of the Bankrupt Laws Amendment Bill.

Mr. Jacob,

after conplimenting the learned bart. on his zeal to ameliorate so important a branch of the legislative code of the country, stated, that he would take the liberty of mentioning some ideas that had occurred to him in furtherance of the learned bart.'s object. It was, in his opinion, a strange anomaly, that the Commissioners of Bankrupts should have the power of summoning a bankrupt when a prisoner in a mesne process and not when in execution. Several instances had recently occurred in which the inconvenience and absurdity of this distinction were manifested. The Commissioners received but twenty shillings for their trouble on each sitting, and yet it was frequently necessary, if they discharged their duty, that they should go to a considerable distance in the country for that purpose. In some cases which had lately occurred, Commissioners, owing to this absurdity, had been compelled to go as far as Hull. Nor did it to him seem proper that the Commissioners of Bankrupts should be permitted to close their list, or in other words to adjourn, for a long period; the consequence of which was frequently great inconvenience to all parties. He trusted that in the Committee a clause would be proposed to remedy this evil. He was desirous also, if it were possible, to reform the indecorous manner in which commissions were held in the metropolis, arising from the poor rate at which the Commissioners were paid. In consequence of their only receiving a pound or a guinea a sitting, they were induced to crowd together a number of commissions, and to render Guildhall more like a bear-garden than a place of judicial inquiry. To two of the provisions in the Bill proposed by the learned bart. he objected, because they seemed to him to cast a slur upon, or to throw into the back-ground the utility of trial by Jury. At present the creditors of a Bankrupt had the choice of assailing the Assignees either by a petition to the Chancellor, or by a suit at common law. By the Bill before the house they would be precluded from the latter course, and this he conceived to be a great attack on the trial by Jury, although he was convinced that the learned bart. was one of the last men who would really entertain such an intention. The other provision in the proposed Bill to which he objected had a similar tendency; it was that by which a penalty of 20l. per cent, was to be inflicted on assignees who made use of a bankrupt's property. The object of the learned bart. in this provision, it was impossible not highly to applaud, however he might differ from him with respect to the modes of recovering the penalty. He doubted whether any British subject ought to be placed at the will of Commissioners of Bankrupts, and precluded from a resort to a trial by Jury. It was well known that in London the Commissioners of Bankrupts were men of high and honourable character, but it was not always so in the country. The petitioning creditor frequently nominated his own Commissioner, and very unfair juggles were often carried on by that means. He confessed that he did not think the clause in the learned bart.'s Bill respecting this penalty of twenty per cent, (the justice of which he most highly applauded) comparable to the provision of a similar nature, contained in the bill which had some time ago been introduced by a noble lord into the other house of Parliament. There was one part of the learned bart.'s Bill to which he distinctly objected; namely, to the power which it proposed to give to the Chancellor to liberate a bankrupt without the consent of his creditors. In his opinion such a regulation would tend only to increase the number of bankrupts. It had been stated, and stated fairly, that in the course of twenty years there had been 15,980 bankrupts, out of whom 5,697 had not obtained their certificates. But it re- mained to be asked, how many had applied for their certificates? It was a fact also of great importance, and which ought to be generally known, that out of the large number of 5,697 uncertificated bankrupts, only 18 were at present in the King's Bench, in consequence of executions. He put it to the house whether, when the evil was comparatively so small, it was necessary to make so considerable an innovation on our legislative provisions on the subject, and one which, in his apprehension, might be attended with very serious evils.

Mr. Ponsonby

commented on the inconsistency of the hon. gent, who had just spoken, who having commenced by expressing a favourable opinion of his learned friend's measure, set down with describing it as one of an injurious tendency. The hon. gent, had certainly professed himself at one time a friend to the principle of the Bill. If he actually was friendly to the principle of the Bill, the course which it was obviously expedient for him to pursue was not to oppose the second reading of it, but to allow it to go into a Committee, and there to propose any modifications of that principle that might to him seem advise-able. For his own part, he was perfectly convinced that there was no branch of the laws of this country which stood more in need of regulation and amendment than the Bankrupt Laws, and he should therefore give his hearty assent to his learned friend's motion.

