HC Deb 21 April 1826 vol 15 cc535-9
Mr. Sykes

said, that he held in his hand a petition on an interesting and important subject; namely, the abuses of the court of Chancery. Though he would not adopt the energetic language of his hon. friend on a former night, when he stated that the court of Chancery was a curse to the country, he would assert, that he thought its administration any thing but a blessing. He meant nothing personal to the learned lord who presided there; but complaints of suffering and abuses came from so many parts of the country, that he might go so far as to say, that the court of Chancery was a nuisance, and that, like other nuisances, it ought to be abated. The petition with which he was intrusted, was not from a suitor of the court, but from an individual who had, for twenty-five years, faithfully and honourably discharged his duties as a solicitor, and to whose character he could personally bear testimony. The petition was almost as prolix as a bill in Chancery, but the substance might be more briefly stated. The petitioner had been engaged in a lunatic commission, and the gravamen of his complaint was, that although his bill of costs, as long since as 1814, had been taxed allowed, and actually paid, yet, that in 1826, it had been again opened by a proceeding in Chancery. His clerk was dead, his documents dispersed, but receiving the order of the court, he had hastened to town, and consented to the re-taxation: day after day, and week after week, he had attended, and the result was, that only 3s. 6d. was deducted from the sum allowed in 1814. He had left his home and his business, to his great inconvenience and loss: indeed, the proceedings had been so wearisome and expensive, that he ultimately abandoned the suit, gave his opponents their own way, and returned into the country totally ruined. The petition, which was from Mr. Garland, a solicitor, in Kingston upon Hull, was then brought up, and read. It prayed, that the House would give such assistance to the petitioner as to them, under the circumstances, should seem meet; and that the Report of the Chancery commissioners should speedily be taken into consideration.

The Solicitor General

stated, that the petition had been communicated to him, and that he had in consequence made inquiries into the circumstances of this case. He thought no clear case was made out, even on the petitioner's own shewing; but this he thought was clear, that there existed a systematic attempt to hunt down the lord chancellor. The hon. member for Montrose came with a petition, complaining of a bill of foreclose, and pronounced the Chancery, and the lord chancellor, to be a curse to the country; and then came the hon. member for Hull with a petition, complaining of the issuing of a taxation of costs, upon the same system of running down the lord chancellor. The petition was a long one, but did not shew a very favourable case. However, the real state of the case was this: the petitioner, an attorney, sued out a commission of lunacy, and acted for a committee and the next of kin; and had got a considerable sum of money in his hands. He took a bond besides for the payment of costs at a particular rate, and this bond was illegal, for it was illegal for a solicitor to take any bonds from his clients for the payment of a larger sum in the way of costs than was allowed by the rules of the court. He had got his costs taxed, and they had been allowed without opposition, because one of the parties had become bankrupt, and there was no opposing party to check them. The costs had been therefore improperly taxed; and then a few years after there came a petition from the next of kin, stating these matters, and that the petitioners had charged for copies of papers which he had never made. What was the lord chancellor to do under such circumstances? He acted in the manner which even the Chancery report recommended in cases of solicitors acting for both parties. The chancellor found that the costs had been taxed unfairly; he did not wish to use a harsher term; and, if unfairly taxed, then the lord chancellor was bound, on principles of public policy, to open the taxation. This, then, was the description of cases which were supposed to justify calling the Chancery and the lord chancellor a curse. A solicitor acted for both parties; he got an undue allowance; and then the lord chancellor was to be blamed for opening the taxation. He was astonished that any solicitor should have presented such a petition, and still more astonished at the hon. member, when he said that it could admit of no answer. Surely the hon. member had not read the petition, which contained an answer on the face of it. The lord chancellor would not have done his duty if he had not sent these costs to be taxed again. This explanation he thought himself bound to give to the House, having been enabled to do so by the communication made to him of the contents of this petition. He had examined the case, and he had no hesitation in saying, that it was part of the system of hunting down the lord chancellor.

