HC Deb 01 December 1826 vol 16 cc216-20
Mr. D. W. Harvey

said, that the two motions which he intended to bring forward that evening, were so connected with each other, that he would take the opportunity of making at once all the remarks with which he deemed it necessary to introduce them. One of the motions was only the revival of a motion, which he had himself introduced in 1820, and which he had intended to have followed up by another motion, had not his right to sit in parliament been cut away by a decision which convinced him that the conclusions drawn by election committees were not always infallible. Since the year 1820, no notice had been taken of the subject to which he had called the attention of the House, though it was one of great importance, and referred to abuses, which were deeply rooted in the system of the law as at present administered, and which operated injuriously on the individuals who were made the victims of them. There could not be found a more decided proof of the advantages arising out of the interference of parliament, than that afforded by the results of his motion. It appeared that from the year 1816 down to the year 1819, both inclusive, being a period of four years, previous to any notice being taken of the number of prosecutions instituted under the customs and excise laws, the average number of informations filed each year was 700; whilst during the year in which attention was called to the subject, and during the year immediately following, the average number did not exceed 250. From such a statement of facts, he in- ferred that, so long as the solicitors, who enjoyed the exclusive power of wielding this destructive weapon, should enjoy it without limitation, so long as all parties liable to the excise laws were placed under their particular jurisdiction, they would not hesitate to seek their own aggrandizement, under the mask of advancing and protecting the revenue. It was a fact well deserving the attention of the House, that no sooner had its vigilance been directed to the subject, than the average number of annual informations was reduced from 700 to 250—a reduction by which every victim rescued from the grasp of the excise laws was saved an expense of 150l. and the Crown an expense of 300l. or 400l. upon each prosecution. The reason which induced him to revive his former inquiry, was a wish to see how far the power of filing informations under the customs and excise laws had been exercised since the year 1820. It was not for him to draw hasty conclusions from statements which were not before the House, but which, he believed, could be substantiated; but he should be much surprised, if it were not found, that a recurrence of the old abuses took place as soon as the vigilance of parliament ceased to be directed against them.—The other motion which he had to submit to the House, was for a return of the number of causes set down for trial and disposed of in the courts of King's-bench, Common Picas, and Exchequer, during the last seven years, and was therefore intimately connected with the proceedings in the courts of law. Those three courts possessed equal jurisdiction in most things, though in some the court of Exchequer possessed an exclusive jurisdiction. Though they were all filled by the same number of judges, and though each of them, with the exception of the chiefs, received the same stipend, still, when the business which they respectively transacted was compared, it was impossible to come to any other conclusion than this—that the courts of King's-bench and of Common Pleas were overburthened with business, to the great injury of the suitors in them, and that the court of Exchequer was little better than a receptacle for legal sinecurists. Whilst from seventy to one hundred causes were daily entered for trial in the courts of King's-bench and of Common Pleas, there were seldom more than six entered in the court of Exchequer. His object was to show, that where the courts possessed equal jurisdiction, and where the judges were taken from the same bar, and distinguished for nearly the same degree of talent, there must be some inherent defects in the court of Exchequer, which clogged the court in its proceedings, and prevented the subject from approaching it for redress. The advantages which would arise from enabling the suitor to approach it with the same facility that he approached the other courts, were palpable; for it would diminish the labour of two of them by adding to the labour of the third. There was also in his motion, an allusion to the equitable jurisdiction possessed by the court of Exchequer. Considering all that the House had recently heard on the proceedings in the court of Chancery, he thought it would be advantageous to know something of the number of causes decided on the equity side of the court of Exchequer. The House would then know why a court scarcely inferior in jurisdiction to the high court of Chancery should have its files scarcely touched, whilst the court of Chancery had its files overburthened by the bills which were filed in it. If, therefore, the equity side of the court of Exchequer could be made auxiliary to the court of Chancery, an avenue would be opened, by which the discontent generated by the expensive delays of the latter court might gradually disappear. He did not now mean to say what degree of equitable jurisdiction should be extended to the court of Exchequer; but he thought that, as the court of Exchequer generally rose after a sitting of half an hour, some business might be given to it, which would diminish not only the labour, but the odium at present attached to the court of Chancery. Having made these observations, he would move," That there be laid before the House, a Return of the total number of Informations filed in the court of Exchequer, for penalties under the Customs and Excise laws, from the year 1820 to the end of Michaelmas term, 1826; with separate statements of the amount of penalties sought to be recovered, and the actual amount eventually received; distinguishing whether the same was paid before or after verdict, and whether the same was the full verdict recovered, or the result of compromise; together with the amount of the costs incurred in each prosecution, and what proportion thereof was paid by the Crown and the defendant."

Mr. Hume

seconded the motion. He said, that last year a similar motion had been made by him, in order to obtain information upon this subject. His object had been to show the grievous hardships under which persons laboured, who were exposed to the operations of the Customs and Excise laws. At present it was in the power of any individual to institute a suit, or information, against whomsoever he pleased for a breach of the Revenue-laws; and, however triumphantly that suit might end for the accused, he was obliged to pay all the expenses of the process. He had known an instance of a suit instituted against an individual, upon the oath of an excise officer, and which had been scouted out of court. This individual, however, found himself liable to all the heavy expenses attending the suit. Persons who were decidedly innocent, should be placed on equal advantage with the Crown; which ought to pay all the expenses if the party it accused was acquitted. He had known persons involved in ruin by Exchequer prosecutions, although the court had pronounced them thoroughly innocent.

Mr. Lockhart

thought, that if the judge who tried the information, were to certify that there was no cause for filing it, the Crown should pay the defendant his costs. If such certificates were given by the judges, they would bring before the notice of the public the conduct of those who had the power of filing the informations. The reason why so little business was transacted in the court of Exchequer was, that an attorney could not practise there in his own name, but was obliged to practise in the name of one of the side clerks. He received, therefore, only half fees; and that was the reason why he went in preference to the court, of King's-bench, where he received whole fees. He thought it would be of great advantage to the public to get rid of these side clerks altogether. He supposed they had a vested interest in their situations, and that therefore the House must indemnify them for the loss they would sustain by the abolition of their offices. When they were got rid of, the court might be thrown open, and so be made to relieve the other courts from the pressure now thrown upon them. He was anxious that some attention should be paid to the internal arrangements of this court.; for some years ago, several mal-practices were detected among its officers, and that he had himself brought forward a motion on the subject. It was found that they took the declarations and the pleas on trust; and that when they were so taken on trust, they were never delivered at all, though they were regularly charged to the unfortunate suitor. By such a proceeding, not only were the suitors injured, but the revenue defrauded of the stamp duties.

Mr. Spence

said, that the hon. member's motion called only for a return of the number of causes set down for trial, which was not in itself sufficient. The House ought to be informed how long the court was occupied in hearing interlocutory motions. He thought, therefore, that a more extensive motion was necessary. He could assure the House that the judges of the court of Exchequer were anxious that that court should be made an efficient court, and that they would willingly lend their assistance to any measure which would prevent it from being branded as a receptacle for sinecurists, by giving it an active and extensive jurisdiction.

The two motions were then agreed to.