HC Deb 17 February 1818 vol 37 cc444-53
Mr. M. A. Taylor

rose to call the attention of the House to a subject which was of great importance to the country. He wished particularly that his majesty's ministers would attend to the statement he was about to make, as it was impossible, if a moment's consideration were given to the subject, that there could be more than one feeling as to the necessity of some remedy being applied to the very great evil complained of, as he could not suppose that any member would say that the four northern counties ought to be excluded from the ordinary administration of justice. Every member of the House knew, that throughout the three kingdoms, with the exception of the counties of Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, and the town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, there were regular gaol deliveries twice a year, as courts of assize and sittings at Nisi Prius were held twice a year in the different counties, with the exception of those mentioned. Bristol, he believed, was the only exception, but he hoped such regulations would be adopted as would give that city also the same enjoyment of the laws as the other parts of the country possessed. Why those counties were deprived of the privileges enjoyed by the rest of the country, he was at a loss to determine. Those counties were as rich, as well peopled, and as deserving of protection as any other part of the kingdom. Would it be said that though those counties were as fully peopled as any others, yet they were less addicted to crime than the other inhabitants of the country? He feared that such a reason as that could not be assigned, for their being deprived of the protection enjoyed by the other parts of the country. It was well known that in the northern counties many persons had been in prison for the last three months, to take their trial, not at the next spring, but at the next summer assizes. Thus a number of persons were to be confined from nine to eleven months before their guilt or innocence could be ascertained. He hoped that the House would adopt such measures as would prevent his majesty's subjects from being in future subject to so very great a hardship as that of remaining so long a time in prison before they were brought to trial. It was true, that in questions which arose out of the navigation, the venue might be changed to London. But in cases where, for instance, a landlord had occasion to eject a tenant, if any objection were taken to the judgment of the court, and a new trial was granted, two years at least would elapse before the question could be decided. He recollected that when he was practising at the bar, many cases in these counties were left, which were called remanents. It might be argued against him, that if the grievances which he mentioned were felt in those counties, the suffering parties would have complained of them. But he would ask, from whom the complaints were expected to come? The grand juries of those counties, who were perhaps anxious to return to their homes, might not be aware of the grievances under which the prisoners laboured. If the persons confined were even roused to a sense of their sufferings as to petition the secretary of state for the home department, he would refer them to the legal remedies to be had in their counties. If they were to petition the House of Commons, their petitions might lie on the table, unless the matter were to be taken up by some person of consequence in that House. The evil of delay had been for some time felt on petitions to the Lords. It had been severely felt on the decisions of the high court of chancery, and yet those evils were allowed to exist for years, though the suffering parties loudly complained of them, and they would perhaps have existed up to the present moment if the matter had not been taken up by some particular members, by whose interference the evil was in a great measure removed.—He did not wish to take up the time of the House for a single moment more than was necessary to the objects he had in view, but he hoped for their indulgence while he brought the case fairly before them, as he was confident that it only needed that the grievance should be fully known to have it redressed. The question of what would be an effectual remedy, was, perhaps one of some difficulty, but he would lay before the House what he conceived would be a remedy and leave them to decide whether it ought or ought not to be adopted. Though the population of these kingdoms was double the population in the reign of queen Elizabeth, and though the property of the country was more than fourfold what it was then, yet there was no farther provision made for the distribution of justice at present than there was at that period. There were twelve judges then, and at present there were no more. No provision had been made for the increase of population, and consequently none for the increase of crime. Though millions were squandered away on trifles, the substantial parts of the constitution were left unprovided for. It seemed as if there was some particular charm in having precisely twelve judges, I and no more. But whatever that charm might be, it had not the power of relieving the grievances of which the northern counties had to complain. In the courts of London and Westminster, there were annually five hundred causes to be tried at the sittings after term, and yet there was only one judge to sit at Nisi Prius in each court; though business had increased nearly tenfold, the same number of judges were left to get through that business as were formerly appointed when they had comparatively little to do. Within his memory the Old Bailey sessions used to terminate in four or five days from their commencement. But now those sessions lasted nearly a fortnight, and when, it happened that the judges were unable to attend those sessions, the recorder and common serjeant found it at times impossible to get through the business without the assistance of the chairman of Clerken-well sessions. From this it plainly appeared, that it was necessary to make some provision for the very great increase of business both in London and the country. It was true that the Crown could, by its prerogative, issue commissions of over and terminer and general gaol deliveries, but it was different with respect to the courts of assize and Nisi Prius; in such cases it was necessary to apply to parliament, and such was the nature of his application. An application, such as he intended to make, could not originate in the other House, as it being a Money bill the House of Commons only had a right to sanction it first. It had been suggested to him, that if another court were