HC Deb 30 March 1843 vol 68 cc152-4
Mr. B. Escott

begged to put a question to the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department. The practice to which his question referred was one which related in an important degree to the administration of criminal justice, and which in many cases amounted to a denial of justice; and it consisted in the clerk of the peace, or the clerk of the assize, demanding from defendants charged with misdemeanors, before traversing, certain fees, and making the payment of those fees a condition precedent to the defendants pleading to the indictment and taking their trial. So that before a man, who was brought up for a common assault, could plead not guilty, he had to pay fees to the amount of from 21. to 61. to the clerk of the peace as the price of his plea. He was sure that such a practice wanted only to be known, to call for the universal reprobation of all classes, and he was equally certain that the reason why they had not been abolished before was, not that they were upheld by the law, but that they had been demanded in secresy and in the dark. He begged to ask the right hon. Baronet whether he was aware of the existence of these charges; secondly, whether they were not illegal, or at all events improper charges; and, thirdly, whether he was not of opinion that the courts of quarter session, and the other courts, had it in their power to put an end to the practice of demanding these fees?

Sir J. Graham

If his hon. and learned Friend had not been so obliging as to give him notice of his intention to put this question, he should have found some difficulty in answering it. Having received notice of the question, however, he had endeavoured to inform himself on that authority on which he could best rely on this subject. He agreed with the hon. Member that it had a very important bearing upon the administration of justice, and he thought that the demand of such fees, before plea pleaded, if not contrary to law, was quite inconsistent with the due administration of justice. He was not previously aware of this practice, and he did not think that it was one of such general prevalence as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think; but he knew, and he regretted that at certain courts of quarter session these fees were demanded. He had consulted the highest authority, and he had no hesitation in saying, that according to the general law of the land, such a demand could not be justified. But he was also aware, that there were provisions in an act of Parliament relative to the adoption of a table of fees, which, after they had been sanctioned by a judge, were binding. He supposed, that in the case to which the hon. Member referred this course had been adopted—that the justices of quarter sessions had framed a table of fees justifying the demand which had been made, and mat the judges had given their sanction to that table. If the fact should be as was described, he was sure that the subject of complaint had arisen from inadvertency; and he was satisfied that the judges of assize would gladly say that it was not proper. He hoped, therefore, that no difficulty would arise in the particular case; if there should, he had no hesitation in saying, that he was prepared on the part of the Government to introduce a declaratory bill on the subject.

Mr. Escott

said, that he was aware that the bill authorised the clerks of the peace to receive fees; but it did not authorise the taking of one penny from the defendant. That was the grievance in this case, and it was not sanctioned by act of Parliament.

Lord J. Russell

suggested, that perhaps the most convenient course would be to send circulars to the magistrates at quarter sessions on the subject.

Sir J. Graham

thanked the noble Lord for the suggestion. He believed that it was only in a few counties that the demand of fees had taken place.