Mr. Hume

said, he would take that opportunity of stating, that, after having had time for consideration, he was still of the same opinion as before, with respect to the court of Chancery. Such an opinion he thought himself justified in entertaining and expressing, of a system, by which justice was in effect denied to millions, and the severest mental torture inflicted; and he called upon those who had exerted themselves so zealously in opposition to the infliction of bodily torture, to do every thing in their power to put down this dreadful nuisance. This, which was called a court of equity, was, in fact, a court of iniquity. The hon. and learned gentleman said, that a "few" years after the costs had been taxed, the taxation had been opened. How many of these "few" years did the hon. and learned gentleman expect to have in his life? The hon. and learned gentleman thought twelve years a very moderate time, parliament ought certainly to put an end to such a method of proceeding. When the matter was formerly under consideration, the hon. member for Surrey, and others, had held out the Chancery and the lord chancellor as blessings to the country; but God preserve him from such blessings! He wished the hon. member for Surrey had been present at the presenting of this petition, that it might be seen whether he adhered to his former sentiments. This was said to be a court of equity, established to temper the rigour of the law. But if it was a court into which, if one entered, the suitor had little chance of leaving it during his life—if it was a court of hope deferred—of anxious expectation—of mental despair—could it justly be called a court of equity, or of justice? Was it not rather a court of injustice? The injustice of the grand seignor was not half so galling. The injustice there was at least speedy, and inflicted death without torture; the injustice of the court of Chancery was death with lingering torture. It had been said, that he, as well as others, had their share of the blame. He denied that any part of it belonged to him. Had he not always supported motions for a reform of these abuses, when the hon. member for Surrey and the ministers had opposed such motions? He maintained, that such a charge was unfounded; and that no man had a right to make such a charge against him when he had voted for inquiries which they had opposed. If they looked at the report on the table, they would find that a sum of about thirty-nine millions sterling lay locked up in the court of Chancery—a pretty nest egg for the chancellor of the Exchequer, or his successors. The sum belonging to the suitors had greatly accumulated within no very long period of years, and was now no less than the sum he had stated; and what a mass of good would have been done, if such an immense sum as this had been distributed to the parties? But he believed it would never be liberated by the present chancellor. He repeated that, under the semblance of justice, delay and anxiety were the characteristics of that court. He insisted, that he was right in saying, the other night, that the court was a curse to the country; and, considering that no material reform had taken place in the long period of a quarter of a century, he could not separate from the individual what he had said of the court; and it would be better that the court should be abolished entirely, than that it should remain what it was. There was no man who had any thing to do, as a suitor, with that court, but would agree with him, that it was a vexation and a misery to the country.

Mr. Green

said, he heard with pain the personal remarks which had been made on the lord chancellor, and considered it an unjustifiable use of the privileges of that House to drag, needlessly, as he conceived, the name of an individual who filled a high public office, into their discussions.

Mr. Sykes

asked whether the hon. and learned gentleman really thought that he had made out no case The hon. and learned gentleman said, that the costs had been improperly taxed. How did that appear? They were taxed in the usual mode of the court; and what else could be called a fair and proper taxation? Then it was said that the petitioner had been solicitor for opposite parties. He denied it. He had been solicitor for two parties, but not for opposite parties. This was quite common in the practice of the court; and he understood that the Chancery report now on the table permitted it. Then the hon. and learned gentleman said that it was only in a few years after the costs had been taxed, that the taxation had been opened. Was a period of twelve years so little thought of in the court of Chancery? It appeared that they reckoned there, not by years, but by generations! Nothing under twenty, thirty, or forty years, was worth consideration. He contended that no sufficient answer had been given to the petition.

The Solicitor-General

said, that the petitioner admitted, on the face of his petition, that he had made illegal charges; that he had charged for copies which he had never delivered. He was astonished that such a petition should have been presented, and still more astonished that it should have been presented by the hon. member. The hon. member had adverted to the expression of a few years; but it was not till a lapse of ten years after the transaction, that there existed any free agent to apply for opening the taxation. Even in the law courts, although costs had been regularly taxed, yet, if it appeared afterwards that the taxation had been illegal, that taxation would be opened. This power in the courts was absolutely necessary, in order to their having a proper control over agents and solicitors. So that, even on the face of his own petition, the petitioner had made out no case.

Ordered to lie on the table.