HC Deb 27 February 1856 vol 140 cc1438-44

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, that the alterations which he proposed to make in the existing law were very small ones. He was not seeking to repeal any existing qualification, save one, and that was the qualification by reversion. That exception had been suggested by a right hon. Friend of his, and he thought with great justice, for if a money qualification was supposed to have any merit, it certainly could not attach to a person who merely held a reversionary interest in property. According to the present law all justices of the peace were required to possess £100 a year in land; he proposed to extend the right to persons holding £300 a year in personal property, or to the holders of office under the Government or the East India Company with salaries to that amount. He thought that thereby a class of persons eminently fittted by their previous habits as well as acquirements to fulfil the duties of magistrates, would be open for selection to the office of justice of the peace. There were four Acts of Parliament—three of them being obselete—which he proposed to repeal, the surviving Act being the 18 Geo. II. cap. 20. And his object here was to embody all the Acts relating to justices of the peace in one Statute. With the same view, therefore, he would repeal two sections of two other Acts—namely, that which disqualified attorneys and solicitors in England and Wales from acting as magistrates, and also that giving to County Court Judges the right of acting as ex officio magistrates. The only further extension which he proposed was, to render eligible for the commission of the peace the eldest sons of all persons qualified to sit as Members of Parliament—the provision to embrace the new law of Victoria; whereas at present it only extended to the law of Anne. In thus extending the qualification for the magistracy from landed to personal property he was only copying the example many years ago set by Parliament in recognising the possession of personalty as a sufficient qualification for a seat in that House. In no instance had that alteration of the law been found to work badly; and certainly the class of representatives at present were not less respectable than they used to be. And should the House consent to adopt the alteration of the law relative to the magistracy which he now ventured to suggest, he had no doubt but that it would work equally successfully as the change relative to the constitution of the House of Commons. It should be borne in mind that, under the present law, persons not possessing an acre of land contrived by a sort of hocus pocus—by getting a rent-charge of £100 from a friend, or by some other means—to procure a qualification for the commission of the peace. He thought it would be more creditable to magistrates to have, instead of such sham qualifications, a real qualification from personal property. If it should be objected that under his Bill persons not contributing to the county rates might be justices and have a voice in the disposal of the county revenue, he would observe that that was the case to a certain extent at present, as a justice in one county might have his qualification in another.


said, he was sorry he could not give his unqualified approbation to the Bill, and that regret was heightened from having seen the names on the back of it. One of those names was that of the right hon. Member for Dorsetshire (Mr. Bankes), upon whose judgment he placed the greatest reliance. The object of the Bill was to substitute personal for property qualification. He was aware that in many parts of the country there was some difficulty in obtaining magistrates, but he thought that the extension of the qualification to personal property was likely to be productive of greater evil than had existed under the present system. Magistrates who were obliged to qualify by landed property were much more likely to discharge the duties of their office with greater satisfaction to the public than those who had been appointed upon the qualification of some situation yielding £300 a year, who might be, in other respects, strangers to the locality, and who had no knowledge of the district. The Bill, instead of giving facilities to lords lieutenant to supply the wants of districts by the appointment of magistrates, would increase their difficulties by the pressure it would put upon them by candidates for the commission of the peace. When this Bill was brought forward last year it proceeded to a certain stage and was then withdrawn, with the view of extending it to Ireland. The representatives of Ireland, however, objected to such a proceeding, and the measure was not pressed. Now, if it were good for England he did not see why it would not be equally good for Ireland. If the measure should ever reach Committee, he would certainly feel it his duty to press for some very great alteration in it before he could assent to its passing into a law.


said, the Bill now before the House was introduced for the purpose of substituting personal for property qualification to the office of justice of the peace. Last year he had not opposed the second reading of a similar Bill, and he proposed to take the same course this year. He thought that many of the clauses would be productive of good. It had been objected that the qualification ought to depend on personal property, as it was personal property that now paid rates and taxes. But even now persons might vote in respect of rates and taxes who had very little interest in those rates and taxes. The same objection as to the appointment of persons to the magistracy who would, perhaps, be strangers to the district in which they would have to discharge their duties, would equally apply to the present system, for the property from which they were qualified might be situated in a different district altogether. Such persons, therefore, might have by law no interest whatever in the funds of which they would have the administration as justices of the peace. There was, however, a salutary check to any abuse in the hands of the lord lieutenant, who, no doubt, would hesitate to appoint any gentlemen to the magistracy but such as had a direct interest in the county where they were to exercise their functions. In that respect he confessed he did not think that the proposed alteration in the law would work badly. It was, however, doubtful to him whether a mere qualification of £300 arising out of a salary should be held sufficient. He would offer no objection to the main principles of the Bill, reserving to himself the liberty of proposing some alterations in Committee.


said, he objected to the principle of the measure, which was, in his opinion, altogether subversive of the representative system hitherto generally recognised in all their institutions. As regarded his own county (Berkshire), he believed that the appointment of persons to the magistracy who had no property nor any direct interest in the district, would create the greatest possible annoyance and heart burnings amongst the ratepayers. He thought that the present subject ought to be considered in connection with the establishment of the rural police, as the one was more or less dependent on the other. Although he admitted that in some instances the lords lieutenant exercised their power in a reckless manner, nevertheless he contended that, generally speaking; they made most just and judicious appointments to the magistracy. He also objected to a measure of this kind being introduced by a private Member and not by the Government. If the Bill passed, a lord lieutenant might appoint any number of persons he pleased to the magistracy, who, though utter strangers to the district, would have the administration of the ratepayers' money without a proper control.


