HC Deb 22 March 1852 vol 119 cc1463-71

Order for Committee read.


said, he wished, with permission of the House, to make some observations with reference to the Bill then before the House, and also to another Bill which was about to be introduced by the late Government with respect to improvements in the Court of Chancery. He trusted that the House would indulge him whilst he made such observations, because there certainly had been a most extraordinary misunderstanding, occasioned partly, he must say, by statements that had been made in that House, with reference to the proceedings that had been taken by the late Government in preparing a Bill that was to be founded upon the recommendations of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the proceedings of the Court of Chancery. He had lately seen a report of a speech made by the noble Lord now at the head of the Court of Chancery, in which that noble Lord very fairly stated that he did not take any credit to himself with regard to the measure about to be introduced, founded upon the report of that Commission, because it had been the intention of Her Majesty's late Government to bring in in a Bill of a precisely similar description. The noble Lord stated that he was prepared to bring in a Bill for the purpose of carrying fully into effect the recommendations of that Commission. But in the course of that statement, as he (Sir W. P. Wood) read it, the noble Lord stated that he did not find the Bill so advanced as he had expected—that he had, in fact, only found certain clauses prepared with reference to the abolition of the Masters in Chancery. Now, of that statement he (Sir W. P. Wood) had certainly no great-reason to complain, and he should be very sorry to do so, because it gave him most unfeigned pleasure to find that the recommendations of that Commission had met with the noble Lord's sanction. But it had been stated in that House that when the present Government came into office, not a trace of that Bill for the improvement of the Court of Chancery according to the report of the Commission was discovered. Now that statement, no doubt made in error, certainly was a most incor- rect representation of the exact state of the facts. That state was as follows—and he need not go very far back to state how far the arrangements respecting this matter had proceeded, because he believed that only a week before that statement was made, he (Sir W. P. Wood), in answer to a question of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Ripon (Sir James Graham), made a statement similar to that which he was now about to make. He stated then, as he had now to repeat, that the report of the Chancery Commissioners was not laid before Her Majesty's Government till the 27th January. The House would recollect that they were summoned there for the 3rd of February. There was an interval, therefore, of only six days; but feeling extremely anxious that the measures which had been recommended by the Commissioners should be brought into effect in the course of the present Session, he had obtained the leave of the Commissioners to show to the late Lord Chancellor a sketch of the report which they were about to make about seven or eight days previously to its being actually made—that he had done so at the request of the late Lord Chancellor, who was desirous of carrying the recommendations of the Commissioners into full effect. The Lord Chancellor, therefore, having the substance of the report about, and only about, twelve days before the opening of Parliament, gave immediate directions to the gentleman who was the Secretary to the Commission (Mr. C. C. Barber) to prepare a Bill to carry the recommendations of the Commissioners into effect, stating, at the same time, that he had selected that gentleman because, from having acted as Secretary to the Commission, he would most probably be fully acquainted with the views of the Commissioners, and would be able to prepare a Bill with the greatest expedition, and also with the greatest accuracy, with reference to the wishes of the Commissioners. Now, that direction having been given, it was stated in Her Majesty's gracious Speech from the Throne that a Bill had been directed to be prepared; and it was this which made him the more anxious to make this statement on the present occasion, because certainly the most strange rumours had gone abroad, inconsequence of what was alleged in that House, to the effect that Her Majesty's late Government had allowed it to be stated in the Speech from the Throne that a Bill had been directed to be prepared, when not a trace of that Bill could be found. But it was not correct that no trace of it could be found; for what took place? The Secretary of the Commission, being thus instructed, did begin to prepare a Bill. While it was in course of preparation, the Lord Chancellor occasioned a delay of a few days. It occurred to the Lord Chancellor that it might probably be better for the Commissioners themselves to prepare the Bill, and He directed the Secretary to inquire whether it would be agreeable to them to do so. That He did solely with the view of carrying more completely into effect the recommendations which had already been made. He (Sir W. P. Wood) was not present at the meeting of the Commissioners when that question was considered; but they came to the resolution that it was not part of the duty of the Commission to prepare a Bill, and that it would be bettor for Her Majesty's Government to prepare a Bill, and that the responsibility of the measure should not be thrown upon the Commissioners. As lie stated, he (Sir W. P. Wood) was not present at the time that resolution was arrived at, but he fully approved of it. That answer was coupled at the same time with offers of a very courteous character from the Master of the Rolls and the two Vice-Chancellors, to the effect that, although they did not think it was right that the Commission should prepare a Bill, they were nevertheless prepared to give their individual assistance in every way to the gentlemen who might be appointed to prepare it. Having received that intimation, the Lord Chancellor renewed his directions immediately to Mr. Barber, the Secretary, to proceed with the Bill. The most material Clauses, those, for instance, recommending the abolition of the Masters' Offices, were first sketched out, and afterwards fully