HC Deb 10 February 1857 vol 144 cc489-94

VISCOUNT PALMERSTON moved for a Select Committee to consider so much of the second Report of the Statute Law Commissioners as related to the proposition therein made for the adoption of means to improve the manner and language of current legislation, and to report their opinion thereupon to the House. Nothing, he thought, could be of more importance than this subject. Everybody who had turned his attention to the framing and language and operation of the Statute Law must have seen what confusion frequently arose from diversity of construction, from oversights and from conflicting enactments of laws that were passed at different times. He remembered, as an instance of this, that a Bill some years ago was brought into the House in which, by oversight, the grammatical construction of one of the clauses went to provide for the case "in which Good Friday should fall on a Sunday." Besides these ridiculous results there was a want of precision in the language of our Statutes, and a want of sufficient care in providing that harmony should be preserved between Bills brought in and laws in existence; and, indeed, when they considered the method in which Bills passed in that House, it was very natural. A Bill was brought in frequently by an independent Member with such assistance as he might be able to command, or a Bill was brought in by Government, who had the assistance of the law officers, whose time was very much engaged. Neither of these framers of Bills was able to give sufficient attention to the language, or to examine all existing laws, to see that the Bill did not conflict with those laws; that, in short, the Bill should be an improvement, and should not lead to confusion. Well, the Bill was brought in, and in debate Amendments were suggested which were afterwards carried out in Committee. One Member had a particular case in mind for which he wished to provide, and he proposed a clause. The mover of the Bill, taken on the sudden, finding that to accept this clause would smoothe the passage of the Bill, without, perhaps, having the opportunity or the means of ascertaining exactly the bearing of the clause on the other parts of the Bill, or on existing laws, adopted it. The Bill passed that House, and in the other House Amendments were made in the same way, and additional clauses were inserted, without sufficient opportunity or time to ascertain their bearing, and the result was frequently that a Bill came down, and was passed into law, and the next Session another Bill had to be brought in to alter it, as was the case lately in reference to a Bill for the collection of rates in the metropolis. A great advantage, therefore, would arises if some proper officer were appointed, who should be servant to the two Houses of Parliament in regard to these matters, who should, when a Bill was referred to him, examine the legal effect of it, its operation on existing laws, whether it repealed or altered existing laws, whether it left in existence laws on the same subject wholly or partially repealed—in short, to report to the Houses of Parliament the effect of the Bill, both as to its operation and also as to its language and construction. A great improvement might no doubt be made in the phraseology of our Statutes. A great many superfluous words were frequently used. Lawyers, in order to prevent mistakes—ex abundanti cautelâ—very often caused mistakes. He therefore thought it would be a very desirable thing that a Committee should be appointed to take this Report into consideration. He was bound to say that the authors of the second Report had shown by their example how it was possible for able men to have clear ideas on the subjects referred to them, and to express those clear ideas in the most perfect and lucid manner. Though Gentlemen might think that reading a Report on law amendment was not an agreeable occupation, yet he could assure them that any one who read this Report would have great pleasure in reading it.


seconded the Motion.


said that, although he had no intention to offer any opposition to the appointment of this Committee, he must at the same time express his surprise sit the present Motion, inasmuch as on Thursday next it is well known he was about to submit a Motion on a much larger but kindred question, of which the present proposal was a mere fragment. Notwithstanding what had fallen from the noble Lord, he (Mr. Napier) believed the evil to lie much deeper than had been stated, more especially when it was found that Government Bills, prepared under Government auspices, failed in their objects, and the complaints by the Judges of want of accuracy in the framing of Acts were met by charges of technicality in those learned persons. The phraseology and construction of our laws constituted a disgrace to a civilised country. The remedy required was an entire, not an homœopathic remedy. He doubted the efficacy of the means suggested by the noble Lord, for it was difficult to suppose how a Committee of that House could sit in judgment upon the Commission, which numbered in its ranks the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Brougham, and other legal luminaries. He trusted that on Thursday the House would pass an opinion on the larger proposition he should make. Last year the Government had assented to a Resolution moved by him in a large and comprehensive shape, and affirming that something should be done. They then asked him to wait. The Report came out in March, 1856; but the Session passed without legislation, and at the close, seeing that nothing was done, he gave notice of his intention of renewing his proposal this year. He should, on Thursday, therefore, take the sense of the House upon it.


