HC Deb 31 July 1833 vol 20 cc185-91
Sir James Scarlett

then moved the second reading of the Thellusson Estate Bill. The hon. and learned Member said, this Bill proposed to make certain regulations for the distribution of the property of the testator, who made a will dated 1797, devising his property to certain trustees, who were to purchase landed estates out of the income, which was to accumulate after defraying certain expenses. The testator left three sons, one the late Lord Rendlesham; and since the period of his decease, the family were reduced to poverty, whilst the immense property left by the testator was supposed to be accumulating; but out of the immense revenue the surplus of savings did not amount to 25,000l., although, if the sum of 5,000l. only had been set apart when the accumulation first took place, it would amount, at the present day, to upwards of 200,000l. Such was the feeling entertained on account of the extraordinary will of Mr. Thellusson, that a Bill was passed preventing any man's property being allowed to accumulate after his decease for a longer period than twenty-one years. The Thellusson property, however, did not realize the expectation of the testator. The present Bill was brought forward in the other House by Lord Lyndhurst, and was passed after every possible attention had been paid to it. The only executor whose opinion was of much importance fully concurred in the Bill.

The Solicitor General

seconded the Motion. He entirely concurred in all that had been said by his learned friend (Sir James Scarlett). He could not see on what grounds the Bill could be objected to. The present generation of Mr. Thellusson's descendants would not suffer by it. The next generation would be materially benefited; the public would not suffer; for if it should happen that by the failure of the family the public should become entitled to the property, with the amount thus provided for by the testator, the property so accumulated would be available for public objects. Nobody, then, would suffer but the members of the legal profession. And he thought it was no great credit to that pro-Cession to which he had the honour to belong, that this estate had been so sweated in the Court.

Mr. Harvey

rose, not to oppose the Bill, but to make some comments upon it in connexion with that sweating of the Courts of Law which had been alluded to by the hon. and learned Gentleman. It appeared that this estate produced an income of about 25,000l. a-year, 16,000l. of which went into the Court of Chancery, and the remaining amount of 9,000l. fell into the hands of parties, so peculiarly eulogised by the hon. and learned Member. If by this Bill the estate was to be reserved from the fangs of the law, he would ask whether that was the only estate under the sweating operation of the Court of Chancery? Or was it that there was little sympathy for small properties? It was only when great men's properties were involved, that the evils of the Court of Chancery were discovered. He thought the principle was in all cases the same—that the smaller as well as the larger sums—the humble as well as the noble among men—had equal claims to legislative consideration—had equal claims to be relieved from this sweating system. It would have been better if this estate had been made an illustration of the general hardship, and a measure of comprehensive extent, had been introduced, instead of treating it as an exception to a general rule, and providing for it by a special remedy. Time enough had been afforded for this; for, from the death of the testator of this extraordinary will up to the present day, motions "in the matter of Thellusson "came on as regularly, term after term, as if the case were part and parcel of the Court of Chancery. The mere mention of the name was sure to produce the bobbing up of twenty learned wigs, who were engaged, pro or con in this endless case. It was singular, then, that the estate had not been snatched before this from the hands of the sweating lawyers, as the Solicitor General had baptised them. The law might be said to cling to this estate, as the hungry sloth clings to a luxuriant tree, and after battening upon it until scarcely a leaf was left, had fallen upon the grass in a bloated stale of repletion, there to be for a short period until its huge mass of food was digested, and then to look about for another Thellusson tree, upon which to make a similar gluttonous repast. He trusted that the Reformed House of Commons would direct its attention to the administration of the laws of this country, for of all the matters to which its attention could be directed, the state of the Court of Chancery was most deserving of Reform. It had been said that the public would not be benefited by this property. Now, speaking as one of the guardians of the public purse, he would just point out how the public might be benefitted. How did the public interest stand? There were two families of great grand-children of the Thellusson family, in number ten or twelve, therefore it was to be conceded that the chance was very remote of any ultimate benefit accruing to the public; but, in the event of the family being swept away by death, this estate, now amounting to 25,000l. a-year, but the accumulation of which would make it considerably more, would then become public property. There was some danger that the House might be called upon in other testamentary cases, and acquire a vast increase of business by assuming the functions of a universal testator. If any thing of that kind were to result, he should deprecate this measure as a bad precedent. His object, however, was chiefly to call attention to the state of the Court of Chancery. If other cases were gone into, it would be found that the same system of devastation was carried on. He knew a case in which the expense of obtaining the just demand of 200l. was 180l.; and he knew of a case still going on in which a sum of 200l. was to be scrambled for, and five claims were put in, viz., by three parishes, by Christ's Hospital, and by the Grocers' Company; there were ten sweating Counsel, and five equally sweating attorneys employed to get this 200l. distributed. Such matters might, he ventured to assert, be settled for 5l., and in five minutes, if a tribunal were appointed to inquire into charitable benefactions. He did not intend to oppose the Bill, because he thought the justice of the particular case might, as had been said, call for it.

