HC Deb 31 March 1814 vol 27 cc399-404
Sir John Newport

rose with an intention of moving, that a table of the fees received in the civil and ecclesiastical courts of Great Britain and Ireland, the augmentations of them which had taken place during the last 20 years, and the authority under which they had been imposed, should be laid before the House. By this mean, the House would come to the knowledge of the alterations in the fees which had been demanded in courts of justice. If the rate of fees was not controllable in parliament, he knew not how the matter could be reached any where else. Parliament would have the means of judging if any increase had taken place; and if so, on what ground the alteration had been made. That such augmentation had taken place in many instances, he was not disposed to assert; but he knew that it had in some. He should suppose that it was the wish of the House, that the doors of courts of justice should be thrown open as widely as possible, that no class of subjects might find any difficulty in obtaining redress; but if, besides the augmentation of expence from the stamp duties on proceedings, there could be additions made to the fees of the judges and offices of court at pleasure, the poorer classes of the community might be almost completely shut out from courts of law. Not being able to see on what ground this motion edit the resisted, he would reserve himself till he heard what was urged against it. It appeared to him, that those who were most interested in the matter—namely, the judges and other officers of court, could have no objection to what he proposed; as it would enable them to justify the augmentation where it had taken place, or wipe away all suspicion of it where it had not taken place. He therefore concluded with moving for a return of the rates of fees demanded and received in the several superior courts of law, civil and ecclesiastical, in Great Britain and Ireland, by the judges and officers of court, during the last 20 years; together with the authority by which these rates had at any time been varied and altered.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, if the right hon. gentleman had stated any specific instances, the House would know how to set about the enquiry; but so far from this, he had not even stated whether the cause of complaint lay in England or Ireland. As to the judges, it was known that they were perfectly independent; and although they were the receivers of the fees, they were not personally interested in the receipt of them. It was impossible to surmise any thing wrong on their parts; for they had not only to administer justice with impartiality, but also to look to popularity. On the whole, as he could see no good reason for the motion, he should move, as an amendment, that the House proceed to the other orders of the day; at the same time, he certainly should not object to any rational motion on the subject.

Sir J. Newport

said, that as this was one of the days on which notices had precedence of orders, and there was another motion to be made, the right hon. gentleman was debarred from moving the other orders of the day. It was a prevalent opinion, that the fees had been augmented both in England and Ireland; and he had much difficulty in obtaining information on the subject, from the fears of the practitioners, lest by making any disclosures they should incur the displeasure of their respective courts. This was a case that called for information; and justice would be denied to the public, if it were not fairly brought under their view.

Mr. Bathurst

contended, that the hon. gentleman had not given reasons to be- lieve that there was the slightest suspicion against the officers of the superior courts; and yet the integrity of the whole jurisprudence of the country was to be called in question, without knowing upon what foundation. He ridiculed the idea, that the practitioners in the courts would be afraid to tell how and when the fees were raised; and insisted, that if the hon. gentleman had made any enquiry on the subject, he could not have been in the dark about it half an hour.

Mr. C. Wynne

said, his right hon. friend had by his motion imputed no improper conduct to the judges. The House had certainly a right to enquire if the fees had been raised, though it should afterwards appear that they had been raised by proper authority. He had no doubt that the increase of fees was proper, to keep pace with the increasing expence of living. But the high opinion he entertained of the judges, was not to lead to a blind confidence in his capacity of member of parliament. In the reign of Geo. 2, a similar enquiry had been made, and the judges of that day were inferior to none that had ever presided in the courts of England. Should the present motion be opposed, grounds of suspicion would arise.

Mr. Rose

suggested, that all objection could be removed by shaping the motion so as to require a return from those courts where the fees had been augmented during the last 20 years.

Sir John Newport

had not the slightest objection to that alteration, since his whole object would thereby be answered.