said, he concurred in thinking that the learned Commission who had reported were better able to settle the phraseology of Acts of Parliament than any Select Committee of that House that could be named. Before we could hope for a return to that simplicity of language which had marked the Acts passed in the reigns of our Edwards and our Henrys, the Minister of Justice, as proposed by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Napier), must be appointed. On Thursday he would give his best support to the hon. and learned Member.


said, that he thought the argument of Mr. Napier conclusive that this was dealing in a very fragmentary manner with a very wide subject. This was not a new scheme. It was proposed in the time of Elizabeth, in the time of the Commonwealth, in the reign of Charles II. and that of George III. A commission in 1806 had no result, Another in 1816, which cost £37,000, and another in 1833, had also no result. Another in 1844, also, after costing £12,500, had no result. In the course of that time they had paid to Mr. Bellenden Ker, £10,000, and that gentleman had received £1,000 from the Committee which sat in 1853. He did not think a Committee of that House would accomplish that which so many Commissions had failed in doing. The statutes of this country were beyond all question verbose, tautologous, obscure, and perplexed. They were complained of not only by Englishmen, but by foreigners, and especially by the Government of the United States. He (Mr. Phillimore) had never listened to a speech, even of a Minister, which had occasioned him more profound disappointment than that which the speech of the Lord Chancellor had caused him when the noble Lord stated his views on the subject of the consolidation of the law. The result of all the money which had been expended was eight Bills, which were to be models for future legislation. He would give the House a specimen. The Act on treason enacted that it should be treason to violate the king's companion, or to kill a Judge sitting in eyre, although the office had been abolished ten years. There were in the proposed Bills provisions relating to corruption of blood, though the thing was abolished in the time of William III. There were provisions relating to the appointment of the officers of the South Sea Company, though the company did not now exist; penalties were provided for destroying of Exchequer tallies, though they had been disused; and a provision relating to the "Spencean philanthropists," though the sect had long since been extinct. Tautology in Acts of Parliament began in the reign of Henry VIII., and since then they had abounded more and more in prolixity and confusion. Nevertheless there were Acts which might have served the Commissioners as models of lucidity and common sense—such were the 5 Eliz. c. 4, and the Acts drawn by Mr. Deacon Hume for the regulation of the Customs. Contrast those statutes with an Act of George II., which regulated weirs on the Thames, provided measures for preventing the spread of distemper amongst horned cattle, which contained provisions relating to attorneys and solicitors, the more frequent return of writs from the county Palatine, the making of rates, and the assessments on the inhabitants of London, and the allowing of affirmations by Quakers in lieu of oaths. He hoped that such prolixity, confusion, and tautology would not be perpetuated by the Commissioners.


was prepared to contend that the Report of the Commission which was the subject of the present Motion was entitled to great praise at the hands of the Legislature. To that Report were appended names no less distinguished than those of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Brougham, Lord Campbell, Chief Justice Jervis, the Lord Advocate, Sir Alexander Cockburn, Vice Chancellor Page Wood, Mr. Justice Keogh, and others. Now, he thought any suggestion emanating from such persons might well be considered worthy of being remitted before a Select Committee. It had been said, however, why appoint a Committee to go over again the same ground as a Commission? Now, to suppose they would have to go over the same ground was a mistake, for the Commission and Committee would be appointed for perfectly distinct purposes. The object which his noble Friend had in view was to discover the best means of carrying out the Report of the Commission. Undoubtedly there were suggestions thrown out by the Commission which might be fairly considered open to review. For example, it might be well worthy of consideration whether the task of improving the wording of Acts of Parliament should devolve upon a single officer or upon a Board. Whether, again, each House should have a separate officer to superintend its work of legislation. However, the real question now before the House was, whether the suggestion of the Commission was one containing sufficient good to be deserving of further scrutiny.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointedTo consider so much of the Second Report of the Statute Law Commissioners as relates to the proposition therein made for the adoption of means to improve the manner and language of current Legislation, and to report their opinion thereupon to the House.