HC Deb 17 May 1837 vol 38 cc858-63
Mr. C. Buller,

in moving in Committee the postponement of the first clause observed, that the dissatisfaction with Election Committees was not confined to one side of the House, but was general. They were considered as mere trials of party skill, the only question being, whether in the Committee, the majority was favourable to the sitting Member or to the petitioners. He thought it very disgraceful that such a state of things should exist, and that nothing could be more calculated to lower the House in the estimation of the country. It was a general opinion, that partisanship in Election Committees was not very objectionable. The judges in those tribunals, however, having nothing to guide their judgment, were likely to decide in favour of the party they espoused, and this he thought was an evil which ought, if possible, to be guarded against. He fully agreed, that it would be too much to impugn the impartiality of a man because he listened to the suggestions of his own party, but still the present system, in his opinion, called for some alteration. The first change which the Committee recommended was, that at least one Member of each Election Committee should be a person who was well conversant with law. In the first place, it was proposed, that there should be on each Committee a person who was not a Member of that House, but who, having a competent knowledge of law, could preside as judge in explaining the law, and acting in all other respects as chairman, without, however, possessing the power of voting. This would render the alteration less objectionable than it otherwise might seem. The number of assessors proposed to be appointed was three, and it was intended that they should be nominated by the Speaker, and that the House should be entitled to exercise a veto on his nomination. This was the first great change which was proposed, but not content with this, the Committee went still farther, and the next feature in the way of alteration, which he would notice was, the reduction which was recommended to be made in the number of the Committee, from eleven to five. They proposed to abolish the present system of striking, and to adopt instead the plan of peremptory challenge, which was found to work so well with respect to the formation of juries in the courts of law. The whole list should contain fifteen names, and these might be challenged, as they were called out by the Speaker, until they came to the last five, who, being unchallenged, would form the Committee. It was also intended to avoid the necessity which at present consisted of collecting Members, by either party, for the formation of Election Committees. With this view, they proposed, that in the first week of each new Session of Parliament, a list should be made out, on which the names of those Members only who were liable to serve for this purpose should be placed, and that a limited number, say sixty, should be obliged to attend on the days fixed for appointing Election Committees. This number would be quite enough, and the alteration which such a panel would effect, would be the principle change which was intended to be made in the whole law. Another object kept in view was, to give all possible publicity to the proceedings of the Committee, by allowing the presence of strangers until the chairman had concluded his charge or summing up, and having the names of the Members voting for each resolution read in public. There was also a provision for ascertaining the validity of a vote before it was known for whom it was to be given. Now, for this purpose the three assessors would form a proper tribunal, as they would, of course, be the highest authorities in points of law of this description. They were all aware of the imperfect state of the law with regard to costs in election matters. That law was at present much too severe. Unless a petition, or the opposition to it, were reported to be frivolous and vexatious, no costs were allowed to either party, but it was now proposed, that the assessor should be armed with the power to decide all questions relating to costs, and to determine whether either party was or not entitled to costs from the other. Having made these general observations, he would defer all further explanations until the particular clauses came before the Committee.

Lord Granville Somerset

said, that although he had been a member of the committee on this subject he could not concur in the recommendations made in their report, because he did not believe the alterations which they proposed were either practicable or wise, or that they would remedy the evils complained of. Of what advantage would the judge be? He might lay down and explain the law, but if the committee were not bound to abide by his judgment it was obvious that he would be placed in a very awkward position, as he would be little better than a mock judge. It was clear that none but men of high standing at the bar would be competent to fill such a station; and even supposing that such parties could be induced to accept of it, then it was anything but probable that they would have sufficient professional business to enable them to keep up such a knowledge of law as would render them suitable to the satisfactory discharge of the duties of their offices. He thought, also, that the mode of nomination proposed was objectionable, because the Speaker was as likely to entertain a political bias, especially at the commencement of a new Parliament, as any Member of that House. He would pass by the anomaly of they being such children as not to be able to preside over their own tribunals. He must say that a diminution of the number of the Members, should be of all other things the most objectionable, because it was quite possible that the opinion of an assessor would have greater influence over a larger than a smaller number. With these views he certainly could not concur in the proposition of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Poulter

thought that the inconvenience complained of arose less from the state of the law than from the objectionable constitution of election committees. He did not think that the present Bill would afford a suitable remedy. The result of the present mode of striking election committees was, that eleven men, though otherwise, perhaps, highly accomplished, were sent to decide on questions of a difficult nature—questions on which the Judges of the land might find it difficultt of decide. He despaired of seeing justice done unless they found men of judgment, and of the special knowledge that was requisite to enable them to determine the intricate and difficult questions which were often submitted to them for decision.

The Attorney-General

thought the House much indebted to the hon. Member for Liskeard for the attempt which he had made to improve this species of tribunal, which stood in need of improvement, for it neither possessed the confidence of the House nor of the country. The practice of whipping for ballots had a bad effect upon the mind of the country. He doubted, however, whether the Bill before the House was calculated to improve the present state of things. With respect to the appointment of the assessors, he thought his hon. Friend had either gone too far or had not gone far enough. With a salary of two thousand per annum, proposed under this Bill, they would hardly be able to get men of sufficient ability to undertake the duties of an office which would shut them out from their profession. It was questionable too, whether the assessors would possess the respect of the committee. He would be in the capacity of a Judge-Advocate. He would have no vote, and the country gentlemen who were Members of the House might not feel disposed to yield much to the opinions of one whom they would look upon as a paid lawyer. With respect to reducing the numbers of the committee, he thought it objectionable, and calculated to lessen the confidence of the House in their decisions. There was another plan, however, which he did not propose, but merely threw out, and that was, lessening the number of Revising Barristers, and, instead of the 147 Judges they had at present, appointing six or eight Judges, who, if it was necessary, might form a Court of Appeal, and who would conduct this business much more expeditiously, usefully, and satisfactorily than it was done at present. He believed that an election petition, which it now took six weeks to decide, might, before a regular judicial tribunal, be determined in less than so many days. He believed it the most convenient course that the committee should be content with the progress they had made for the present, and he should move that the Chairman should report progress,

Mr. Williams Wynn,

wished to make a few observations. He doubted very much whether many of the inconveniences at present complained of would not take place under any tribunal, however constituted. He did not think that, under any circumstances, business could be dispatched with the economy of time which had been just now stated. He had entered a committee room recently, and heard one set of witnesses prove that land was only of the value of 17s., whilst other witnesses declared it to be worth 1l. 17s. Now, unless the committee were to determine on hearing only one side they must take time to determine between conflicting evidence. Notwithstanding all that had been said he did not think that the decisions of election committees were influenced by motives of party. He believed that a greater evil than any complained of would arise from changing the present course of proceeding, and shaking the law which had been established by those decisions. He thought the best course would be to pass a declaratory Act, setting at rest as many points at present disputed as could be brought together, and thus leaving untouched the law which had arisen out of a number of sound and established decisions. He agreed in the objections that had been offered to the appointment of the assessors. He believed it would be difficult to get men of the requisite ability to separate themselves from their business. Besides this, there was another objection, namely, in the first session of a new Parliament there would be a number of petitions to be tried, yet there would be few the next year, and fewer as the Parliament advanced, so that the office of the assessor, under these circumstances, would be to a great extent a sinecure. It appeared to him that the plan proposed in the Bill before them as well as that suggested by the Attorney-General, afforded no prospect of curing the evils complained of.

House was counted out.