HC Deb 22 March 1838 vol 41 cc1127-34
Mr. Wallace

rose for the purpose of moving the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the nature and extent of the duties performed by the thirty Stipendiary Sheriffs of Scotland who were paid out of the Exchequer; also into the nature and extent of the duties performed by the fifty-two stipendiary substitutes, and to report how far it would be advisable to continue discharging the duty of Sheriffs in Scotland. The object of his motion was to save a sum of money that was now taken out of the Consolidated Fund. The question did not relate solely to Scotland, but to the Exchequer of the three kingdoms, and therefore he prayed the attention of the House. He should be able to establish his case satisfactorily by the documents in his possession. He regretted that the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, was not in his place—his excellent speech of last week on the subject of County Courts, would be found when examined strongly corroborative of the statement he had to make. How would English or Irish gentlemen feel if their judges sat in London or Dublin, and had the causes sent up from the country to them for adjudication?—that was what he complained of as to the Sheriffs of Scotland. He held in his hand a printed report which showed that the Sheriffs of Scotland did all their work by deputy. There were thirty of these gentlemen; and they had no less than fifty-two deputies, thus saddling the country with the expense of eighty-two judges. He was not opposed to the salaries—he would care little for them—it was the system he was opposed to, as being a most vicious and unprincipled one—it was a cowardly one—it was cowardly in the extreme, and therefore it was un-Scotish. What he demanded was, that the judges should sit in their own Court-houses, that they should not act by deputy, but act as all other judges did by sitting in an open court hearing witnesses, and having counsel before them to argue points of law, and so deciding the causes brought before them in a fair and open manner. It was supposed by many, that these county judges were not well and amply remunerated for their labour. He held a report in his hand, from which he would state to the House what these gentlemen actually received. From that report, it appeared that the Sheriff of the county of Aberdeen had 590l., while his deputy had a salary of 379l., thus saddling the county with an expense of 969l. The Sheriff of Argyle had a salary of 548l. he had four deputies, and the county for these five gentlemen was saddled with an expense exceeding 1,500l. In each county in Scotland, there was more paid from the public Exchequer than in the richest and largest county in England. In Ayr, the judge, who decided nothing, had 600l. a-year, and the substitute 369l., and the whole county had 1,029l. a-year. In Berwick, the judge had 449l., and the whole county 1,065l. a-year. In Dunbar, the county had 1,059l. Looking through the whole of the counties in Scotland, 13,429l. was received by those who did no duty—while, on the other hand, those who did the duty and had been most unjustly aspersed by some Members of that House for want of knowledge and integrity, whereas all the knowledge was on their side, received an equally large sum. He had observed it stated in the newspapers that the learned Attorney-General for England, himself a Scotch-man, seemed to think it would not be proper for the professional Sheriffs to reside permanently within the jurisdiction in which they were judges. If they did not attend from clay to day to their business—if they contented themselves merely with reading, and abstained from coming into collision with other lawyers, that was to say Scotch lawyers, they would soon lose their legal habits. The learned Attorney-General must know this was all "blather." The learned Attorney-General himself was employed in every Scotch case in the House of Lords, and therefore the futility of his doctrine must be seen. He knew this subject was not a very agreeable one to the House. He should move for a Committee of Inquiry; and he pledged himself that, if the House granted an inquiry, it should be a short one. He pledged himself to show that these judges were not only useless, but the causes of a very vicious system which ought to be entirely done away with. He had no doubt, also, that to abolish the system would save to the country from 14,000l. to 15,000l. a-year, and that there would also be a better administration of justice one more agreeable to the people, more consonant to common sense, and more rational. The hon. Member concludes by moving for a Select Committee, to inquire into the nature and extent of the duties performed by the thirty Stipendiary Sheriffs in Scotland who are paid out of the Exchequer; also into the nature and extent of the duties performed by the fifty-two stipendiary substitutes of the aforesaid sheriffs, who are also paid out of the Exchequer, and to report how far it will be advisable to continue the system of performing by deputy the duties of Sheriffs in Scotland.

The Lord Advocate

understood, that the inquiry proposed by his hon. Friend rested on two grounds—one economy, the other, the better administration of justice; and he also said that inquiry was necessary. His answer was, that inquiry had been already made by a commission, which had reported to the House, in which report there was full and ample information. It was said, that the sheriffs did not perform their duties. He (the Lord Advocate) contended that they had uniformly performed their duties efficiently. With regard to the question of economy, he apprehended that, if local judges were to be appointed, the expense would be great indeed. Suppose a Gentleman to give up his situation to accept the office, he would require a large salary to compensate him for loss, and to keep substitutes. He could see no advantage from an inquiry by a Committee. It would be impossible at this period of the session, to go through half the inquiry which was proposed by this motion. If the object of the hon. Member for Greenock was to have the present judicial system in Scotland altered, he ought at once to come forward with a motion on the subject, and let the matter be decided at once. He thought, however, that there were no sufficient grounds to justify any alteration in the present system, which had existed long, and had given the greatest satisfaction to the people of Scotland. It had been stated, that those sheriff's did nothing, and that their office was a sinecure. This he denied altogether. On the contrary, they discharged the duties imposed on them in a most satisfactory manner. He therefore felt bound to oppose the motion, and felt confident that the House would not concur in affirming the proposition brought forward by his hon. Friend.

