HC Deb 15 March 1844 vol 73 cc1071-3
Mr. Escott

said, it would be remembered that in the course of the previous Session he had called attention to a statement which had appeared, of certain illegal Fees, that were demanded and received by the Clerks of the Crown Courts, the Clerks of Assize, the Clerks of the Peace, and the Clerks of Quarter Session, in various parts of the country. Opinions were then given, and declarations made by his right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary, and the noble Lord, which he had hoped and expected would put an end to the practice. At the close of the Session, it would be recollected, that he had moved for a return of the amount of the Fees taken by those officers during the preceding year, and, from that return, it appeared, that in twenty counties the practice was abolished, but thirty-two still retained it to a greater or a less extent. The practice was this—the Clerks of the Assize and the Clerks of the Peace demanded a sum of money from every defendant who was called upon to plead, before they permitted him to plead not guilty, and take his trial. This practice was contended for on the ground, that because under an Act of Parliament, the Justices of Petty Sessions were impowered to retain the amount of the Fees to be demanded in all cases brought before them; therefore, they, the Clerks, were entitled to make these demands upon the defendants in every case. He was quite sure this practice never would have endured if its existence had been generally known. And when he called the attention of the House to the subject last year, he believed there was not more than one or two Members of that House who were aware that such a practice existed. The Members of the Government were ignorant of it, and the Law Officers of the Crown were ignorant of it; and he (Mr. Escott) believed that there was no case in which those Fees had been demanded and obtained from the defendant, that an indictment for extortion would not he against the officer by whom the demand was made. What he wished on the present occasion was, that his right hon. Friend (Sir J. Graham) would restate the opinion he had given last year against this abominable and unjust practice; and, further, that if it should continue to exist, that he would exert the executive power of the Government to put it down. For no legislation was necessary—the law as it stood being sufficient to free Her Majesty's Courts of Justice from this foul stain.

Sir J. Graham

said, the practice to which his hon. and learned Friend had referred was without doubt most objectionable, but it was by no means a common one in the country. And his hon. Friend had truly stated, that if it were illegal there was a legal remedy against those Clerks of the Peace who persisted in it. He was not so presumptuous as to suppose that any opinion of his, on a point of pure law, could have any weight with the Court, but he did believe, that the practice was altogether at variance with the principles both of law and justice, that a defendant should be called upon to pay anything to prove his innocence, or be mulcted of any Fees, in order to his being tried by a Jury, and he was bound to say, that to levy any thing under such circumstances, did partake of the character of extortion. It was open for the Justices of Petty Sessions, to examine and regulate the Fees charged—but subject to the principle that the Fees claimed must be originally legal—and what his hon. and learned Friend had stated, that until he called attention to the subject last year, the Law Officers of the Crown, and Legal men generally, were ignorant of the practice, sufficiently proved that the Fees to which he had alluded were illegal.