said, he must declare himself in favour of the principle of the Bill. No measure that could be brought forward but would be open to some objection. The question here was, whether the advantages of the present, meaasure did not outweigh any disadvantages that might be supposed to arise from it. He was decidedly of opinion that it would effect a great improvement in the present system. No doubt the Bill gave additional power to lords lieutenant to appoint improper persons, but they could equally do so at present. The check was in public opinion over the lords lieutenant. Persons who opposed the Bill were not aware of the difficulty of finding magistrates in some districts. Objections were raised to clerical magistrates, but very often no other were to be had. We were a travelling people—magistrates were travellers all over Europe—and in certain seasons were not to be found in their respective districts. In his own experience he knew an instance where in one of two consecutive petty sessions no magistrate attended, and in the next only one. It had been said that the lords lieutenant might appoint further magistrates when necessary, but it was not stated by what means it was proposed to carry out that proceeding. With reference to what had been said by the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary as to the unfitness of East India officers for the position of justices of the peace, he could only say that he knew many of those officers, and he had every reason to believe that they would be perfectly fitted to discharge such duties.


said, he thought that the Bill would give great scope to the appointment of proper persons. He could confirm from his own experience the statement that had been made as to the want of magistrates in certain districts. His chief objection to the measure lay in its exclusion clauses. By the proposed Bill, attorneys and solicitors were prohibited from acting as justices of the peace. They were a most valuable class of men, and he could see no reason for their prohibition. It was well known that they were not precluded from acting as justices of the peace for boroughs, and he found it difficult to conceive why that which was good for the boroughs should not be equally good for the county. He admitted that attorneys practising at quarter sessions should not be allowed to sit on the bench at sessions. But as regarded the numerous class of attorneys and solicitors not practising at quarter sessions he could see no reason whatever for their disqualification.


said, that while admitting the policy of appointing such professional gentlemen to the magistracy, he certainly thought that they should be disqualified from practising at petty or quarter sessions.


said, he did not see why attorneys and solicitors should be excluded from the magistracy, but he would not permit them to practise in the courts in which they acted as magistrates. The profession of a solicitor eminently qualified him for the discharge of judicial duties, and he could see no valid reason why they should be excluded.


said, he was willing to admit that the Bill would require much consideration in Committee. The duties of the magistracy were most important in every respect. The point raised as to the admission of attorneys and solicitors he considered was well worthy of attention. If that class of persons were still to be excluded from the commission of the peace, that exclusion should be based upon grounds that would east no reflection upon such gentlemen, for it was well known that the magistrates derived the greatest assistance from those who had acquired a knowledge of the legal profession. He trusted that the House would assent to the second reading of the Bill, with a view of considering those details in Committee.


said, he was about to state that which would be almost high treason in him to say, seeing that he was surrounded on all sides by the "great unpaid," but, in his opinion, it was the duty of that House to insist upon a stipendiary magistracy being appointed. It was said that in some districts there were not magistrates enough. That might be so, but certainly in others, judging from the results of their doings, there were too many. In many places the unpaid magistracy were actually sitting in judgment on their own cases. They might, perchance, decide justly, but under such circumstances it was folly to expect that their decisions would give satisfaction. How much a system of stipendiary magistrates was needed in the north of England! In the manufacturing districts cases frequently occurred of disputes between masters and men, when it was considered that the decisions of the magistracy were generally influenced by interested feelings. If, however, such questions were always submitted to a stipendiary magistracy, the results would be considered much more satisfactory by the working classes. Questions arising from poaching were also left to the decisions of the "great unpaid," when it was felt that the poachers had no chance whatever of an unbiassed decision. The judgments of stipendiary magistrates would always be viewed in the light of equity and justice. On the whole he would be disposed to vote against the present Bill, as tending to increase the evil of which he complained.


said, he viewed the Bill as far as it went as one of the requirements of the age. In Scotland no qualification at all was required, and the magistrates, as well as the representatives of that country, formed a most respectable and efficient body. He fully concurred in the suggestion for the admission of attorneys and solicitors to the magistracy as being persons peculiarly qualified to discharge the functions of such an office. He would also urge the establishment throughout the country of an officer similar to that of the sheriff in Scotland. He would give his cordial support to the Bill.


said, he thought the only object of the House should be to obtain efficient county magistrates, and he thought solicitors well qualified, especially those who merely practised in Chancery suits, and who were possessed of large fortunes. With regard to clerical magistrates he was enabled to say, that in the districts with which he was most intimately acquainted, if clergymen were disfranchised, there would be no magistrates at all.


said, that there were some things very good in the Bill, while there were other things most objectionable. He had often witnessed cases in which the clerks had really acted as magistrates, and the magistrates had acted as clerks. He concurred to a certain extent with the observations made by the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe); but there was one serious objection he thought to the appointment of a stipendiary magistracy, and that was, that it would be opposed to the great fundamental principle of our liberties—namely, our representative system. A stipendiary magistracy would also extend the centralisation system, and would inflict a blow upon the principle of local government. As to the objection raised in respect to a magistrate sitting in judgment upon a case which he was personally interested in, he (Mr. Muntz) was confident that no man having any pretensions to the character of a gentleman but would retire from the bench under such circumstances.

Bill read 2°.