HC Deb 26 March 1824 vol 10 cc1437-42

The House having resolved itself into a committee on this bill,

Lord Althorp

then rose, and proposed an amendment to that part of the bill which provided for the appointment of assessors to the sheriff. As the bill now stood, the right of appointment was vested in the Custos Rotulorum, and the amendment which he meant to propose was, that the appointment should belong to the Crown. This amendment, he proposed, as the best mode of preventing any vexatious contest, wherever a vacancy occurred, red, and an appointment became necessary.

Mr. Sykes

objected to the amendment, and proposed that he appointment should be vested in the-sheriff, or the going judge of assize.

Mr. Secretary Peel

suggested the necessity of having the appointment of the assessors vested in responsible hands. The office of sheriff, annual in the person who held it, was not one to which the House should attach the responsibility of such an appointment. It was equally objectionable to make the judges of assize responsible for the acts of others. Was it politic to make the bar dependent on a judge of assize? It was of importance to provide that these assessors should be men of learning, and above suspicion in the administration of justice. Even a few inefficient appointments would throw odium on the whole establishment. He recommended the propriety of limiting the number of assessors, and extending their labours over a greater space. In the place of seventy individuals in the counties, the establishment might be limited to seven or eight, receiving, no doubt, larger salaries, but possessing the requisite knowledge and character, to ensure an efficient and unsuspected discharge of the duty.

Lord Althorp

considered the suggestion of the right hon. secretary impracticable. It was the object of the bill to provide for the holding of the sheriffs' courts four times a year in different towns in each county, in such counties as Yorkshire and Lancashire, such an arrangement would give the assessor full employment for the whole year.

The Attorney General

defended the practicability of the suggestion of his right hon. friend. Persons competent to discharge such duties could not be procured under 500l. per annum. If the number were to consist of seventy assessors, that would entail an expense upon the county rate of 25,000l. It could be so managed, that a much less number, by dividing the county into circuits, might discharge all the duties.

Mr. R. Smith

suspected that the attorney-general under-estimated the labours of these appointments. He suggested the propriety of the postponement of the clause, in order to allow gentlemen on both sides to give it further consideration.

Mr. Bennet

was favourably inclined to the proposition of the right hon. secretary. He thought it would be destructive of the independence of the bar, to divide seventy places of 500l. a year each among its members.

Lord Eastnor

did not see any reason why these places should be filled by barristers exclusively. There were many gentlemen residing in the country whose education fully qualified them to perform any duties which the office might require.

Mr. Secretary Peel

instanced the appointments of assessors in Ireland, where experience proved, that those who were removed from all local connexion, discharged the duties the most efficiently.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that having been a member of the committee employed in preparing the bill, he felt, from the first moment, a firm determination not to give to the Crown the appointment of seventy new offices. Indeed, he was much indisposed to open to the bar any increase of offices, in whatever hands the patronage might be placed. But, feeling how much the existing abuses in the administration of the law relative to the recovery of debts stood in need of an efficient corrective, and thinking that the present bill afforded that remedy, he thought it better to damage the integrity of the bar, than allow the existing evils to continue. But, speaking without any inclination to give offence, he did not believe that the vaunted integrity of the bar was in danger by the proposed total of 35,000l. That could not be much endangered, which scarcely existed; and he sincerely believed there was not any great stock of integrity at the bar. On a future occasion he should take the opportunity of showing what, in his opinion, had put an extinguisher upon the independence of the bar—how patronage was heaped on the profession, how its honours, such as silk gowns, &c. were bestowed and refused. With respect to the proposed reduction of the assessors, as suggested by the right hon. secretary, and the increase of salaries to the few, he had a decided objection to it, inasmuch as such situations would then become the object of attraction to that class of lawyers (already too numerous) who set up their abilities to sale. When the allowances were small, and conferred on local barristers, who had the respect of their vicinity to look to, there did not exist that allurement to dishonesty, which he feared would be found in the other case. And, as to the necessity of great learning in the law, it was to be recollected, that all the decisions, under the bill, were to be made by a jury. He saw no ground whatever forsaking the appointment of the assessors from the Custodes Rotulorum.