prepared. Being very anxious himself to forward the Bill as much as possible, he (Sir W. P. Wood) went through the heads of the Bill with Mr. Barber. He had approved of the heads as sketched out by Mr. Barber, and instructions were given to draw up the Bill in conformity with these heads. That was the state in which the Bill was on the day on which the division took place on the Local Militia Bill which led to their retirement from office. Now, he would ask whether it was fair that a Bill in that state, as to which no instructions could be given till twelve days before the meeting of Parliament—a Bill of considerable importance in its character, and the principal feature of which was the abolition of the Masters' Office—was it fair to say, with respect to a Bill in such a state of forwardness, that no trace of it could be found when Her Majesty's late Government left office? The principal feature of the Bill was to be the abolition of the Masters' Offices; and the clauses which provided for that reform had been actually drawn. It was not a party measure, and there was an earnest desire on all sides to expedite it. He begged to remind them that the Commission which had recommended that Bill was appointed by the late Government—that this desire to reform the Court of Chancery had emanated from them. His right hon. Friend the Master of the Rolls, before he accepted the office, renewed the Committee which was originally appointed to inquire into the fees of the Court of Chancery and Common Law, and which had been very effective in producing reforms in both, the result of which was the Bill which was then under the consideration of the House. Before his right hon. Friend had ceased to be Chairman of that Committee, he was appointed one of Her Majesty's law officers. In that capacity he brought in a most valuable Bill for the improvement of the Court of Chancery in Ireland. Having carried that Bill, he suggested the appointment of a Commission for inquiry into the Court of Chancery in England. The late Lord Chancellor immediately acceded to that request, and immediately appointed that Commission; and he (Sir W. P. Wood) must say that the gentlemen composing that Commission were chosen without the least reference to party position. They had the able assistance of the two present Vice-Chancellors, neither of whom, as it was well known, was of the same political opinions with the late Government: most able assistance had been rendered by them on that inquiry. In the course of that inquiry a proposition was made by the hon. and learned Member for Newark (Mr. J. Stuart) that two lay gentlemen should be added to the Commission. He described them as men of business. It was assumed that he meant commercial gentlemen, who it was not expected could be of very much service in aiding the Commission to come to a satisfactory conclusion with regard to Chancery matters. It proved, however, that he alluded to the right hon. Baronet the Member for Ripon (Sir J. Graham), and the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Henley), and he was happy to say that, when this was under- stood, with the almost unanimous approbation of the House, those two Gentlemen were added to the Commission. He had no doubt then of the Bill prepared under such auspices being carried into effect; but he wished to state distinctly that the answer which he had given to the question of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Ripon, to the effect that the Lord Chancellor had given instructions for the preparation of that Bill, was made from his (Sir W. P. Wood's) own personal knowledge of the facts; and when he asserted that as a matter within his own knowledge, he did think that he had some right to complain of the statement, which he regarded as a sort of personal imputation, that no trace whatever was to be found of those proceedings which had been mentioned in Her Majesty's Speech in reference to Chancery reform. Had the late Government remained in office, the Bill would, in all probability, by this time be on the table of the House. He was fully aware of the difficulties of the new Government, and he was fully aware of the importance of reform in the Court of Chancery; yet, in the present state of public feeling, he thought there were other matters of more importance on which the people were most anxious to obtain a decision, and it certainly did not appear to him to be a question which ought to delay a dissolution. There was only one part of the speech of the present Lord Chancellor on the subject of the Bill in question which gave him (Sir W. P. Wood) some uneasiness; it was this: the suggestion of the noble Lord that certain buildings would be necessary, that it would be very desirable that the Vice-Chancellors and Master of the Rolls, who were now to act without the assistance of Masters, should have another room by their side, in which there should be a person with whom they could immediately communicate, and who would act towards them as a sort of chief clerk, to perform those duties now performed by the Masters. He did not at all differ from the views of the Lord Chancellor upon the desirableness of having such a room, but he certainly did think that so great a reform ought not to be delayed until a building of that sort could be provided. He knew the delay which awaited all reference to bricks and mortar. Even Lord Eldon, who was not said to be a very swift Judge, when he appointed a Vice-Chancellor, did not think it expedient to defer the appointment until a new Court was built, but the new Vice- Chancellor sat in the Committee rooms Of the House of Commons. The two new Vice-Chancellors who had been subsequently appointed sat in the Committee rooms of the House of Commons. He hoped the Government would not find it necessary to depart from the Report, which had been very maturely considered, nor hesitate upon the question as to how the Judges were to carry that Report into operation without the assistance of the Masters. He trusted that in these observations it would not be considered that he was in the slightest degree influenced by regret that the carrying out of the intentions of the Commissioners had fallen into other hands. He confidently hoped that Her Majesty's present Government would carry into effect every one of the recommendations contained in the Report as soon as the new Parliament was assembled.