established in Westminster-hall, with power to decide on criminal as well as civil cases, in the same manner that the King's-bench did at present, it would be a great assistance to the distribution of justice in the country. But he thought that such an establishment would be too expensive to the country, as it would be necessary to add such a number of officers and attendants to it. The plan which he intended to propose to the House would, he conceived, be much more desirable: at the same time he wished it to be understood, that whatever faults were found in it, were wholly to be attributed to him, as it was one of his own invention. The hon. gentleman then proposed his plan to the House, which he said, had not been suggested to him by any discontented lawyer, as had been before objected, but which originated with himself after the most mature consideration. There was, he observed, an officer belonging to the court of exchequer, who might be made a most useful person to promote one of the objects he had in view. This officer was the curator baron. It was a situation usually given to persons who had retired from legal or judicial situations abroad, and was almost always filled by men of talent. He was sure, however, that the present cursitor baron (Maseres) was eminent for his learning and ability [Hear!]. He thought that a great practical good would result from bringing him forward in situations where the judges were at present obliged to attend, though with considerable inconvenience, and with delay to the causes which came before them in another place. He would, for instance, suggest the propriety of having the cursitor baron attend at the Old-bailey, and take his roaster in going the circuit. The present cursitor baron had once filled the situation of deputy recorder of London, which he held for a year, and was therefore well calculated, from his experience to the discharge of such a duty as that which he proposed. At present the duty of the cursitor baron was little more than to receive the sheriff's when they came down, and to examine their accounts. He thought that if this officer were invested with the power of a judge, not to sit in Bank, but to preside at the Old-bailey and go the circuit, it would most materially contribute to the prompt administration of justice, and would at the same time be attended with very little additional expense. The salary of the cursitor baron was, he believed, at present 1,000l. a-year, which, if raised to the usual salary given to the puisne judges, would not be considered as a great expense, when the advantages to result from it were taken into consideration. It often happened that judges who went the northern circuit had perhaps to attend the Old Bailey on their return, and he need not state to the House that from the great distances they had to travel, they were put to great labour and fatigue, in order to be able to return in time. If his plan were adopted, the judges who went the northern circuit would not be put to that inconvenience. He would also propose, that an officer similar to the cursitor baron should be attached to the court of King's-bench, with power save that of sitting in Bank, to that of the other judges; that his duty should be to take bail, sit at Nisi Prius, attend at the Old-bailey, and go the circuit, and also to hear cases of Nisi Prius in term. For it was well known, that the regular business of the term was often considerably retarded in consequence of the necessity of the chief justice attending to try Nisi Prius causes. He was certain that no person could pay more attention to the business of the court, or dispatch it with more rapidity than the present learned lord who presided in the court of King's-bench; but so great was the business in that court, that he conceived it impossible for any person, however indefatigable, to go through it in proper time. Indeed, so impressed were the judges of the truth of this, that they gave up a great portion of their time to the hearing of motions and the arguing of cases at Serjeant's inn, before the terms commenced. If his plan should be adopted by the House, a great deal of this inconvenience would be got rid of. The two officers he had mentioned would be able to take a considerable portion of the trouble on themselves, and would in turn relieve the judges from the labours of the circuits. The expense, he should again press upon the House, would be trifling, when compared with the important advantages which would result from it. When it was recollected that many persons who were under the present system confined nine or ten months in the gaols of the northern counties, upon charges of which they were afterwards acquitted, and for which, even if they had been found guilty, the law would not sentence them to so long an imprisonment, would, by the adoption of his plan, be subjected to a much shorter imprisonment before their trial; he was convinced that the additional expense to the country would be but a minor consideration. He had known many instances of persons being confined nine or ten months on very trifling charges, who would have been sent back to their families at an early period if there had been two assizes in the course of the year instead of one. One man he had known indicted for stealing a game cock, who was closely confined for nine months, and when he was at length brought to trial, there was not a shadow of evidence to prove his guilt. He conceived that circumstances of this kind were evils for which the legislature was answerable, if it did not provide some immediate remedy. The one he proposed, he thought would be found efficient; but he did not mean positively to press that, if any other was suggested, which might answer the purpose as well. It was to him a matter of indifference whether there were five judges or four on the bench, provided the administration was prompt. But as the evil existed, he thought it would be too much to refuse the remedy. It might, perhaps, be said, that the remedy he had proposed would be thought too expensive on the counties; but he did not think it would be found that any such objection would be made by the counties themselves. The several noblemen and persons of distinction in the counties would not feel any objection to entertain the judges twice a year, instead of once. The bishop of Durham was known to keep a most hospitable table, and he was convinced that his lordship would feel no objection to entertain the judges when they came down. He was certain, that if he held the same situation which the worthy bishop did, he should have no objection to entertain the judges four times a year instead of twice [A laugh]. The hon. gentleman concluded with moving,

