HC Deb 08 August 1844 vol 76 cc1940-4
Sir J. Graham

said he was happy to announce to the House that he had now arrived at the last Bill which he had to lay before them at the close of the Session. It was a Bill to which he attached great importance, for regulating the duties, and the amount of fees, to be discharged and received by Clerks of Magistrates, Clerks of the Peace and Clerks of Assize. He would take them in order:—including Clerk of the Arraigns, Clerk of the Indictments, and Clerk of the Assize, and various other officers who go with the Judges on the Circuit. The great object with respect to the two first classes, namely Clerks to Magistrates and Clerks of the Peace, was to substitute salaries in lieu of fees. Another object of the greatest importance was, that the Magistrates in Petty Sessions should hold their Courts in public—that they should meet in a fixed place, and on fixed days, instead of meeting, as they now often did, in their own Houses, where the business was conducted in private. By this Bill that object would be obtained. He further proposed, that the Clerk of the Magistrates not now acting as such, but hereafter to be appointed, should be an attorney of a certain standing. He knew that the hon. Member for Fiusbury would object to this, because it was the opinion of that hon. Gentleman that the law was not best executed by lawyers, and that professionally educated men were not the best practitioners. The county would be divided into petty Session divisions, and each division would have a Clerk and the salary of each Clerk would be fixed by the Magistrates in Quarter Sessions. Any fees legally payable to the Clerk, would be carried to the county stock. This, he thought would secure regularity in the despatch of the public business, and impartiality to the parties seeking justice. With regard to the Clerks of the Peace, they would be required to make out an account of the fees which they had received for the seven years preceding the 1st of January, 1844, and he proposed to legalise all fees which had been received for fifty years previously. These lists of fees were to be sent to the Secretary of State, who would require them to be tested by the proper parties. The salary would be paid upon an average of the fees received during the last seven years. But fees received that were not found to be legal would not be included in the average. The lawful fees would still be received by the Clerks of the Peace; if they amounted to more than the salary assigned to him, the surplus would be paid to the county stock; and if they fell short of the amount of his salary, the difference would be paid to the Clerk of the Peace out of the county fund. Power would be given to the Secretary of State to prepare a uniform scale of fees to be received by the Clerks of the Magistrates, Clerks of the Peace, Clerks of the Assize, Clerk of the Arraigns, Clerk of the Indictments, and the Associates of the Judges, and all other officers attending the administration of justice. He proposed to abolish all fees on traverses, as well as upon proclamations and the discharge of prisoners. And if any person should take fees which were not allowed and fixed by the Secretary of State, he should be liable to a penalty of 5l. The right hon. Baronet then moved for leave to bring in a Bill to regulate the appointment and payment of clerks and other officers of the court of Petty and Quarter Sessions of the Peace, Oyer and Terminer, and Gao-delivery.

Captain Pechell

considered the Bill would improve the existing state of things. He hoped, however, that Petty Sessions would not be granted to those places which had not proper accommodation for the Magistrates. He thought that the practice of holding sessions at inns and public houses ought to be done away with; and he considered that those places which failed to provide a proper building for the bench ought not to have the privilege of Petty Sessions. With respect to the alteration in the appointment of Clerks of the Peace and to Magistrates, he hoped those attorneys who were violent political partizans, would not be allowed to be eligible to the office.

Mr. Bickham Escott

said, one of the highest objects a Secretary of State could aim at was the purification of the country from that gross system of extortion which had been hitherto practised in those departments which the Bill particularly referred to. He would not enter upon the details; he would content himself with one remark in relation to the provision for abolishing fees. It was proposed that fifty years' usage should be taken as an evidence of the legality of such fees. But what he submitted was, that in cases where fifty years of gross extortion had existed, the clerks, before sending in their average incomes, should first have this system of extortion put an end to. He recollected an instance when three persons had been indicted for perjury at Dorset Assizes, when the expenses they were put to before they were suffered to plead amounted to 9l. sterling. He had known another case, in which two respectable persons in nearly the same circumstances, anxious to come immediately to their trial, had been put to an expense of 24l. before pleading, and told they could not come to their trial immediately without the consent of their prosecutor. The same had happened even at the Quarter Sessions. Now, this was occasioned in part by men who knew they were by their extortionate conduct liable to indictment and a penalty. All he wished was, that before the House was called upon by those parties for remuneration under this Bill, the House should be furnished with information as to which of those parties had been guilty of unjust exaction, so that they might not be suffered to forward an exorbitant claim upon the amount of their own extortions.

Mr. Wakley

would recommend the appointment of a Committee in the next Session, to ascertain by whom, and to what extent, fees had been extorted. He highly approved of the nomination of a lawyer to be Clerk to the Magistrates, for as Justices proverbially had little knowledge of law, it was fit some person who at least pretended to an acquaintance with it should assist them. He congratulated the country on the variety of excellent Bills which within only a few days had been introduced; and as the real business of the country was better done by a small than by a large number of Members, he saw every reason why the Session should be prolonged, at least until these beneficial measures had been passed. While Government was in such a happy mood it would be a pity to deprive it of the opportunity of doing so much good.

Mr. Gally Knight

said, that he could not refuse himself the pleasure of tendering his best thanks to the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, for his introduction of a Bill, which he was sure would be considered as a boon by every Magistrate in England. Magistrates had long been as alive as the hon. Member for Finsbury could be to the objectionable consequences arising from the present state of the law respecting the Clerks' fees. The law, as it now stood, obstructed the administration of justice. Magistrates continually felt themselves compelled to make unseemly bargains with the delinquent, and not to convict when they ought to convict, rather than subject a man who had committed some trifling offence, and whose means were very small, to so severe an infliction as, in many cases, the fees alone on conviction at present entailed—over which fees the Magistrates had no control. The Clerks must be paid, but they ought to be paid in a different way. The hon. Member for Finsbury had spoken slightingly of the country Magistrates; but there could not be a greater mistake than to suppose that they were disliked; and, if the hon. Gentleman would only make an excursion into the country, he would, find that the Ma- gistrates and the people went on very well together. But he (Mr. Knight) had not risen to discuss the merits of the Bill. His sole motive in rising was to thank the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, not only for the introduction of this Bill, but fort he manner in which he had done his work during the whole of this long and trying Session; for the labour which he had devoted to the public service; for the temper and conciliatory spirit which he had evinced in that House; for the prudence and firmness with which he had restored and maintained domestic peace, and for the ameliorations which he had sought to introduce into many laws more immediately connected with his own department. Never, he would take upon himself to assert, had the high office which was held by the right hon. Baronet, never had it been more ably or honourably filled.

Leave given.

Bill brought in and read a first time.

The House adjourned at ten minutes to nine o'clock.