would say a word on the very remarkable statement just made by the late Solicitor General. Nobody could for a moment doubt the accuracy of the matter-of-faet details delivered to the House by his hon. and learned Friend; but his object in rising was to correct a misapprehension into which his hon. and learned Friend seemed to have fallen. It was quite clear, from what the hon. and learned Gentleman had stated, that the late Government had in truth prepared no Bill with reference to Chancery reform, which their successors could have taken up; for the statement of his hon. Friend in substance was, that the Government had had no time to prepare a Bill—that they had no measure which they were prepared to bring in as a Government measure. According to his statement, the Report of the Commission was signed on the 27th of January, and that between that date and the opening of the Session, there was no time to prepare a great measure for remodelling the Court of Chancery; and accordingly, his hon. and learned Friend owned that no measure was prepared. But in the Queen's Speech the Government proclaimed that they had prepared a measure for the reform of the Court of Chancery. The preparation appeared to have been this: that the Government had not had time to prepare, for there was only a sketch of the report; that was the only measure of Chancery reform they left—the sketch of the Report. [Sir W. P. WOOD: No, that is not so.] Yes; but that is so. The hon. and learned Gentleman and the Secretary of the Commission went through the Report, and there the matter was left. When the hon. Gentlemen went out of office, what they really left to their successors was not a complete measure, but a clever sketch, by two able men, namely, by Mr. C. Barber, Secretary to the Commission, and his hon. and learned Friend. It was not, therefore, by any means correct to say, the late Government had a measure prepared. That was an un-intentional misrepresentation of his hon. and learned Friend. Neither was his hon. and learned Friend's history of the affair correct. He stated that the Master of the Rolls prepared a measure for reforming the Court of Chancery in Ireland, and that his notion of the success of that measure had induced him to propose the existing Chancery Commission. That was a mistake. In April, 1850—nine months before the Chancery Commission was appointed—he (Mr. Stuart) gave notice of a Motion for an Address to the Crown on the subject of Chancery reform, and especially with reference to the subject of preventing delay and expense in the Masters' Offices. That notice was given on the 15th April. At that time Lord Cottenham was on his sickbed, and unable to attend to business, and the Master of the Rolls was not in good health. He (Mr. Stuart) communicated with these eminent individuals, and they wrote to him letters, now in his possession, begging him not to proceed with his Motion for appointing a Commission; that no good would result from it; and Lord Cottenham, in a kind and friendly note, begged he would wait until he (Mr. Stuart) saw some orders which were in course of preparation, and which he would send him a copy of in a few days, and which that noble and learned Lord said would remedy all the evils which it was the object of the Commission to cure. Lord Cottenham did issue those orders; but they failed of their intended effect; and the Commission, for the appointment of which he moved, was issued after Lord Truro became Chancellor. He (Mr. Stuart) moved, that upon that Commission two laymen in whom the public would have confidence might be placed, and that proposition, which was first rejected, was afterwards adopted; and the right hon. Member for Ripon, and the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade, were added.


