HC Deb 14 May 1817 vol 36 cc562-9
Mr. Cooper

said, that among the many evils that would result from postponing the Grand Jury Presentment bill, there was none that would be more felt than the want of the regulations therein proposed for treasurers and collectors of public money; before, however, he adverted particularly to that object, he would take the liberty of making a few observations upon other matters connected with it. And first he would once more, and once for all, deny that he had exceeded his duty in bringing forward a comprehensive measure; the very words of the report of the committee recommended a comprehensive measure. One great evil arising from the grand jury laws as they stand was the want of a previous examination into the necessity or expediency of the works proposed to be executed. This part of the evil was proposed to be remedied by submitting these matters to a previous meeting of magistrates—the principal objections he had heard to this part of the bill was as to the power given to magistrates in some cases to cancel such proposed presentments as they did not approve; this might have been a very fit subject of discussion in a committee; his opinion had been hitherto governed by the idea that if there was no power given to these meetings they would not be attended by the principal gentlemen whose presence was so desirable.—The next part of the subject he would notice was the proposed meeting of the grand jury for the consideration of the civil business of the country, disentangled from the criminal business and other important matters; the difference of opinion that he had found on this part of the subject was as to the time, some thinking that it should be before, and others after the general assize business—this also would have been it matter for discussion in a committee; his reason for preferring the former was, that by that means they should have the advantage of the control of the judges, without inconvenience to those personages. With respect to the circuit surveyor which was recommended, and whose appointment was to be independent of grand juries, his idea was to place all buildings of any importance and all other matters from which jobs usually arose, such as laying out roads, cutting down hills, &c. under his control—one objection that he had heard to this appointment was, that it would not be in the power of any surveyor to go through the labour; to which he begged leave to answer by referring to the report of the surveyor on the Highland Roads, by which it appeared that a Mr. Mitchell, a surveyor, reported upon 3,000 miles of roads and bridges in one year; no circuit surveyor in Ireland would have one fourth of that labour to go through—it was owing to the want of a responsible office of this description that plans were bad, estimates inadequate, public works badly executed, and that in numberless instances private convenience was preferred to public advantage.—With respect to the printing work done for the use of grand juries, he had observed so much inaccuracy, such a total dereliction of the form enjoined by law, that he had had it in contemplation by the bill to recommend printing work to be done by the king's printer; he was however aware that this, in many instances would be a severe privation to local printers, and it was his intention to have altered this clause in the committee; he was the more induced to this as there were printed forms annexed to the bill which could not be mistaken or misunderstood.—Another measure recommended by the bill was the permitting grand juries to appoint a county attorney whose duty it should be to superintend the taking of recognizances and to defend traverses under the direction of grand juries; the losses which were sustained by the public on this account were immense, in nine times out of ten, roads running through persons grounds, instead of doing that person an injury rendered him an essential service, and vet by the traverser employing counsel, and there being no power in a grand jury to employ a legal person on the part of the count}', the jury were imposed on, and the country suffered accordingly—As many misrepresentations had gone abroad as to his reason of withdrawing the bill, he felt it right to state, that as he thought he perceived much more activity (with some gratifying exceptions however) among the opponents to the bill than among its supporters, he had thought it his duty to apply to a certain quarter to see how and whether the bill was likely to be countenanced: finding himself discouraged there, he thought it better to withdraw the bill for the present, rather than give the House or himself what appeared useless trouble.—As to the proposal made by the bill to require the monies of the different counties to be paid into the bank of Ireland, there were many flimsy objections made to it, and particularly by the treasurers—they ask at whose risk is the money to be transmitted? I answer, at the risk of the treasurer; why should there be more difficulty in a treasurer remitting money to a bank than there is in a private agent who remits any sum under his own responsibility, and whose difficulties are so much greater from his receiving the money in small sums.—He came now to the subject of defaulting treasurers and collectors; three of the former, as he was informed, had failed in the past year, and as to the latter, he would refer to a printed paper he held in his hand, which contained an advertisement from the city of Cork, in which the grand jury held out the names of four defaulting collectors to the amount of upwards of 14,000l. at the last assizes; and it appeared by the advertisement they allowed one of these collectors his poundage to the amount of 500l. though his collection was not complete, and this in the very teeth of an act of parliament. He also held in his hand a schedule of the presentments levied under the direction of grand juries last summer assizes, in which appeared the following items:—"To George Biggs, esq. attorney, for sueing Henry Lysaght, late high constable, for an arrear due by him to the county 98l. 3s 9d. To same, for the like, in sueing Mountiford Longfield as security for do. 44l. 12s 5d. To same, for the like, in sueing William Starkey, late high constable, 103l. 0s. 7d. To same, for the like, in sueing William Warner, high constable of Bantry, and his sureties, 75l. 6s 2½." Amounting in the whole to the sum of 321l. 2s 11½d. Now, how stood this matter? This gentleman, after making a handsome annuity for some time out of the law proceedings, would probably recover nothing, and thus in the first instance the original sums would be lost, the enormous bills of cost would be lost, and the sums owing by those defaulting collectors would be levied over again from the public; if these were not evils and abuses he did not know what could be called so.—Mr. Cooper also took occasion to notice what appeared to him § an enormous job, the giving a Mr. Colbourne 1,000l. fine and 300l. per annum for a house merely to make a grand jury room, which he was well informed was not worth more than 200l. fine and 70l. per annum.—As to the bill which it was proposed to him to bring in, besides his dislike to the bringing in a minor measure, he really thought if he was to undertake it, the probability was, they would have no act this session; he thought the best way was for those who proposed such a proceeding to him to undertake the bill themselves; in their hands it would succeed, in his it would be frittered away, and in the end it would be laid at his door, that there was not any improvement of the law this session. He begged leave to move, that an humble address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent for "a return of the names of the treasurers and collectors of public money in the several counties, counties of cities, and counties of towns, in Ireland, who have made default in their several collections and payments, from the 1st of January 1810, to the present time; distinguishing the sums for which they severally made default, with the amount of any sums which have been recovered from such persons, or their sureties respectively, with the names of such sureties; also the amount of any bills of cost which have been presented by any grand jury in Ireland, from the first of January 1810, to the present time, either on account or otherwise, upon any legal proceedings instituted for the recovery of, the sums due by such persons so in default, or their sureties."

