HC Deb 09 August 1842 vol 65 cc1182-7

On the order of the day for going into committee on the County Courts Bill,

Sir J. Graham

said, after the great time which had been consumed by the discussion on the Bankruptcy Law Amendment Bill, however anxious he might be to bring this measure on in the present Session, he dick not think he would be acting in conformity with the opinions expressed upon it by both sides of the House if he persisted in passing it this Session. He attached the greatest importance to the measure, and entertained very strong opinions of the great advantage its provisions would have in circulating justice through the country from Westminster-hall and back again. There would be the utmost advantage in the arrangements which secured that judges in the local Courts should not be resident, but should go circuit, and be practically acquainted with the law as administered in Westminster-hall. He hoped it would be his fortune, at a future Session, and at a very early period of it, to bring this measure before the House. It was a bill of great interest to the community at large, and he abandoned it for the present Session with the greatest reluctance. It had come down from the Lords, on the sanction of, if not the undivided opinion of, the great legal authorities in that House, and the majority of their Lordships. It had been thought necessary to postpone it to the Bankruptcy Bill, which was considered of more immediate importance to be pressed; and even though this bill had come down from the other House at an earlier period of the Session, it would have been impossible to have brought it forward sooner than it had been. He (Sir J. Graham) had lost no opportunity to push it through its stages, and he hoped the House would acquit him of any negligence with respect to it. He now yielded to the wish expressed by both sides of the House, and he should move that the bill be committed pro formâ for the purpose of making amendments according to the rules of the House, and of circulating it through the country during the recess in the precise form in which it would be proposed in the early part of next Session by the Government.

Mr. C. Buller

said, that this bill had been sent down to that House from the Lords at too late a period of the Session to give it that consideration which it required, and in its present shape it could never produce the advantages for which it Was intended in the administration of justice. The bill professed, as the right hon. Baronet had stated, to give facilities for the circulation of justice throughout the country from the great fountain of Westminster-hall, but the machinery of the measure was not at all calculated to attain that end. He did not blame the right hon. Baronet for the delay in sending down the bill; that rested elsewhere; but it would be impossible, at this period of the Session, to consider the alterations and amendments that would be required to make it a useful working measure.

Mr. Jervis

said, that one great defect in the bill was, that it left altogether untouched the 300 Courts of Requests though out the country, in which the mode of dispensing what was called justice was of the worst description. The measure ought to have been a universal one, and the Government were bound to engraft upon the present bill, provisions that would extend over the whole country. Another great objection to the bill was, that it prevented the employment of advocates by the parties to a suit. Now this was most unjust, and could not fail to work injustice. Suppose a gentleman in the country, who might have been a practitioner at the bar, one of the parties, he as a practiced advocate could plead his own cause against an unlearned person, probably his opponent. What chance could the latter have in impressing his case upon the jury, unless he were permitted to employ an advocate. Upon this ground, if there were no other, the bill was so defective that it was impossible for the House to adopt it.

Mr. Bernal

said, that the state in which the bill had, been sent down to that House from the House of Lords, was as much to be complained of as the late period of the Session at which it had been suffered to come before them. The present bill was even more imperfect than the Bankruptcy Bill; and it would be impossible to give to it the consideration it required in the time that remained of the Session.

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, that no measure of this nature could ever give satisfaction so long as the county court of Middlesex was exempted from its operation. That court, at the head of which was Mr. Sergeant Health and his son, was one sink of iniquity, oppression, tyranny, injustice, and extortion. By the returns made from that court, it appeared that Mr. Sergeant Heath derived 5,530l. a-year from fees collected from the vice and misery of the very dregs of society in this -metropolitan county; and that thousands of shoeless wretches were annually sent to Whitecross-street prison under its decrees. In the year 1838, no less than 25,961 summonses were issued from this court, of which 15,000 were heard, and not unfrequently 300 cases were disposed of in as many minutes. These facts were proved in evidence before a committee of that House in 1838. It was impossible that justice could be administered under such a system, or so long as such an extortion of fees was permitted. Poor wretches were sued in this court for sums varying from 1s. to 40s., and in default of payment were sent for three months to Whitecross-street prison. It was the bounden duty of the Government to call the attention of Parliament to the state of this court in the next Session, so that any measure proposed should include this sink of iniquity.

Sir T. Wilde

said, that having already expressed his opinion of the bill, he merely rose to say a word in behalf of Mr. Sergeant Heath, who had been charged by the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken with such improper conduct. It must surely be seen by the hon. Member. that Sergeant Heath had done no more, and could do no more; than was his duty as the judge of the court. If parties applied for summonses, the judge must grant them, and if the proceedings were followed up, the law must take its course in that court' as in all others. As well might his hon. Friend find fault with the judge of any court in Westminster-hall for carrying the law into effect in the regular course. He must say, that his hon. Friend was bound to be more particular in making charges of so severe a nature. A general accusation of this sort was not fair, and he was sorry his hon. Friend had attacked the character of a respectable Gentleman as he had done, without producing any one single specific charge to warrant that attack. Sergeant Heath bad always borne the character of an honourable man, and acted as such, and he (Sir. T. Wilde) was happy that his hon. Friend was not able to produce a single fact derogatory to that Gentleman's character for the upwards of twenty years that he presided in that court.

Mr. T. Duncombe,

in explanation, said that the statements he had made were founded on the evidence taken before the committee that sat up stairs upon the subject in 1838. Then all 'the facts he asserted were proved, and it appeared also that Sergeant Heath, who derived such a large income from this court, never sat there at all, but acted by his deputy, a Mr. Dubois, who conducted the whole of the business of the court, where 300 causes were often disposed of in the same number of minutes.

The Attorney-General

said, that the hon. Member for Finsbury, in the commencement of his observations, mentioned Sergeant Heath and his son as presiding in the court, but had since confined them to Sergeant Heath himself, against whom the hon. Member had made very serious charges. He wished that the report of the committee had been printed, and in the hands of Members, and it would be found that it did not warrant those charges. The hon. Member was bound to be more specific in his accusations. Sergeant Heath had all through life shown himself an honourable, able, and learned man, and in every respect unobjectionable. Mr. Dubois also was a very superior man, far above the station he tilled, possessed of great talent, and esteemed by all who knew him in private life. He (the Attorney-general) thought, that the hon: Member, after the statement he had made, was himself bound to move,-that the evidence and report of the committee be printed.

Mr. M. Philips

said, that. in no part. of the country could the administration of justice in these small courts be worse than in Manchester. He had received a number of letters, praying that something might be done to remedy the evil. The poorest class of the people were the most dreadful sufferers by having actions brought against them for 6d. and 1s.

Mr. Villiers

said, that the present bill, imperfect even as it was, would prove a great improvement on the existing state of those courts, and he regretted' regretted that it had been sent down to that House at a period of the Session that rendered it impossible to pass it. He regretted this the more because he was sure that in the next Session there would be so much opposition given to it by parties interested, that it would never be suffered to pass.

Captain Pechell

said, he knew many instances where the present county courts were found to work very well, and where the administration of justice was so satisfactory to the suitors that no alteration was wished for.

Bi11 passed through committee pro forma reported to the House. To be further considered in two months. Bill as amended to be printed.