"That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, praying that he will be graciously pleased to issue his commission of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery for the counties of Westmorland, Cumberland, Durham, and Northumberland, and the town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, twice in every year, and also his commission of Assize and Nisus Prius; and to assure his Royal Highness that this House will make good any expense attending the same."

The Attorney General

said, he would not enter into a discussion of all the matters which the hon. gentleman had introduced, but he did expect, that when the hon. gentleman had brought the subject before the House, he would have been prepared with some specific plan to remedy the evil of which he had complained. He was not, however, prepared, even if the hon. gentleman had proposed such a remedy, to enter upon it, without that mature deliberation which such a subject required. He objected to the motion, because he thought it brought forward too suddenly alterations which required the most serious consideration before they were made, and because the hon. mover had shown no grounds to prove that any emergency existed which would render the proposed alteration immediately necessary. He admitted, with the hon. mover, that the Crown had the power of issuing special commissions, but he confessed he was not aware of any particular circumstances which rendered their being issued on the present occasion necessary. It might be important to inquire what legislative measures should hereafter be adopted on the subject. But as the motion then before the House went suddenly to alter a long established mode of administering justice, and that too without any sufficient cause being adduced, he thought it his duty to move the previous question.

Sir C. Monck

expressed his surprise at the opposition of the hon. and learned gentleman to the motion of his hon. friend. He had expected that an amended motion, rather than the previous question, would have been submitted. The address was proposed on the ground of a notorious defect in our judicial system; and whilst he admitted that the administration of justice was pure, he wished also to see it prompt in every part of the country. A prompt administration was of the essence of justice, for delay might render its decisions useless, whatever were their wisdom or integrity. The northern counties, whilst they contributed equally to the burthens, laboured under various disadvantages; but the one now under consideration was peculiarly grievous. They were not at a greater distance from the seat of government than Cornwall, where the assizes were held twice a-year. It might be said, that they were held but once at Bristol; but at Bristol, a man committed for any offence might remove himself, if he thought fit, to the county gaol, and by this means accelerate his trial. With regard to the proposed mea- sure being a great departure from the ordinary course of justice, and from the present constitution of the courts, he could see it in no such light, though he should perhaps have preferred to see it brought forward in a more simple form. He could not imagine any solid objection to the direct and immediate extension of the Spring assizes to the four northern counties. The difficulty and expense would be nothing, when weighed against the interests and the rights of their fellow-subjects. If the sum of 400,000l. had been given away to Spain (a measure which be was happy to think he had voted against), for the suppression of the slave-trade at the expiration of two years, surely the sacrifice of a few thousands a year could not be considered excessive, when the object was, to communicate to the four northern counties that prompt and frequent distribution of justice which was enjoyed by every other! A thousand inconveniences arose out of the present defective system, not only from the delay of justice, but from the absence and death of witnesses. Every British subject was entitled by Magna Charta to the most prompt decision of his case which could be devised by the wisdom of the legislature. "Nulli negabimus, nulli difteremus justitiam," was the language of that fundamental statute, and he would beg the House to reflect how far the mode of administering justice in the northern counties was consistent with the principle of the "nulli differemus justitiam." He was sure that if the House consented to put the previous question on a subject of such importance, they would be guilty of a gross dereliction of duty.