The original motion and the amendment were then withdrawn; when sir J. Newport moved for a return of the rate of fees in those courts, civil and ecclesiastical, of England and Ireland, in which an increase had taken place within the last 20 years; together with a statement of the authority under which such an alteration had been made. On this motion being put,

Mr. Stephen

said, he did not rise to oppose the motion, as now worded; but he could not suffer it to pass without making his protest against the manner in which it was originally brought forward; from which it could not but be presumed, prima facie, that suspicions had been incurred, that the officers of the courts in England had been parties to injustice, in raising the fees of such courts without due authority, which could not fail to bring those courts into disrepute in the opinion of the public. Whatever might have been the case in Ireland, to which the right hon. baronet had acknowledged he meant originally to have confined his motion, he believed there was not the smallest cause for such suspicion in this country; and therefore he could not suffer the motion, even as altered, to pass, without having so far expressed his sentiments on it.

Mr. Baring

said, he thought such suspicions as those mentioned by the hon. and learned gentleman who spoke last, might certainly be entertained. For his own part, he should never have thought of any such suspicions, had it not been for this day's debate, and the manner in which the motion had been resisted in its outset by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was glad, however, that the suggestion of the right hon. gentleman had put the matter in such a light, as should answer every purpose of his right hon. friend who brought forward the motion.

Mr. Ponsonby

observed, that the present were extraordinary times, as hardly a day passed which did not introduce some perfectly novel proceeding in that House. They were now told, they ought not to enquire into the amount of sums raised from the people of this country; it would be to insult the judges, by seeming to attach suspicion to them. Formerly they were told, it was the first duty of that House to enquire what sums were raised in any way from the people. They had an undoubted right to enquire into any increased expence thrown on the public. If it should be proved that an increase had taken place in the fees paid in the several courts, that increase might appear to be justifiable and necessary; but of this the House could not judge till they had called for information on the subject, and an answer had been given. But a learned gentleman had said, it would consume so much of the judges' valuable time to make the returns called for, that, on that account, the proposition ought not to be entertained. How much of their time would it consume if no increase in the fees had taken place? How long would it take them to return "nil" to the application made? The House had never been more jealous of any infringement of their authority than of any attempt to raise money from the people without their direct interference. In refusing to allow the enquiry to be made which the right hon. baronet had recommended, the Chan- cellor of the Exchequer had done what no minister had done before; and he ought to feel much obliged to his right hon. friend (Mr. Rose) for extricating him from the awful situation in which he had placed himself.

Mr. Bathurst

agreed with the last speaker, that his right hon. friend (Mr. Rose) deserved thanks; but contended, these ought to come from the right hon. baronet (sir J. Newport), and not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When the right hon. gentleman spoke of the little trouble the judges would have in returning "nil" he was talking of the proposition of his right hon. friend (Mr. Rose), and not of that of the right hon. baronet (sir J. Newport).

Mr. Plunkett

contended, that the objections made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if applicable at all, applied with equal force to the motion as amended at the suggestion of Mr. Rose, viz. that there was something in it that implied suspicion as to the conduct of the judges, and that the House could not adopt it unless a specific charge were introduced. The Chancellor of the Exchequer therefore could not, with any regard to consistency, agree to the amendment: all that the amendment did was, to require a return from the courts in which the fees had been augmented; and the augmentation was the ground of suspicion; it seemed as if the right hon. gent. (Mr. Rose) had charitably interposed to save his friend from opprobrium. Thus, then, a double novelty was to be observed; first, that such a motion should be resisted at all; and, secondly, that ministers had changed their opinions without any substantial change in the motion to authorize it. The right hon. bart was perfectly correct when he said that these augmentations were considered as a grievance in Ireland; they formed, in some cases, so great an obstacle, that in some instances persons had refrained from seeking justice, not being able to sustain the increased expence. Supposing this, however, not to be the fact, one salutary object would be answered by removing all suspicion.

Mr. Simeon

said a few words in favour of the amendment.

Mr. Stephen


Sir J. Newport

said, his reason for bringing forward the motion in such general terms was, to take away every idea of attaching the smallest suspicion to the conduct of the judges. The way, however, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had opposed the motion, was the only one which could attach such suspicion to those high characters; and, therefore, he felt himself obliged to the right hon. gentleman for the amendment he had suggested, which certainly enabled him to attain every object he had in view in bringing forward the motion.

The question was then put, and agreed to.