Mr. Hume

said, his hon. Friend's complaint was, not that the Sheriffs did not do their duty, but that they had no duty to perform—that it was all done by deputy. His hon. Friend wished for a Committee, where he would prove that the business would be much better done by one Chief Judge going circuits, with assistance if he wanted it. Was it possible that they should be paying thirty judges, who did nothing but attend to their practice in Edinburgh? In Ireland, the assistant barristers went their circuits, and left their practice, and they gave satisfaction. He submitted to the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, that this was a question worthy of his attention, and that it was not right to have an establishment of sinecure judges in any part of the country. Let those who filled the office of judges be well paid, but fully competent to discharge their duty, and let them discharge that duty. It appeared, from the return of the sums paid, that, on an average, 1,100l. a-year was paid for each county. He did not think it was any argument to say, that this was an old system, at a period when they were engaged in correcting old systems. He thought that the present motion ought to be agreed to.

The Attorney-General

felt bound to declare, that the system of sheriffs depute and sheriffs substitute was a system which he had always admired, and the more so as he compared them with the system in other countries. Lord Bacon, in the time of Elizabeth, complained that England was the country at that time the worst off with respect to local courts and local judges. He thought the system in Scotland an admirable system. The advantage of the sheriff substitute was, that law was thus brought home to the door of the poor man, and if anybody was dissatisfied, there was an appeal to the sheriff depute. Now he thought it a great advantage to have an intermediate court of appeal between the court of the sheriff substitute and the court of session. He maintained the opinion, that the sheriff depute was enabled to discharge his duty much better, by attending to the practice of his profession during a part of the year in the Parliament House in Edinburgh, than if he were to reside continually in a remote and distant county. He thought the present sheriffs discharged their duty in a most exemplary manner, and that no good would arise from making any change in the existing system.

Mr. Colguhoun

contended, that the advantages of the system of sheriffs depute and substitute was, that it made law cheap, and gave them also the benefit of men of experience and ability in their profession, who resided constantly at Edinburgh. It was an evidence how differently the people of Scotland viewed this system from that view taken by the hon. Member, that there was no expression of feeling from Scot- land, in support of the cause which he had thought fit to take. On the grounds of common sense, he thought the present proposition exceedingly objectionable, and he might quote an opinion expressed by Lord Brougham, who had stated, that the courts of the sheriffs depute were the favourite courts of the people of Scotland. He feltbound to oppose the present motion.

Mr. R. Steuart

was anxious to say a few words on this subject, as he had been prevented taking part in the debate on the Sheriffs Court Bill, having been in the Chair of the House on that occasion. He wished to state the grounds on which he had the misfortune to differ from his hon. and learned Friends, as well as the reason why he could not vote for the Committee moved for by the Member for Greenock. The Attorney-General had truly stated, that they were in possession of all the information necessary, and that no good would result from an inquiry before a Committee. He thought so, too, and should therefore vote against the motion of his hon. Friend; but having that information, he arrived at a very different conclusion from his learned Friends. He had before expressed his opinion, that the present system of non-resident sheriffs was bad, and he again most strongly declared his disapprobation of it. The only argument in its favour was, that if resident always in the counties, the Sheriffs would lose their knowledge of law. Now, if this was good against them, à fortiori, it was good against their substitutes, who, on that principle, ought to be displaced every five or six years; but the returns before the House proved the reverse to be the case; for, notwithstanding the rust accumulating from constant residence, they shewed that out of above 44,000 decisions made by these resident sheriffs substitute, only 3,000 were appealed, and only ninety decisions were altered by their more learned principals in Edinburgh. On these grounds he was anxious to see the present system changed, and one resident sheriff appointed, on a good salary, to each county; there would be no increased expense, and universal satisfaction would be felt in Scotland. He must, however, vote against the Committee, for the reason before stated, but he would be quite ready to support any measure that might be introduced to carry out these views.

Mr. Ingham

contended, that the sheriff substitutes performed their duties in a most satisfactory manner, and they were the better enabled to do so, from keeping up a constant correspondence with respect to the business of their Courts with the sheriffs depute. He had opportunities of knowing that these duties were discharged in a manner that called forth the entire respect and satisfaction of the people of Scotland.

Mr. Warburton

would support the motion, though he could not concur in all the objections stated by the hon. Member for Greenock. If this court of sheriff-depute were a court of appeal, he thought the course taken was quite right; but it certainly was an anomaly for an appellate court to correspond with the court whose appeals it might have to try. What he would recommend his hon. Friend was, in case his motion should be lost, to introduce some measure that would have the effect of establishing an uniformity of decision in these different courts.

Mr. Pringle

said, that through the means of these courts, they had not only cheap justice administered to the people, but it was administered in a most satisfactory manner. The present system gave the utmost satisfaction to the people of Scotland, owing to the excellent manner in which the onerous and important duties of these offices were discharged. The present motion was totally uncalled for, and he felt bound to oppose it.

Lord J. Russell

would vote against the proposition, for the simple reason that it appeared to him that these Courts gave complete satisfaction. They had decided many cases of considerable importance, and there had been very few appeals from their decisions to the superior Courts. Besides, it did not appear to him that the people of Scotland were dissatisfied, or considered the present system as dilatory, expensive, or uncertain. The fact of their being old did not justify the retention of these Courts, neither was their being old, in his opinion, a sufficient reason for their abolition. After the opinions which had been given by his right hon. and learned Friends the Lord Advocate and the Attorney-General it was not necessary that he should state his reasons at any great length. The present system might, perhaps, be changed without injury: but the fact that the present was one that administered justice to the public satisfaction, and one from which no appeal was made, was sufficient to determine his vote.

Mr. Wallace

, in reply to the noble Lord, could give his positive assurance that these Courts were detested all over Scotland—and none but the lawyers in that House would stand up in their defence. Both the Lord Advocate and Attorney-General might be very well supposed to have a bias in favour of the system as moving amongst the class benefitted by it, who were, one and all, constituents of the right hon. Gentleman. But he cared nothing for that; he would make an offer, and that was to repair to any country town in Scotland and ascertain public opinion as to the system. He would certainly divide the House on this motion.

The House divided—Ayes 19: Noes 53: Majority 34.