HC Deb 24 May 1824 vol 11 cc852-6

Lord Althorp having moved, "that the bill be now read a third time,"

Mr. Scarlett

rose to oppose the passing of the measure. He gave full credit, he said, to the noble lord with whom it had originated, for talent and intention; and he was far from wishing to oppose any course which tended to the cheap and easy recovery of small debts; but he thought that the bill, in its present shape, was decidedly objectionable, and that if it went to get rid of some evils, it created evils which were greater. In the detail of the measure there were circumstances to which he objected. In the first place, it would entirety destroy the existing county courts. Those courts were held at present by the clerks of the peace for counties; but the fees taken in them were so trifling, that when the business was diminished, there would be no fund left sufficient to repay a competent person for doing the duty. This objection, however, he did not rely upon in so late a stage of the bill; nor even upon several others, which might fairly be taken to its operation in practice. The strong ground upon which he opposed its being read a third time, was his aversion to the principle upon which it proceeded. The effect of the bill was, to introduce into general practice that principle of examining parties in their own causes, which was most abhorrent to the spirit of the English law. The effect of bills of discovery, as they were called, in the court of Chancery, proved the mischief of this course, and the impossibility of trusting to men's consciences where their interests were concerned. Those bills were intended to extract a knowledge of the facts of the transaction in question; but it was notorious that they showed nothing more in general, than the manner in which the respondent meant to shape his case. He objected to the operation of the bill in this view, as becoming a mere inducement to, and bounty upon perjury; and he opposed it still more decidedly upon the ground that, without sufficient necessity it threw twenty new places, of 800l. a year each, into the patronage and influence of government. He contended, that all the material advantages sought by the bill might have been obtained by a mere revision of the existing system of county courts jurisdiction, and an extension of the powers of those courts to claims not exceeding 5l. As those courts now stood, the writ of justices gave them jurisdiction to any amount, and in the county of Lancaster 3,000 causes under that writ were tried upon an average every year. He conceived that by improving the condition of the county courts, and confining their ordinary jurisdiction to claims of 5l., allowing the sheriff to appoint his assessor (either a respectable solicitor or barrister) for a term, or from year to year, much more would be gained, than by the bill before the House. He was decidedly hostile to bringing the decisions of courts of conscience into common usage, upon claims so high as 10l.; and no less so to the making up of twenty new judgeships, to increase the influence of the Crown (which was already at least sufficient) with the bar. He would therefore move, "that the bill be read a third time this day six months."

Mr. Sykes

said, he was not disposed to throw any unnecessary powers into the hands of government, but, looking at the immense benefits to be derived from the bill, he could not consent to its being thrown out. The revision of the existing county courts suggested by the learned member did not meet the main object of the present measure; namely, that of bringing justice home to men at their doors. A farmer in Yorkshire might now travel, even to a county court, a hundred miles, and carry an attorney and witnesses with him, to recover a debt of 5l.

Mr. J. Williams

contended, that the measure, besides being inadequate to the objects proposed by it, would have the effect not only of adding to the influence of the Crown (already too great), but of destroying the independence of that profession to which he had the fortune to belong. If the independence of the bar was of importance to the country, he implored the House to pause before they gave their sanction to this bill. Here was a measure which held out twenty lucrative places to young men of five years standing. If a calculation made a few days ago were true, one half of the barristers in England held appointments. Add, then, to these this fresh bait of 800l. a year to twenty gentlemen, who, from their standing, were least likely to resist the temptation, and it would be ridiculous to look any longer for independence at the English bar. He felt these objections so paramount to every other consideration, that he must support the amendment.

Mr. R. Smith

thought the House would acquit the noble mover of the bill of any intention to increase unduly the influence of the Crown; but the truth was, that it was better to give the patronage of the places in question to government at once, in its responsible capacity, than to leave them to be got at by jobbing.

Lord Althorp

admitted the difficulties with which the case was beset. As there were 150 places, however, already in the power of the Crown, to be given away among 300 practising barristers, the additional 20 would not materially increase the influence of government with the bar. The noble lord cited the recent case of a motion in the court of Common Pleas, "Emery v. Browne." In that case it appeared, that a poor widow had sought to recover a debt of 4l 10s., and had desired an attorney to write a letter to her debtor. The attorney had brought an action and gone to trial; and a verdict had passed for his client; upon which he had arrested her, at once, for costs to the amount of about 95l., and for that sum she had lain in gaol ever since July last. Nothing could be worse than the system under which it was possible for such a circumstance to occur; and he trusted that that system would have an end, by the bill being read a third time.

The amendment being withdrawn, the bill was read a third time.

Lord Althorp

said, he saw no necessity for compensation; and it seemed quite premature to grant it before inquiry had shewn that it was merited. The quantum of injury to individuals holding particular offices ought to be ascertained in the first instance. He proposed, therefore, to leave out the whole of that part of the bill which gave compensation.

The Attorney-General

thought that as the House had decided in favour of the clause of compensation, it ought not now to be called upon to exclude it. He had no knowledge of more than one of the parties whose names were introduced into the bill; but their offices had all the characteristics of freehold property. If a great public work were to be undertaken; if docks were to be excavated, or bridges to be built; persons having freehold property which was injured, had an acknowledged right to remuneration. The same reasoning applied to the bill upon the table; and he adduced the authority of the Finance committee to show, that the holders of freehold offices, for which they had given valuable consideration, had a just claim to indemnity. He found the clause he had proposed in several preceding bills; particularly in one for regulating the court of Exchequer in Ireland. These fees were freehold property, as much so as the estates of gentlemen in that House; and the right to them had been purchased under the sanction of the law. If the whole jurisdiction of the bench were abolished, it surely must be evident, that a compensation ought to be made to the officers; and as this bill went to take away part of the jurisdiction, there was a right to compensation, as far as the emoluments were destroyed.

Mr. Bright

admitted, that there might be precedents, both modern and ancient, for the proposition of the learned gentleman; but surely the House could not consent, on account of precedents, to give up its inherent power and right to modify the judicial institutions, without being bound to consult the convenience of those who held offices, which could only be properly held for the public advantage. But, were there not precedents also on the other side? What compensation did the legislature award to those who lost their fees and emoluments by the reduction of the Star Chamber? As to the particular clause, it had been brought in late in the proceedings on the bill, and contrary to the best practice of the House. The proper place for the discussion of it would have been in a committee, where the pow- er of inquiry and the facilities for investigation were greater than in any other body in the state.

Mr. N. Calvert

also objected to the clause. It had been got up in haste, and names had been inserted at random.

The House then divided: For the amendment 41; Against it 47; Majority 6. The bill was then passed.