Mr. Jacob

in explanation, disclaimed any intention of opposing the second reading of the Bill. The hon. gent, had misapprehended him if he supposed that, by his observations, he meant any thing more than to suggest to the consideration of the learned bart., and of the house, some circumstances which, in his opinion were of importance.

Mr. Abercrombie

was persuaded, that no judicial situation was more painful than that of a Commissioner of Bankrupt. Commissioners of Bankrupt were generally young barristers, well qualified for that situation, but who connected with that object advancement in their profession, and to whom therefore the administration of the Bankrupt laws soon became a secondary consideration. Pressed by their professional avocations, they were compelled to crowd into one day a number of cases which probably required great deliberation. In his opinion the Commissioners of Bankrupt should be a distinct class, to whom sufficient emolument and advantages ought to be held out, to induce them to devote their exclusive attention to a subject which, in a commercial country like Great Britain, was of such extreme importance. If, instead of 75 Commissioners, the number were reduced to five, without any additional expence to the public, the object would be much more effectually accomplished.

Mr. Wilson

could not agree with the hon. gent, who had just spoken, as to the expediency of making such an alteration in the general administration of the Bankrupt Laws, as he seemed to think adviseable. He allowed that the Commissioners were generally made from junior barristers, but he contended that in so extensive a profession as that of the law, although many might soon obtain the due reward of their talents by great professional employment, there were still enough remaining unoccupied and perfectly competent to fulfil the duties of the important trust with which they were vested. He cordially approved of the principle of the Bill before the house, although he might perhaps take the opportunity, when in the Committee, of stating his objections to some of the details of it; and particularly to the great extension of power which it proposed to grant to the Chancellor.

Sir Samuel Romilly

expressed his obligations to the honourable gentlemen who had stated their opinions on the subject. Having no object but to improve the law, he was anxious to hear, with the utmost attention, every suggestion that could be made for that purpose. He assured the house, that since he had introduced the Bill into Parliament, he had been honoured with so many communications on the subject, that it would have occupied the whole of his time even to return his acknowledgments to those by whom they were made. He should have several alterations to propose in the Bill; one which he was glad to feel would obviate an objection made by the hon. gent. opposite; another which would tend to carry still further the remedy against the evil which at present resulted from the practice of assignees keeping in their own hands the property of bankrupts, speculating with that property, and eventually becoming bankrupts themselves. For this latter purpose he meant to propose a clause, enacting, that if any assignee should become a bankrupt while he was indebted above a hundred pounds to the estate of the bankrupt to whom he was an assignee, the certificate of that assignee, so become a bankrupt, should not secure his property subsequently acquired from a demand to the full amount of his debt to the original bankrupt's estate. The hon. gent, opposite had expressed great apprehension lest the importance and advantages of the trial by Jury should be lessened by the proposed measure. He did not entertain any such fears. The fact was, that in the cases alluded to the trial was a mere matter of form, and the object of his propositions was to prevent twenty actions where one petition might attain the same end. The present mode of proceeding seemed to him calculated solely for the increase of expence. With respect to the Bill on this subject that had been formerly introduced into the other house, with every sentiment of respect for the noble lord by whom it had been introduced, and for the learned authority in whom it was known to have originated, he confessed that he could not see any thing in that Bill but a great multiplicity of expence, and a great augmentation of patronage. If, however, there were any part of that Bill for which the hon. gent, entertained a partiality, it would be perfectly competent to him to propose a modification of the present measures when it should be in the Committee. Unquestionably there were many defects in the system of Bankrupt Laws to which the Bill that the had had the honour of introducing did not extend. He had never professed to remove all those defects. He had not sufficient knight errantry for such an attempt. While therefore, he allowed, with another hon. gent., that it might be better if, instead of the present loose and extended system a permanent and limited tribunal were established for the administration of the Bankrupt Laws, he assured him that he had not the presumption to offer to make so considerable an alteration at the present moment.

The Bill was then read a second time.