Mr. Peel

said, that he had advised the hon. member to withdraw his bill under the idea, that if the very voluminous bill which did so much credit to the hon. member's talents had gone into a committee, and had been found impracticable, so much time would have been lost, that there would have been no possibility of remedying the inconveniencies complained of during the present session. He had thought it advisable to wait till the hon. member should determine whether he, would again bring forward the subject in another shape. He regretted that the hon. member had given up the subject for the present. He was, however, happy to say, that his right hon. friend (Mr. V. Fitzgerald) intended to bring forward a bill to remedy the abuses complained of. He thought a bill in the nature of an experimental measure, was better than a sud- den abolition of the whole grand jury system in Ireland.

Sir N. Colthurst

supported the motion, and thought some measure highly necessary.

General Malthew

declared his opinion of the necessity of reforming the system of grand jury presentments, which operated as grievous and unjust taxes on the counties; but he did not think any good would be done till the sheriffs who appointed the grand juries were themselves nominated in a more unexceptionable way. The sheriffs were not nominated, as in England, from the recommendation of the grand panel, but for electioneering purposes, and the sheriff so appointed secured the influence of the ministerial candidate by appointing grand jurymen as a matter of favour. He inculcated the necessity of resorting to the system established in this country.

Sir F. Flood

denied that at present the sheriffs in Ireland were appointed for party purposes. The out going sheriff gave three names of persons of respectability to the judges at the assizes, and soon after the chancellor and judges met to chat over together who were the fittest persons to serve the office. He denied also, especially in the county to which he belonged, that persons were chosen on grand juries for the purpose of jobbing.

Mr. Ponsonby

thought it extraordinary to reject a bill before it had been examined by a committee; and, though he was glad that any bill was to be introduced, he hoped his hon. friend would proceed next session. With respect to the appointment of sheriff, though a change had been promised, he did not find any improvement, for the judges still took the names from the outgoing sheriff. He hoped that this would be altered, for the existing sheriff would always name those who were in the interest from which he had derived his own appointment.

