HC Deb 13 March 1844 vol 73 cc980-2
Lord Worsley

rose for the purpose of moving for a Select Committee to enquire into the mode of appointment, the duties, and the present system of remunerating the Clerks to Justices at Petty Sessions in England and Wales, and to report the evidence and their opinion thereon to the House. The noble Lord said that the reasons which principally induced him to desire an enquiry into the operation of the present system of remunerating Clerks to the Magistrates at Petty Sessions were, that he had seen it frequently stated in the public papers, and he had frequently found in his experience as a Magistrate, that there was a great apparent injustice in the disproportion between the fines levied on persons convicted before the Magistrates at Petty Sessions and the costs that accompanied those fines. It often happened that persons were brought before Magistrates for small offences—such for instance, as stealing part of a fence, or committing a trifling assault—and in those cases the Magistrates would be anxious to inflict a small punishment, such as would be effected by a trifling fine; but they saw that a fine of 2s. 6d. or 5s. would often inflict a much heavier punishment than the Magistrates would desire to inflict, by the addition of fees and costs to an extent that in many cases obliged those persons to go to prison in default of payment. He moved last year for a return of the fees to clerks at petty sessions, with an account of the number of tines inflicted, and persons sent to prison in default of payment of costs or fines. But the return which had been made was not, by any means, as full and conclusive as he felt to be required. However, from the manuscript returns he had been enabled to collect many instances of very large costs having attended the infliction of small fines, and consequently, that a great deal of suffering had been inflicted on poor persons by the amount of those costs and fees. In Cardiff county gaol a man was imprisoned for non-payment of costs amounting to 1l. 7s. 6d., when the fine was only 1s. In another case, the costs on as small a fine were 2l.; and in another case the costs on a very small sum were 3l. 10s. In a hundred in the county of Hertford, a man was fined 2d., was charged with fees amounting to 14s. 6d., and was sent to prison for non-payment of that sum, The cost to the county of sending him to gaol was 1l. 4s. 6d., and the expense of keeping him in gaol was 2s.d. a day, so that the whole expense to the county from the infliction of a fine of 2d., with costs of 14s. 6d., was no less than 3l. 14s.d. Thus in one case, there were costs of 14s. 6d. added to a fine of 2d.; in another the fine was 3d., and costs 14s.; in another, fine 1d., and costs 11s. 6d.; in another case, fine 2d., and costs 11s. 6d. Again, a case of a fine of 1s. 2d., costs 18s. 6d.; and costs no less than 14s. 6d. were added in another case to a fine of 1d. He saw also a case where the fine was 2d. and costs 16s. 6d. In another instance, a party suffered imprisonment for three weeks in default of payment of the fine and costs. He could multiply such cases if necessary, but those he had referred to were sufficient to show the disproportion in many cases between the fines and the costs, and the great suffering such a system must inflict. Parties were sent to prison, not because a fine was inflicted of a serious nature, or one that indicated a desire on the part of the Magistrates to visit the person convicted with severe punishment, but they were sent to prison for the non-payment of fees and costs, superadded to those small fines. That was a great evil, and one that might be avoided by adopting a different system of paying the Clerks. If they were paid regular salaries out of the county-rates, the system would work better than the present one. He believed many of those Clerks were very honourable men; however, the tendency of a system under which they were paid from fees must naturally be to increase the number of summonses. It was high time that an alteration should be made in the system, and this mode of paying the Clerks would effect that alteration. If there was a fixed salary allowed them, they would have no interest in the increase of business at their courts. He hoped the attention of Government would be directed to the subject, and if he had an assurance that they would take up the subject during the present Session, he had no desire to press his Motion. He hoped Government would give an assurance that they would, during the present Session, introduce a Bill to remedy the defects he had stated. The Clerks, he thought, might be usefully employed as public prosecutors. He should conclude by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee.

Mr. M. Sutton

thought, that what had fallen from the noble Lord was deserving of great consideration. He understood the noble Lord's objections to be directed against the system, and not the personal conduct of the Clerks of the Peace. It was not necessary for him to go through all the noble Lord's observations. He could give the noble Lord the assurance he was led to expect, that the attention of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of his department had been called to the subject, and that a Bill was in preparation which would, he believed, be in a short time introduced. Under these circumstances, the noble Lord would not, probably, press for a Committee.

Motion withdrawn.