HC Deb 11 May 1855 vol 138 cc457-64

moved the following Resolutions:— That it is the opinion of this House that a new, complete, and systematic edition of the Sta- tutes now in force, omitting all such enactments as are repealed, obsolete, or expired, would be more accessible and intelligible to Members of Parliament and to the generality of Her Majesty's subjects than the present Statute Book, and ought to be undertaken under the authority of this House. That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the best mode of making a new, complete, and systematic edition of the statutes now in force, omitting all such enactments as are repealed, obsolete, or expired. The hon. Member observed that his object was to substitute a living law, as it were, for a dead one. There were some 17,000 statutes scattered over 100 volumes of the 8vo. edition in existence, only 2,500 of which were in force. His object was, to substitute those 2,500 for the 17,000, and when that should be done he thought that there would be the raw material for the consolidation of the statutes hereafter.


seconded the Motion.


said, that Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to assent to the Motion. The object of the hon. Member, the consolidation of the statutes, was a very important one; but there was a Statute Law Commission actually sitting, and if the statute law was to be consolidated at all, it could be much better done by a Commission than by a Committee. If the hon. and learned Gentleman thought that the Statute Law Commission was not properly discharging its duty, he should bring that question formally before the House.


said, that the practical object of the Motion appeared to him to be a most desirable one. With regard to the Commission that was actually sitting it was proposed to include Ireland, and a communication was made to him soon after he was appointed a Member of that Commission, requesting him to make suggestions as to the course that should be adopted with respect to Irish law. He made a number of suggestions accordingly; but up to this time was not aware that they had produced any effect. They were going on every day in that House increasing, by the passing of new Acts, the anomaly that existed with regard to statute law of the Empire. The plan he suggested was, that the Commission should take up by degrees the subjects that were of immediate and pressing importance, and that they should pay a number of gentlemen of experience to frame statutes to be submitted to the decision of practical men, and thus they should in time get the statute law reduced into shape; but the keeping up a Statute Law Commission merely to be consulted as to the form of new statutes to be passed was a totally futile proceeding. They were getting no good at all from the lahours of the Commission, though the object for which that Commission was appointed was considered a most important one, so far hack as the time of Bacon. He would earnestly press upon the Government the necessity for having our statute law put into proper shape. If proper means were taken to get competent persons to give their attention to different departments of the law, the task of consolidation, though a Herculean one, might he accomplished. He should certainly support the Motion for a Committee, if for no better purpose than that that Committee should inquire what the Commission were doing.


would wish to leave things as they were at the present moment, if he could think that the Commission was doing any real good; but neither from experience nor from inquiry had he learned that that Commission had yet consolidated any branch of the law. The state of our statute law was a disgrace, and subject of universal ridicule and contempt both in this and in foreign countries; and the injury caused by its condition, not only to English lawyers, but to the public, was very great. He would suggest that they should re-instruct the Commission—not in the terms of the hon. Gentleman's Motion, but taking great branches of the law, and consolidating the statutes upon those great heads.


said, he was a Member of the Statute Law Commission, though he must say he had not had an opportunity of attending many of their meetings; but he had sufficient knowledge of their procedure to be able to say that it was by no means fair to represent their labours as being so fruitless as hon. Members had stated. The task that Commission had to perform was one of the most difficult that could be imagined, and if a Committee of the House took upon themselves to decide what statutes were repealed, obsolete, or expired, they would very soon find they had undertaken a task far beyond their powers. He knew this—that upon various subjects of the law there had been drafted consolidation statutes, not final, but to be referred to the deliberation of the Commission; and it would be very impolitic to supersede those labours in the manner proposed. If the hon. and learned Gentleman desired to have full information as to the labours of the Commission, such information would be at once afforded him.


said, he was one of those who did not expect much from the labours of any Commission which was not empowered to say that the statutes which it drew should be the only ones necessary to be referred to. People talked about consolidating the statute law as though there was not already in existence a collection of the statutes by Sir W. D. Evans, from the earliest period down to the time of George IV., which, in eight small octavo volumes, contained everything that was required for ordinary purposes; and even a professional man would scarcely have occasion to refer to anything else above once a year. With regard to this motion, he was not very much impressed with the idea that a Committee would be of any great utility. The consolidation of the statutes must be a labour of years. It could not be done in one Parliament, and it was a task which a Committee could not be expected to undertake, and which, even if it did undertake it, it could not satisfactorily perform.


