HC Deb 20 May 1819 vol 40 cc560-8
Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, he had to request the indulgence of the House, while he called their attention to a subject in its nature certainly not very entertaining, namely, the delays in the high Court of Chancery. But though this was a dry subject, it was one which was interesting to a great part of the community, who unless some aid was afforded by parliament, would continue to suffer greatly from such delays. He should state the grounds on which he brought forward the present motion, with perfect respect to the judges who presided in the courts referred to in his motion; but at the same time he should do the subject fair justice, and should shrink from nothing. The question to which he should call their attention was, whether the aid afforded to the public in 1813, by the appointment of a vice chancellor's court, had answered the end which the legislature intended it should have, and whether any other step was not now necessary to relieve the Court of Chancery. He did not wish at present to enter into any of the particulars of the mischief which had arisen from delay. He attributed the delay of decision to the pressure of business, which no human strength could perform, and from which he wished to relieve the lord chancellor. He owned that he wished to propose that the House should agree to a committee; and if the House should grant this, then he should prove, from the authentic registers of the court, by the officers of the court, and by professional men, that great actual injustice took place from delay in the Court of Chancery. He begged the House would look to the expense of proceedings in chancery. He did not ask this for his own part, for he had never writhed under the pressure of that court. But he had seen families ruined and undone by it; he had known many families who had lost their all by it. Though facts connected with this subject had been given to him by persons of the highest rank and character in the profession, yet he should not bring them forward except in a committee, where they might be examined into, when no doubt would remain of their truth. The question was, whether the separation of the bankruptcy business from that of the great seal, might not give fair time for the expediting of all the matters which would then come before the Court of Chancery. The House would recollect, that in 1811, he had moved for a committee to inquire into the causes of the delay in the Court of Chancery. A committee was appointed, but as the session soon broke up, it was necessary that the committee should be revived the ensuing session. That committee was accordingly revived, but when he moved in the committee to call for persons professionally connected with the Court of Chancery, to give evidence respecting the causes of the delay, that motion was resisted in the committee, and on his bringing the same motion before the House, it was successfully resisted there. The committee had before them the register-book, and received information of the number of causes which remained undecided, but they never could get to the ground of the subject. In the mean time a bill was brought into the other House, by the lord chancellor, for the appointment of a vice chancellor. That bill was opposed in the House on the ground that it would give no actual relief to the court—that there would be a revulsion from the vice chancellor back to the chancellor in the shape of appeal. There were 35 appeals only waiting for decision, when the vice chancellor's court was established. He found, the other day, that there were now upwards of 100 appeals watting for the lord chancellor's decision. His information might be incorrect, but it came from a solicitor of the first eminence, and he had communicated it to the learned solicitor general opposite. The number of original causes in the lord chancellor's paper was 114 in 1811. With all the assistance derived from the vice chancellor's court, the number of original causes was now 289. The number of appeals, in 1811, was 35. In March 1819, the number was l01. The bankruptcy business stood on the same footing as in 1811: there was no variation in the number of petitions, at least in March. It had been argued, that the appointment of a vice chancellor's court would give great relief to the House of Lords. But there were 140 causes in the appellant jurisdiction of that House; and there stood 26 appeals, besides writs of error, which had been in hand two years without being decided. Now, if the lord chancellor were freed from the pressure of the bankruptcy business, with all his knowledge and talent, he could not get through this business in less than two years. He did not mean to impute any blame to lord Eldon, or to say that the vice chancellor's court, had not been, in some