Mr. Bernal

said, it was necessary that the assistant barristers, or assessors, should have a competent portion of legal knowledge. It was not unfrequently the case that actions for 10l. comprised points of as much legal nicety, as were mooted when the But was for a much larger sum.

Mr. Peel

suggested, that the Crown ought to be invested with the power of consolidating two or three of the smaller counties; leaving the large ones to be furnished each with an assessor.

Mr. Bennet

entirely objected to the interference of the Crown.

The clause was then, by consent of the committee, postponed.

On reading the clause, providing, that justices of the peace should order the sitting of the court,

Mr. Hobhouse

adverted to the petition which he had presented against the bill from a number of his constituents, complaining, that if it were enacted in its present form, they would be subjected to considerable inconvenience and a ruinous expense, since they might be compelled to follow their debtors into the remotest parts of the island. He was anxious that some amendment should be introduced into the bill, by which so serious an evil might be averted; and would therefore propose that the following words should be inserted in this clause:—"And that all such actions shall be brought and prosecuted in the district or districts where the debt is contracted."

Mr. R. Smith

suggested the addition of the following words, to the proposed amendment,"—"or where the defendant resides."

Mr. Hobhouse

consented to this addition to his amendment; but, after a few words from the attorney-general, it was agreed that the further consideration of the whole clause should be postponed. On the clause, limiting the debts to be recovered in the County Courts to ten pounds,

Mr. Lockhart

maintained, that the sum was much too small. He wished that 40l. could be substituted for 10l.; but he should be satisfied if 20l. were so substituted; and he moved an amendment to that effect.

The Attorney-General

observed, that as the bill was an experiment, and was, in fact, a great change in the law, it would, in his opinion, be much better for the present to confine the sum to 10l.

It was agreed, that the further consideration of the clause should be postponed. On the clause, enacting, that the assessors should appoint the clerks of the court,

Mr. Portman

suggested, that the amount of the security which the clerk of the court was called upon to give, ought to be specified.

Lord Althorp

observed, that as the sums which would be paid into those courts were not likely to be great, moderate security would be sufficient.

The clause was then agreed to.

Mr. Hobhouse

objected, on behalf of his constituents, to the clause which went to contract the period assigned in the statute of limitation.

The Attorney-General

said, that, in his opinion, the bill as then framed would by no means answer the purpose intended; namely, that of creating courts of summary jurisdiction for small debts. In the first place, it precluded reference, by which the courts of Westminster-hall contrived to get rid of the most perplexing cases of disputed accounts. The process was to be by plaint, instead of the declaration used in the higher courts, which was to be answered by a plea; and both plea and plaint were to be professionally drawn; the suit was to be prepared by solicitors, of course of very low rank and practice, and conducted by counsel. Each case would therefore be open to all the artifices by which causes were perplexed and lengthened in the superior courts, and this by the very lowest practitioners. The bill would be utterly useless in the end, unless the noble lord consented to the introduction of a clause to prevent solicitors and counsel from interfering with the process, and to substitute in their place a power given to the assessors to cross-examine witnesses, and then submit the question to the jury.

Lord Althorp

did not know how he could meet the views of the hon. and learned gentleman, because, as it appeared to him, if parties could not appear by solicitors, they must be required to appear in person. If this were to be the rule, there would be danger of unprincipled plaintiffs suing gentlemen wrongfully, with the certainty, that they would not think it worth while to appear merely for the sake of the fines. However, if the right hon. gentleman could frame a clause to meet this as well as his own view of the subject, he would gladly support it.

Colonel Trench

mentioned a case of two solicitors in one of the counties, who had contrived to swell the number of suits since 1815, from an average of 82 per annum, at which it stood before, to upwards of 400, preying upon their own clients in case of defeat or loss of costs; and out of 1,300 or 1,400 cases, they had not pressed more than 15 to final judgement.

The chairman reported progress, and obtained leave to sit again.

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