said, that what had passed showed two things, namely the great importance of the subject, and the extreme difficulty of accomplishing the object in view. If the Committee which his hon. Friend proposed to appoint was to be expected to perform itself any part of the work to which the Resolution applied, what fell from the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite was quite conclusive that the Committee was not the instrument by which it would be possible in any degree whatever to accomplish so great and arduous an undertaking. He concluded that the object of his hon. Friend was, not that the Committee should proceed itself to effect a consolidation of the statutes, but to inquire into the proceedings of the Commission. With all deference to his hon. Friend, he thought that was rather the duty of the Government than of a Committee of that House, and he was sure that the Government had better means than a Committee to go into the examination. He agreed in the statement that should the Committee begin by taking evidence, the proceedings would be of great length, and after all they might not come to a clear and definite conclusion. Many persons thought that the duty of the Commission was to pick out the statutes which were in force, and to separate them from those that were obsolete or had expired, or been repealed, and that the Commission could present a volume which would be a guide to those who wanted to seek what the law was; but he apprehended that was by no means the function of the Commission any more than of a Committee. When a Commission had consolidated the law on any particular subject, it must rest with Parliament to pass a new law founded upon their report, because they could not entrust to any Commission the powers of legislation. They might embody in a Bill the laws which they thought should be retained in existence, but they must go to Parliament to give that compilation the force of law. Therefore the particular process which the Resolution pointed out was not a process which the Commission could, of its own authority, by any means or possibility accomplish. He thought, undoubtedly, that this was a subject which required the most earnest and early attention, and he could only say that it would be the duty of the Government to inquire what was the state of the Commission, whether it required augmentation, or strengthening, or spurring on. They should undoubtedly inquire into the matter; and he trusted if there should be wanting in the Commission sufficient force to carry on its labours with adequate expedition, they would be able to give it that additional force; but what had fallen from the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite should be borne in mind was that the task was one of immense magnitude. Nobody must expect that the most able and learned men, and in the greatest numbers, could accomplish that task of which they were talking within any short period of time, for the very importance of the subject and its magnitude would necessarily require that a considerable period of time should be devoted to it. He could assure his hon. Friend that it would be the duty of the Government to inquire into the subject, and take every possible means for accelerating the object he had in view.


understood that the object of the Motion was not—as had been alleged—that a Committee should undertake the work of consolidating the statutes, but that it should simply consider the best mode of effecting that task. It was impossible that the Government, with so much already on its hands, could accomplish this additional task; and, as for the Commission that had been appointed to execute it, immense sums of money had been expended upon it, and a great deal of labour thrown away with but little result. That the task was a feasible one was evident from the example of the excellent work of Sir W. D. Evans, referred to by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Malins), and, believing that the appointment of a Committee would have the effect of advancing the object which the hon. Mover had in view, he (Sir H. Willoughby) should give him his cordial support.


said, that he did not think the task would be so difficult as the noble Lord had stated. The admirable work of Sir D. W. Evans was produced during his intervals of leisure from professional business in Manchester; and if a competent person were appointed to continue and complete the same work, it would no doubt be executed in a much more satisfactory manner than it ever could be by the Commission of which the Lord Advocate was an ornament. The matter would only be cushioned for many a long year to come by being referred back to the Government.


said, if the House undertook the duty set forth in the hon. Member's Resolution it would be unprecedented. What was the authority of the House to compile a second edition of the statutes? A publication of that kind would have no more weight than the compilation which had been referred to. What would be the use of sending out a volume which would have no weight in the courts of law, or be any guide to lawyers? He was anxious at all times to uphold the dignity of the House, and therefore he was reluctant to see the House deal with matters which it was unfit to deal with, and could not execute properly.


observed, that any work which consolidated the statutes might, as a literary work, be very useful to lawyers and to the country generally, and might be undertaken by any lawyer; but as the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down had pointed out, it would be a work of no authority, and if questions came before the Judges they could take no notice of such a compilation, but would decide upon the statutes as they existed; neither could the authority of the House of Commons give any weight to the omission in such work of particular statutes. But there was another task which the Resolution before the House contemplated— that of revising the statutes. That was a work which could not be done by the House of Commons alone, by itself; it must be effected by Parliament, and the Crown and the House of Lords must concur in the revision. He thought the assurance of his noble Friend that, as there was a Commission sitting on the subject, steps would be taken to expedite the work, ought to be sufficient, and Bills would probably be brought in, from time to time, for the consolidation of the statutes.


had no doubt that the present discussion would be productive of beneficial results, inasmuch as it would show that attention was directed to the subject. At the same time, people would deceive themselves if they imagined the consolidation of the statutes could be very speedily effected.


expressed a fear that, if the Commission went on at its present tardy pace, they would all be dead and buried before the consolidation of the statutes was completed. There would be no greater blessing, in his opinion, than such a consolidation as would do away with those obsolete enactments which now disfigured the statute book.


opposed the Motion. It was very probable that the Committee asked for would recommend the very gentlemen who now edited the statutes to do the work which the hon. Member for West Surrey desired to be executed, and which they, in fact, already did to the satisfaction of the legal profession and the public. If the Commission which was now in force properly performed its duty, it would recommend to the Government such a plan as ought to be the foundation of a Bill to be passed by Parliament on the subject. He therefore hoped that the House would not render useless the labours of the Commission now in force by agreeing to the Motion.


observed that, although the Royal Commission for consolidating the statutes did not at first get into the right track, yet they had done so now, and he believed that great benefit would be derived from their labours. Under these circumstances he thought it would be idle for the House to enter upon the task which the hon. Member for Surrey wished them to assume.


said, that he would omit from the Motion the words, "ought to be undertaken on the authority of this House;" but he thought the House ought to accede to his Motion in order to prove to the country that they were in earnest on a subject which had been trifled with For twenty-five years.

Motion made, and Question put— That it is the opinion of this House, that a new, complete, and systematic edition of the Statutes now in force, omitting all such enactments as are repealed, obsolete, or expired, would be more accessible and intelligible to Members of Parliament, and to the generality of Her Majesty's subjects, than the present Statute Book.

The House divided:—Ayes 38; Noes 47: Majority 9.

Motion made, and Question put— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the best mode of making a new, complete, and systematic edition of the Statutes now in force, omitting all such enactments as are repealed, obsolete, or expired.

Motion negatived.

The House adjourned at half-after Twelve o'clock, till Monday next.