HC Deb 01 May 1843 vol 68 cc1130-4

On the motion of Sir G. Clerk, that the report of the Committee of Supply be further considered, and on the question that the 47th resolution (the estimate of the sum required for law charges, special commissions, &c, 38,000l.) be agreed to,

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, this was the vote which had been postponed on a former occasion in consequence of the ina- bility of her Majesty's Ministers to furnish any information when called upon to state the particulars of the sum of 38,000l to defray the expenses for the ensuing year. It appeared, then, that the sum actually required by the estimate was 47,105l. That sum included a sum of 15,000l., which would be required to defray the expense of the late special commissions. It was also stated in the estimate that the two it ms of expense of fees to counsel and carrying on suits and prosecutions amounted to 26,000l.; and this amount moreover was stated on the face of the estimate to have been— Formed on an average of the last three years' expenditure, ended 31st March, 1842, which, owing to the state of the country, was of an unusually large amount. He had, therefore, hoped that the sum of 38,000l. was to cover the expense of the coming year. Upon looking at the statement made in the estimate he found, that a sum of nearly 8,600l. (8,576l.) was charged as fees to counsel; and for expenses incurred in carrying on suits, &c, 17,517l; amountingaltogetherto26,090l. or say 26,000l. Now this was stated to be taken on the average of the three preceding years for the same charge; but he found that, taking the three years ended 31st March, 1842, the average had not been fairly or correctly taken. The sum required in 1839 for these two items was 9,511l.; in 1840 it was 9,428l; and in 1841 it was 14,229l; the average on the three years being 11,060l. But the sum stated on the face of the estimate as required, and as being the average of the three years, was 26,000l. He thought, that this required further information than had yet been given to the House. However, before he went into that point, he would beg to call the attention of the House to the extraordinary increase which had taken place within the last five years in the amount of the law charges of the country, and required to be voted by that House. There were these two items of fees to counsel and expenses of prosecutions, suits, cases, &c, in the last five years. In 1838 they amounted to 8,542l.; in 1839, to 9,581l.; in 1840, to 9,428l.—and let it be recollected that in 1840 there was a special commission when the Whigs were in office—in 1841, it amounted to 14,227l.; in 1842, the law charges then demanded of the House amounted to 22,000l., and no particulars were given. He did not know how the matter had been passed over last year; he believed his hon. Friend, the Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume), was not then a Member of the House. This year they were called upon to vote a sum of 38,000l., of which it was true some particulars were given, but these two items had gradually increased from 8,000l. to 14,000l. This required explanation, and that which was furnished in the paper ordered by the House, and signed by the solicitor to the Treasury left the House almost as much in the dark as before. The estimate made it appear that the sum that would be required to defray the expenses of the late special commissions would be 15,000l, but it appeared by this paper that, with regard to the special commissions at Lancashire and Cheshire, and Staffordshire, the amount would be 17,500l, showing an increase, as compared with the original estimate, of 2,500l. The cost to the country of the Lancashire and Cheshire special commission was 7,013l., and there was included in this an item of fees to solicitors and expenses of witnesses paid on account of 2,000l., so that at the present moment, the House had not got at the bottom of the expense. The judges sat four days each at the Lancashire and Cheshire special commissions, the expense being 7,000l. At the Stafford special commission, the judges sat thirteen days, and the charge was 10,519l. Now, he would not go into those subjects which this vote might naturally give rise to, but he knew that these enormous charges excited much inquiry—he did not mean to speak of the expenses of the judges, for they were very moderate. But when he found the fees to counsel and clerks at the Staffordshire special commission amounted to 4,091l. to counsel and clerks, Lancashire commission, 2,747l. and the same Cheshire ditto, 1,733l. he thought that some further information should be given in reference to these matters. Besides this, there was a great constitutional question involved in the circumstance that many members of the bar, who were also Members of Parliament, had been employed by the Government in the late special commission. Was it likely—was it possible, that one of these learned Members, who had been so well feed by the Government, should do otherwise than stand up to defend both the conduct of the judge, and the conduct of the Government, when assailed by any hon. Member on that (the opposition) side of the House? Might not the Government, in such a case, recall to their recollection the heavy cheques which they had received from the solicitor of the Treasury? Might they not remind them that they had had their share of the 4,090l.? With a view, therefore, of raising the question, and taking the sense of the House upon it, he would move that the present vote should be referred to a select committee.

Sir G. Clerk

denied, that the fees paid to counsel exceeded the fair and legitimate remuneration to gentlemen of such standing and eminence as those employed on behalf of the Government during the recent trials; nor would he admit, that the number of counsel engaged exceeded that employed on former occasions of a similar nature. On the contrary, he believed that it was smaller than the number engaged some years ago. It must be recollected, that the most eminent members of the profession had been sent down special, and the fees paid them were not more than a fair compensation for their services, and not more than they would have received in the ordinary course of their profession. He denied, that any Member of the bar, possessing a seat in that House, would allow his judgment to be biassed by any considerations with regard to the large amount of fees which he might have received for his exertions in the service of the Government, whatever might be his political opinions, and Member of the bar were surely entitled to hold as strong political opinions as any other Member of the House. The choice of counsel had been made without reference to political sentiments. He was ready to admit, that the expense incurred was considerable: but, then, the length of time which these proceedings occupied, and the great number of witnesses called, must be borne in mind. Taking these circumstances into consideration, he believed, that the expense would be found far from exorbitant. So far from being disposed to encourage excessive law expenses, the Government had been for some time engaged in effecting reductions in this branch of expenditure, and in the case of Ireland had effected a saving of one-third, besides discontinuing the services of the solicitor to the Home Department, by which 1,500l. a year was saved to the public; and the discontinuance of a solicitor to the Trea- sury, by which a further saving was effected of 1,000l. a year. By these and other means, a reduction would be made to the extent of 4,500l. (as we understood.)

Mr. F. T. Baring

referred to the statement of law expenses which had been laid before the House, and wished to know how it was that the average amount of fees paid to counsel, had been incorrectly stated; that whereas the estimate of the expense of these special commissions was stated at 15,000l., the explanation given to the House of the manner in which that sum had been expended, disclosed an expenditure of 17,500l., and that afterwards they were told that in reality the expense of the special commissions was 22,000l.

Sir G. Clerk

quoted from the estimates for the last three years the exact sums expended for law expenses, upon which the average amount had been calculated in order to satisfy the right hon. Gentleman that that average was correct.

Vote agreed to.