respects, a relief to the lord chancellor. But though the number of cases decided by the vice chancellor had been considerable, and though the business of the great seal had been done, and well done, still there was a long list of appeals undecided. Let them look at the situation in which the lord chancellor stood. Like all other lord chancellors, he had much to do with the political business of the country—he had to attend to the appeal causes in the House of Lords—he had the care of lunatics— he had the care of infants. Any man who had seen the multiplicity of business which came before the lord chancellor, and the number of times the learned lord was called from the bench to attend to political matters, could easily understand how so many causes remained. He could show, that since the time of lord chancellor Hardwicke, business had greatly increased —the number of bankruptcy cases had doubled—the number of motions was doubled. Besides this, there were the appeals to the House of Lords, appeals from Scotland and Ireland, and writs of error. If any one man were to unite all the talents and knowledge of the present lord chancellor with the decision of lord Hardwicke, it would be impossible for him to go through the business. No man doubted the talents, perseverance, or labour of the lord chancellor; he was always in the court of chancery, except when called away on political business, or when in the House of Lords. If he, then, could not go through the arrears, it was in vain to expect that any other lord chancellor could go through it. Human strength could only go through a certain quantity of business. The Court of Chancery was a court of equity. Now, bank- ruptcy business was of a legal nature, and belonged more to a court of law than to an equity court. In this he was fortified by the opinion of some of the best lawyers of the country. He understood it had lately been said by the noble lord, in deciding a bankruptcy petition, that if the bankruptcy business was to be transferred, it must be transferred to some competent judge. But the same talents which qualified a person to decide in any other court, would fit him to sit in a court for the decision of bankruptcy cases; and with respect to the remuneration to such a judge, it was to be recollected, that there was a sinecure place connected with bankruptcy cases—the office of patentee of bankrupts, which was worth from 5,000l. to 6,000l. a-year. Why should that be given to an inefficient man? That should go into the pocket of the person who did the actual business. The bankruptcy business at the present moment was supposed to bring 5,000l. a-year into the pocket of the lord chancellor. Then there was 1,700l. received annually by the secretary of bankrupts. He would take the amount received by the patentee at from 6,000l. to 7,000l. a-year. It was fit that the man entrusted with the great seal should be largely and liberally remunerated; but he ought not to be recompensed for business that he had not power to perform. If this question was carried against him this evening, the question should not rest here. He would try it in every possible way. He wished ministers themselves would take the subject up. Many cases had been before the court of chancery for six, seven, eight, or ten years, without a decision. Causes were two years in hand before they were set down in the chancellor's paper. Suppose, in the first instance, that a case was brought before the vice chancellor, it was two years before it could come on for a hearing; an appeal might then be lodged wish the chancellor; with him it remained for two years more; if an appeal from him was carried to the House of Lords, two or three years more were spent; so that it was six years before it was finally decided. He had known a case in chancery, concerning the beneficial interest of two women in a lease which had twelve years to run. It was there thirteen years before it was decided, and both the claimants were then dead. The question then was, of what part of his business the lord chancellor should be relieved? It was known that the bank- ruptcy business was entirely distinct; that it was originally a part of the business of the great seal. Where, then, would be the harm of now separating it from it? Many professional men could be found competent to decide in matter of bankruptcy; and if the noble lord who now held the seals were the person in the country the most fit to decide those questions, yet the country might be at any time deprived of his services. Another expedient might be resorted to, which would not only give the lord chancellor more time to attend to the peculiar business, but would improve the judicial system of the country. As the judicial business of the House of Lords was at present managed, there were many suitors in this country to an immense amount, who