Lord Castlereagh

thought, that the House were not prepared to enter into such a subject. He was persuaded they could not see their way so far as to venture to address the Crown upon an alteration which would render necessary a very extensive change in the constitution of the courts of Westminster-hall. Unless, indeed, there were an addition, if not of actual judges, at least of temporary ones, to act, as substitutes, the alteration could not be completed. The hon. gentleman had opened to the House a method by which the change might be effected, without making any great derangement of the present state of things; but he was quite unable to go along with him in the whole of his reasoning; and the House, he was sure, would feel it quite impossible to adopt the general proposition, which tended to make so material an alteration in the whole system of Westminster-hall. He apprehended, indeed, that the hon. gentleman had acquitted himself of much of his duty by calling the attention of the House to the question. He did not mean to dissent from the proposition, that it was proper that some alteration should be made. He did not mean to imply that it was not desirous that there should be an administration of justice in the parts which the hon. gentleman had mentioned, twice a year instead of once; but he thought that, instead of the motion he had made, if he had moved for an inquiry, it might have been preferable. There had been one, not long ago, into the administration of justice in Wales; and if the hon. member had brought his motion forward in that way, he should have had no objection to it; but in the manner in which he had brought it forward, he had jumped to his conclusion at the very outset, and had not presented his arrangements to the House in any other manner than by the very clear statement which he had made. As to the previous question, by adopting that mode on the present motion, they were not neglecting the question, but merely declaring that it was not then to be put; and as the House had not made their minds up, he thought that mode the most advisable.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, he had brought forward his motion merely for the purpose of having the matter considered. He had thought it his duty to bring the question before the House, and it had struck him that the way in which he had done it was the best in which it could be discussed. He was sure the House could and would entertain it. It was of no consequence to him in what manner it was done, provided its object was effected; and therefore, with the leave of the House, he would withdraw his motion, He only wished to impress the House with the necessity there was of having something done on the subject.

Mr. Brougham

agreed entirely with his hon. friend. The irresistible case which he had made out in favour of pure justice was such as could not but carry its object. He was extremely glad to find that there was no objection made to it, but with regard to the proper mode of proceeding. He could not help strongly urging on his hon. friend the necessity of a motion for an inquiry.

Mr. W. Smith

agreed intirely with the motion of the hon. gentleman. He had received a letter, indeed, which convinced him that some alterations in the administration of justice was absolutely necessary in the north of England.

Mr. Warre

congratulated the House that an inquiry would shortly take place. The machinery for the desired alteration was already in existence.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that he had always been impressed with the expediency of having the assizes in the northern counties twice in the year, and thanked his hon. friend for the motion he had submitted to the House.

Mr. Wynn

, although he felt that some measure was necessary, yet was glad that his hon. friend was about to withdraw his motion, to which he could not have consented, considering the near approach of the spring assizes, and that no person who had a suit would be sufficiently aware of the new arrangement.

Mr. Taylor

then withdrew his motion, and gave notice that he would to-morrow move for a committee of inquiry.