HC Deb 04 May 1847 vol 92 cc380-5

MR. WATSON moved for— A Select Committee to inquire into and report to the House on the Taxation of Suitors in the Courts of Law and Equity by the collection of Fees, and the amount thereof, and the mode of collection; and the appropriation of Fees in the Courts of Law and Equity, and in all inferior Courts, and in the Courts of Special and General Sessions in England and Wales; and as to the Salaries and Fees received by officers of those Courts; and whether any and what means could be adopted, with a view of superintending and regulating the collection and appropriation thereof The hon. Gentleman said, the matter was of immense importance; for delays and expense gave a great advantage to dishonest parties, and threw obstacles in the way of honest suitors. Every person must be aware of the immense extent to which fees were collected in courts of justice—fees of the foundation or origin of which no reasonable account could be given. A full and searching inquiry should therefore be instituted into the origin and amount, the legality and justice of those fees. In 1845, the total amount of the sums collected in fees and otherwise from suitors in Courts of Equity and Common Law amounted to 250,807l., and the ostensible object was to pay salaries and compensations for abolished offices. This enormous sum was paid by the officers who collected the fees, without the slightest check being in existence to secure an honest return. The courts of law were particularly objectionable, inasmuch as more was collected in fees than was necessary to pay the salaries and compensation allowances of the officers. In the three years ending with 1843 the Court of Queen's Bench paid into the Consolidated Fund, as the surplus which remained after paying the salaries and allowances, the sum of 50,128l.; the Exchequer, 46,127l.; the Common Pleas, 4,731l., One cause of the great increase which had taken place in the amount of fees, was the delay which occurred in the disposal of causes. At Westminster Hall there was only the same number of Judges as officiated in the time of Queen Elizabeth and of Edward III.—five in each court—whilst the money paid into the Consolidated Fund, being the balance which remained after paying all expenses, averaged from 30,000l. to 40,000l. a year. He thought the suitors had a right to require that the fees exacted from them should be applied to the purpose for which they were ostensibly levied—the payment of a sufficient number of Judges to secure the speedy administration of justice. He thought the number of Judges should be increased by one or two in each court. In the Courts of Bankruptcy, Lunacy, and similar tribunals, fees were also levied, and there was not the slightest check upon the accuracy of the return. In connexion with the inquiry, which he hoped the House would agree to, was the question of how far it was right and proper that fees should be levied at all from persons who sought justice, and how far the expense should not be borne by the nation, care being taken that no improper suits were instituted. Upon that question, however, he would not enter upon that occasion. He had understood that objections had been taken to that part of his Motion which related to the compensation allowances which were paid to certain officers; and rather than endanger the other branch of the inquiry he would consent to the exclusion of the part which related to such compensations, reserving to himself, however, the right of bringing forward that subject upon some future occasion, should be deem it proper to do so.


seconded the Motion. The proposed inquiry was intimately connected with the great question of law reform, one of the essential characteristics of which was that law should be made as cheap and expeditious as possible. It was commonly said that a person who embarked in a suit ought to bear the expense of putting and keeping the machinery of the law in motion; but this, he thought, was a mistaken view of the question, as it was the public who actually derived the benefit of the administration of justice. It appeared to him to be as wrong to compel a person to pay for obtaining justice in a court of law as it would be to compel a person who had his house robbed or his person assaulted to pay for the expense of the police. He hoped the ultimate result of the inquiry sought for by his hon. and learned Friend would be the establishment of the principle that, instead of taxing suitors to the extent of 100,000l. a year for the benefit of the country, the converse should be the case, and that the country should bear the whole expense of upholding the administration of justice. He hoped that another object to be gained by the appointment of a Committee would be the convincing of the House and the Government of the importance of the subject to which he called attention at the close of the last Session of Parliament—the absolute necessity which existed for having a department of the Government devoted to the superintendence of the administration of justice. That duty was now discharged by the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor; but these departments were absolutely overburdened with work already, and to throw additional work upon them was merely to increase the amount of business which would remain undone. The dislike which he felt to the bringing forward of any abstract question, and not having had sufficient time to prepare a Bill on the subject, had prevented him from bringing the subject so prominently before the House as his sense of its importance would have otherwise induced him; but he would say, that he deemed it essential to the right administration of justice and to the progress of safe, salutary, and progressive reform in the law itself, that a Minister, unconnected with its administration, should be appointed to superintend the working of every court of justice throughout the country. This arrangement would supersede the necessity 6f issuing commissions of inquiry; the results of which were too frequently the accumulation of a mass of crude suggestions, which for the most part could not be converted into anything practically useful. In regard to fees, the present state of the Court of Chancery was as bad as it could be. There was no check upon the officers who collected the fees. They were merely required to swear by affidavit that the return was correct; and he did not think it right that so strong a temptation to make a dishonest return as existed at present should be allowed to remain. The fact was notorious—still he did not choose to mention names—that the successor of one of the officers who had died, had, without any visible increase having taken place in the business of the court, paid a half more fees to the Consolidated Fund than had been paid by his predecessor. This circumstance could not fail to give rise to the gravest apprehensions as to the kind of returns which were made.


said, that when a similar Motion was made at the time the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth was in office, that right hon. Gentleman stated he had no objection to the inquiry, in so far as the question of fees was concerned; and when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department was asked the same question, he stated he should have no objection to the inquiry to the extent approved of by the head of the late Government. Under these circumstances it was not his (the Attorney General's) intention to offer any objection to the Motion, the words relating to the compensation allowances being omitted. Still he did not wish it to be understood that he adopted much of what had been said in connexion with the Motion, as to the manner in which the fees ought to be applied. That question would more properly be disposed of by the House after the inquiry had terminated.


, after referring to the results of the inquiry which he proposed fourteen years ago on the fees of the courts, expressed his belief that the appointment of this Committee would issue in great benefit to the people. But, as an old reformer, he would just say that he had found it almost impossible to effect a reform where personal interests were concerned; and the first step should be to abolish the fee system.

Motion agreed to.