said, he could not congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on the fairness of his answer to his hon. and learned Friend. The object of his hon. and learned Friend was to explain to the House a statement which had been made to the House, that when the late Government left office, they left no traces of any steps having been taken to prepare a Bill, as was stated in the Speech from the Throne. Now, the words in the Queen's Speech were, not that She had ordered Bills to be laid on the table, but that She had ordered Bills to be prepared. Now, he would ask any candid person whether this Bill was not in the course of preparation, when the beds of it had been sketched by the Secretary of the Commission, revised by the Solicitor General, and handed to the Lord Chancellor?


said, he should have been very unwilling to take any part in the discussion, if the hon. and learned Gentleman who commenced it had confined himself to an explanation of what he conceived to be a misapprehension. But the hon. and learned Gentleman took, or as it appeared to him (Mr. Henley), made, the opportunity of casting some doubts on what the present Lord Chancellor was about to do in this matter. Surely, that was altogether foreign to the subject of his explanation. Nobody mistrusted or doubted the sincerity of the late Government in reference to the recommendations of the Commission—the Commission was their own, and it was most natural that they should wish to carry out its views. The House would, however, recollect the remarkable words in Her Majesty's Speech. The announcement contained there was followed up by a notice from the Prime Minister, that He would bring in a Bill in so short a space of time, that every one who knew anything at all about the matter was taken by surprise. He believed no one was more surprised than the hon. and learned Gentleman himself at hearing that a Bill was to be brought in within ten days. Every one felt that unless it were to be done by magic, it was impossible. Such, however, was the fact. The hon. and learned Gentleman had stated, no doubt correctly, what instructions were given by the Lord Chancellor. Of course that was a matter which he (Mr. Henley) knew nothing about. He had stated also that some change of mind came over the Lord Chancellor, and that a communication was made through the Secretary to the Commissioners. Being a Member of the Commission, that, of course, came to his notice; and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman had thought fit to allude to the subject, there could be no impropriety in his doing so. He happened to be present at the Commission when that communication was made; and, certainly, whatever might have passed between Mr. Barber and the Lord Chancellor, the thing was then quite a white sheet—nothing was done. That was after the meeting of Parliament. For some reason or other, nothing had then been done towards the preparation of the Bill. His hon. and learned Friend had correctly stated what passed in the Commission; and so the matter was referred back again to the Lord Chancellor. But here, again, another matter came in. Questions, it would be recollected, on this report were put to Lord Truro in the House of Lords; and in reply his Lordship said he must take time to consider certain points, and they happened to be points on which the public felt most interested. On those points his Lordship would give no direct answer. This created great—he would not say mistrust, but—uneasiness in the public mind. It could hardly be expected that any great progress would be made with the preparation of the Bills when the head of the law had not, by his answers, satisfied Parliament that he had made up his own mind on the subject. Such was the state of the case up to the period when a change took place in the Government. Well, now, as to how far the preparations had proceeded up to that time, he could not speak precisely. He believed it had been said in some quarters that there were no traces of a Bill. Lord St. Leonards stated, he thought that he had found "heads of a Bill"—or something to that effect. What was reported in the matter was, however, hardly worth much discussion, considering what liability there was to misrepresentation. He regretted that the hon. and learned Gentleman should have thought it necessary to go into questions respecting buildings, and to instance cases in which delay might occur. That, he thought, was hardly worthy of the hon. and learned Gentleman; and he was extremely sorry that he should have cast mistrust on the present Government, when the present Government did not, in this respect, seek to throw doubt on the intentions of their predecessors.

House in Committee; Amendments made; Bill to be recommitted.

House resumed.