had, in fact, no appeal from the primary court. There was an appeal from the chancery of Ireland; there was an appeal from the court of session of Scotland; but from the chancery of England there was, in fact, no-appeal, but from the chancellor in chancery to the chancellor in the House of Lords. The constant advice, therefore, of all gentlemen at the bar to suitors was, not to appeal to the House of Lords, as it was only an useless addition of expense to expense. It was of course a mockery for the judge who was appealed from to decide on the appeal. The increase of property of chancery suitors was such as almost to exceed belief. In 1752, the whole amount of money lodged in the Bank of England, belonging to such parties, was scarcely 3,000,000l.; in the present year it amounted to nearly 34,000,000l. But this was not all the business of the court; it was to be remembered that one-third of all the estates in England, one-third of our entire landed property, was decided in a court from which there was no substantial appeal; that to the House of Lords was in fact none. He could take upon himself to assert, that there was now in the Bank a sum of not less than 10,000,000l., which, from the procrastinated duration of suits, should have been either the property of persons deceased, who had no representatives; or of persons now living, but ignorant, from the books not being open to them, of their claims altogether, or if they knew themselves to possess such claims, ignorant in what manner or names the property was vested. It was his object hereafter to move for the production of those books, in order that people might ascertain and vindicate their rights.—The hon. member then adverted to the opinions expressed by the late sir Samuel Romilly, that the only way to relieve the chancellor from the daily accumulation of the arrears he had alluded to, would be to separate the jurisdiction of bankrupts from the great seal; of the right hon. the president of the board of control (Mr. Canning), at the time the vice chancellor's bill was discussed, that it should only be a measure of experiment; and of the vice chancellor himself, which was in opposition to its expediency. He contended, that the object of that enactment had not been nor could be attained. The difficulties and embarrassments of the chancellor, as regarded the increase of cases in arrear, bad been sensibly increased. The hon. gentleman proceeded to pass a high eulogium upon the talents, perspicuity, and wisdom of the lord chancellor, and to acknowledge the clearness, precision, and integrity of his judgments. But whilst he admitted the great learning and ability of the lord chancellor, and bowed to his superior qualifications for discharging the duties of his office, he felt it due to the interests of the suitors in courts of equity and the court of final appeal, that those duties should not be rendered too numerous and weighty for any talents or any industry to perform. He concluded, therefore, by moving, "That this House will resolve itself into a committee of the whole House, to take into their consideration so much of the statute of 13 Eliz., c. 7, as gives jurisdiction in matters of bankruptcy to the lord high chancellor or lord keeper of the Great Seal of England."

Mr. Sinclair

said, that he rose to second the motion, not only because he believed that it would be productive of great public benefit, but also because be felt convinced that it might, indirectly, prove essentially useful to Scotland in particular, by enabling the lord chancellor to devote a larger portion of his time and attention, to the consideration and decision of appeals from the court of session. The delay, which now occurred, in respect to these appeals, was considered, from one end of Scotland to the other, as a most serious national grievance—it is the source of great loss to individuals, of distress and embarrassment to private families, and of serious mischief and inconvenience to the community at large. Not only do many sessions pass over, before these cases are heard, but, even when the pleadings have taken place, whole years are suffered to intervene, without any decision; so that many cases must be nearly forgotten, before they are determined. He did not mean to cast the slightest imputation upon the noble lord on the woolsack, whose unsullied integrity and unequalled legal knowledge could not be too highly panegyrised; but he had more business to go through than the human powers are equal to; and, unless he were endowed with a supernatural ubiquity, and could not only sit in several courts at once, but have a separate mind for treasuring up and considering the proceedings which took place in each, he could not possibly do justice either to the country or to himself; he should therefore give the motion his cordial support.