Mr. O'Connell

concurred in the propriety of the present Bill, because it would not mar the will of the testator, but carry it more completely into effect. It could never have been the intention of the testator, that such an immense quantity of his property should be squandered in lawsuits; if it were, he must have been little better than insane. His learned friend had talked of establishing a precedent in the present case. There was no danger of the kind except in his own imagination. The Bill was not a Bill, as he had said, to interfere with the testator's will in any way, not even to change or amend it, but to carry it more completely into effect. And the only precedent which would be established would be the valuable one by which the making of such wills would be prevented in future. When it was urged by his hon. friend, the member for Colchester, that every one who disputed a will could, by the passing of the present Bill, be brought to the bar of that House, he confessed he could not see the reasonableness of the assertion. However, any measure which would have for its effect the lessening or abrogating the enormous expenses of the Court of Chancery, should, even though it were otherwise defective, have his most hearty approval. The Court of Chancery, to settle disputed claims of property, was like setting up a steam-engine to crush a fly. Though he would advocate willingly any remedial measure, yet he firmly believed that there was no effectual provision against its operations, but the establishment of cheap Courts of Justice in every part of the country, within reach of every man's door. Until Local Courts were established, and the heavy machinery of the Court of Chancery got rid of, the English people would scarce be entitled to that character for common sense on which they so justly prided themselves, and which they had otherwise so well earned. He trusted that there would be he patching up of the present system; but that early in the next Session a measure would be introduced, which would have the effect of superseding those Courts which dealt justice out by instalments, and of establishing Courts of Justice to sit constantly within the reach of every man in the community.

Mr. William Brougham

, in answer to the statements of the hon. member for Colchester, and in justification of the Court of Chancery proceedings, said, that the annual costs did not, as stated by the hon. Member, amount to 9,000l., but 3,000l. only.

Sir Robert Peel

would not, if this were an ordinary case, have supported the Bill, as it interfered with the jurisdiction of the existing Courts of Justice; but as it was an extraordinary case, he had no hesitation in giving the Bill his support. When he saw such an extraordinary, such an unnatural, he would almost say such an insane exercise of testatory power he could never consent to allow the dread of establishing any precedent to interfere with his sense of direct duty. The power in this case was so capriciously exercised, so contrary to sound sense, sound policy, and the common laws of humanity, that he could never think of opposing any measure which would have the effect of preventing some of the evil consequences. If the preamble of the Bill—"Whereas great legal expenses have been gone to in the management of the estate, &c.," was true, the subject required a deeper consideration than that given to it by the present measure. If it were true that the total amount paid in law costs and management expenses from the period of the testator's demise until the present time was, as stated in the schedule of that preamble, 178,827l., all for one estate, it was a heavy reflection on the law. If the House passed the present Bill, which should have his humble support, he would say that it was also bound to institute an investigation for the purpose of reforming the system under which such abuses prevailed.

Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor

, having had long experience of the proceedings of the Court of Chancery, and having for many years exerted himself to reform the abuses of that Court, although not attended with that success which he could desire, felt gratified to perceive that the present Bill met with the concurrence of hon. Members who heretofore differed in opinion from him. The abuses of the Court of Chancery were monstrous; for, in place of being a protection to infants, it absolutely went to rob them of their just rights. He (Mr. Taylor) would venture to say from his own knowledge, that the Court of Chancery was the means of destroying any properly that might be placed in that Court. He would, amongst many instances, state one in his own practice. A solicitor called on him with the copy of a Bill filed in the Court of Chancery, in which there were five defendants, and asked him to draw an answer by the next day, which he accordingly did. When the solicitor called and found only one answer drawn, which included the answer of the five defendants (the Bill, in point of fact, requiring only one answer) he was much surprised, and said there should be five separate answers, and that the defendants insisted that they should put in each a distinct and separate answer. He (Mr. Taylor) thought that quite unnecessary, and refused to draw the answers. The solicitor accordingly took his papers away, and subsequently five distinct answers were put in. In fact, if five children were left a legacy of five thousand pounds, such were the abuses of that Court, that he would boldly venture to assert, if their property got into litigation, they would not eventually receive two thousand five hundred pounds. He cordially supported the Bill.

Sir Robert Inglis

thought that, as the law allowed that the testator at the time of making his will was sane, it was not right or just, after a lapse of thirty-six years, to bring in a measure like the one proposed. According to the estimate of the celebrated actuary, Mr. Morgan, the accumulations would have been very considerable—say, up to 1825, nearly 3,700,000l.; but the annual expenses, and other outlays indispensable for the management of this large property, were not taken into account. The House of Lords, he considered, had no right to originate a Bill like the present, depriving not only the heirs of the testator of their chances in the event of deaths in the direct line, but other parties who had an interest in the event of failure of issue. He would call upon the House to consider that they were sitting as Judges on this Bill, as was the case in all private Bills, and not to adopt measures so contrary to the usages of Parliament. It would have been much better that the present Bill had been brought in three months sooner, when it could have been attentively examined in its various stages.

Mr. William Tooke

said, that the single point the House had to decide upon was, whether they should revoke the will of the testator, and give an advantage to those I persons whom be was desirous of excluding from it. On all occasions of the purchase of estates, the convenience of the family had been consulted; they had uniformly been the directors of all the proceedings under it; and though the aggregate amount of costs was very considerable, yet it was to be remembered that this suit had spread over a period of thirty-six years, and that a great part of this expenditure had been distributed amongst the persons most interested. The House might reform the Courts as much as they pleased; but, as long as the Court remained constituted as it was, and as long as those faults remained, it did appear to him unjust to be constantly referring to abuses which they took no pains themselves to remedy.

Dr. Lushington

did not think it was the duty of this House, agreeably to its usual form of proceeding, to take cognizance of what the House of Lords might have done in the exercise of its own discretion. With respect to the Bill itself, he should state honestly what his feeling upon it was. If he could agree with his hon. friend, the member for Truro, that this was a Bill to revoke a will made by a testator, he should have great doubts as to whether the House could entertain any such subject. But the measure now proposed was, a Bill to execute the will of the testator to the utmost extent, which the power and assistance of the Court of Chancery had hitherto been unable to execute. There was no deviation from the intention of the testator—there was no attempt to destroy or overturn those objects he intended to execute. This Bill was only for the purpose of taking the money out of Chancery, and giving it to those who were entitled to it, and for that reason he would support the Bill.

Bill read a second time.

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