Mr. Peel

felt it necessary, as he had given a pledge to the House last session, that steps should be taken as to the appointment of sheriffs, to explain what had actually been done. On his return to Ireland, he had communicated with the lord chancellor on the subject, and directions had been given that the judges on the assizes should return three fit persons to serve the office of sheriff, from each county, This had been done, and in almost every case the first on the list had been appointed. In no instance had any party considera- tions biassed the choice—for instance, in the county which the gallant general (Mathew) represented, three persons had been returned by the judges. He (Mr. P.) wrote to the first on the list to say, that the lord lieutenant intended to appoint him sheriff. He declined—to the second and third. Far from consulting any party interest, a letter was written to the first on the list, that the writ would be made out for him, and he was obliged to serve. The returns of the names of the three persons had sometimes been made by the outgoing sheriff, but that was not always the case. Though thus much had been done, so convinced was he of the necessity of putting the system on an unobjectionable footing, that he had written to the lord chancellor of Ireland, as to the expediency of advising the lord lieutenant to instruct the judges to return persons recommended by the grand panel of the counties. The reform in their appointments would, he was convinced, confer an important benefit on Ireland.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he had heard with great satisfaction the statement of the right hon. gentleman, and thought it would be a great step towards the improvement of the state of Ireland.

Mr. M. Fitzgerald

said, that much more had been done by the Irish government on this subject in a short time than could be expected. He thought it very proper, that the bill entirely changing the system of grand jury presentments, had not been pressed through the House without mature consideration, which could not be afforded. He advised the hon. member to bring his measure forward early in the next session, to attract the attention of the British part of the representatives, without which his efforts would probably be frustrated. The right hon. gentleman described the arrangements which he thought necessary, with a view to provide for the due execution of the law respecting grand jury presentments, and to guard against any faults or defaults on the part of county treasurers. These arrangements were; first, that security should be had from all county treasurers to the full amount of the sums which they were to receive, and that such securities should be examined and approved of by the law officers of the Crown, while the securities for barony treasurers should be examined and approved of by some subordinate authority;—2ndly, that no one who was to account to a grand jury should be allowed to act as a grand juror;—3dly, that a longer previous notice should be given of every presentment; and 4thly that an assistant judge should be appointed on each circuit, for the purpose of considering and urging all traverses, &c. with respect to presentments, and in his opinion, the accounts of expenditure upon presentments, as well as the presentments themselves, should be subject to be traversed. Such an appointment would, he was aware, increase the patronage of the Crown over the Irish bar, which patronage was already quite enough. But the appointment was indispensable to the due execution of the law, for the judges were at present unable to attend to this department, and as to the expense of the appointments to which he referred, it would not exceed for all Ireland 2,000l a year.

Mr. L. Foster

objected to the provisions of the bill which had been withdrawn, as well as to some arrangements proposed by the right hon. gentleman who spoke last.

Mr. D. Browne

strongly recommended a general survey of the land in Ireland, with a view to the fair execution of the law with respect to presentments.

Sir J. Newport

concurred in this recommendation, and while he highly approved of the principles of the law with regard to grand jury presentments, expressed his regret to find that this law, was very much abused. The amount of the assessments under grand jury presentments was considerable, and as those assessments bore very hard upon the occupiers of land, or the peasantry, it was peculiarly necessary to provide that such assessments should not be improperly applied. Mow he understood, that even within the last year, no less than three county treasurers had failed, while their securities were found inefficient to supply their defaults. This was a serious grievance, which, however, had long been suffered to prevail in Ireland. There were, indeed, great defaults in that country among public accountants, which were due for many years, and which he feared were never likely to be received, especially from the improvident manner in which securities had been arranged by those Crown lawyers whose duty it was to attend to such subjects.

Lord Desart

maintained that the system of grand jury presentments was highly advantageous to Ireland in promoting its internal improvement.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

expressed his con- currence in the views of Mr. M. Fitzgerald, but thought the arrangements he proposed required consideration. As to the appointment of an assistant judge to attend to the business of presentments, he himself had suggested the necessity of such an appointment in his evidence before the committee upon the subject of presentments three years ago. But he had proposed some propositions with regard to the question before the House which he intended to submit to its consideration on Friday se'nnight, and therefore he gave notice of a motion for that day.

The motion was agreed to.