The Solicitor General

observed, that the object which the hon. and learned member evidently had in view, was the foundation of another jurisdiction for cases of bankruptcy. His argument was, that the late institution of a vice chancellor's court, had, instead of diminishing, added to the arrear of business in chancery. It was not, however, a correct statement of the fact, to represent that arrear as having increased. The contrary was the case; but if otherwise, his objection to a new and separate jurisdiction for bankruptcy would not be removed. Before he referred to that subject, he should show, that the vice chancellor's court had been productive of the most important assistance and relief to suitors in equity, and had materially facilitated the hearing of appeals in the House of Lords. So far was it from the fact to state, that causes were entered two or three years before they were heard, that those now remaining to be heard had been all set down in the last term. With regard to cases of bankruptcy, no less than 570 had been set down during the last year, of which only 170 remained to be heard, and 100 of these had been entered since Hilary terra. The other 70 were cases for rehearing. The arrear therefore was less than had ever before been known; and had it not been for the lord chancellor's late illness, there would not now have been a single bankrupt petition remaining to be heard. As to the number of causes, there were 206 set down for hearing before the lord chancellor, of which 140 were not set down till last Hilary term, and of these, many consisted of appeals. Undoubtedly, the number of appeals was increased, as must always happen by the establishment of an inferior jurisdiction. But it was equally clear, that suitors had great reason to be satisfied with the facility which had been given to the hearing of original causes. The institution of the vice chancellor's court had also enabled the lord chancellor to sit three days a week in the House of Lords to hear appeals and writs of error. Judgment would very soon be given in several important cases, one of which bad occupied a greater share of attention than any suit of late years. He was surprised to hear it stated, that questions of bankruptcy were not in their nature questions for an equitable jurisdiction. Courts of law often decided questions of fact in the course of a bankruptcy case, but the general merits fell peculiarly within the province of courts of equity; nor did he believe any man, whatever might be his learning and ability, qualified to decide them, unless conversant both with the principles and practice of those courts. But the pressure of business in the court of chancery did not arise from this cause; and the separation of the bankruptcy jurisdiction would therefore afford but little relief. If 300 petitions were to be now filed, they would probably be all disposed of within a fortnight after the long vacation. No ground had been furnished for the interference of the House upon this subject. The statement he had made, appeared to him a sufficient answer to the argument of his hon. and learned friend. He should wish likewise to observe on this occasion, that the establishment of the jury court in Scotland would tend greatly to lessen the number of appeals from that part of the united kingdom; many of those appeals having turned upon mere points of fact, and there being one now before the lord chancellor, in which the only question was, whether a hogshead of whiskey had or had not been delivered in a certain year. He should not follow the hon. member into his reasoning in support of a farther division of the present functions of the lord chancellor, because it had no reference to the immediate subject of consideration. Neither was it necessary for him to express his sentiments concerning the characters of the judges in chancery. It would be agreed, however, even by those who objected to the delays of that court, that it never was presided in by a judge with greater ability, in whom the country had greater confidence, or whose judg- ments would be held in greater reverence by posterity.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

shortly replied, and contended that the true causes of that delay which was a subject of universal complaint, could not be fairly understood, except by the examination of professional persons before a committee of that house. The appeals now pending in the House of Lords amounted to 141, and would probably not be determined for three years to come. Many cases had been now 18 months waiting for judgment; and if any accident, which he should regret as much as any man, were to happen to the noble and learned lord, these cases must be reheard at an enormous expense to the parties. Hence, the Buccleugh, the Roxburgh, and the Queensberry cases, in each of which, not less perhaps than 5 or 6,000l. in costs had been already incurred, must be re-heard. This was an evil, against which it was the duty of the legislature, as much as possible, to provide; and that could be done most effectually by accelerating the decision of appeals, and this could not take place without reducing the quantity of business assigned at present to the lord chancellor. That reduction being the object of his motion, he hoped the House would accede to the appointment of a committee, in which he pledged himself to prove the correctness of the statements he had made.—The House divided: Ayes, 49; Noes, 151.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, visct. Macleod, Rod.
Bankes Henry Mackintosh, sir J.
Barnett, James Moore, Peter
Benyon Benj. Maule, Wm.
Bernal, Ralph Maxwell, J.
Browne, Dom. Newport, sir J.
Coffin, sir Isaac North, Dudley
Dickinson, W. Powlett, W.
Denman, Thos. Phillips, C.
Ebrington, visct. Ricardo, David
Fleming, John Ridley, sir M.W.
Fergusson, sir R. C. Sinclair, George
Griffith, J.W. Smyth, J. H.
Gordon, Robt. Tennyson, C.
Gipps, G. Thorp, alderman
Hume, Jos. Williams, sir R.
Harvey, D. W. Williams, Wm.
Harcourt, John Western, C.
Lamb, hon. W. Wilson, sir R.
Lamb, hon. G. Waithman, alderman
Lambton, J. G. Walker, J.
Lemon, sir Wm. Walker, S.
Langton, G. Wilkins, W.
Lefevre, C. S. TELLERS.
Milton, visct. Denison, W. J.
Monck, sir C. Taylor, M. Angelo
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