HC Deb 26 June 1857 vol 146 cc446-50

said, he rose to ask the President of the Board of Control whether, on the reference to India of the Judicial Reforms proposed by Her Majesty's Commissioners, it is competent to the Legislative Council in India to reject those reforms altogether, even though the Home Government approve of them; and whether it is true that the Legislative Council, consisting of nine Company's servants and two Queen's Judges, claims to act as an independent Legislature? He wished to draw the attention of the House to what was occurring in India at the present moment, where a branch of the Government was pursuing a course which, he believed, would be found most prejudicial to the good of that country. It would be in the recollection of many hon. Members, that in 1833, it was thought right to reform the courts of justice in India, and Mr. Macaulay drew up a scheme of a law Commission, which sat twenty years, cost the State nearly £800,000, and the result of whose sittings was absolutely nothing. They certainly sent home to the Directors of the East India Company a valuable series of Reports, but on the greater part of their recommendations no final decision had been made. This fact had been distinctly recorded by Parliament when legislating on the subject of India three years ago; and, such being the case, the Government determined, with the sanction of the House of Commons, to make at once a complete reform in the Indian law courts, and the present First Lord of the Admiralty announced that they had resolved on putting the Company's courts of justice under the Queen's Judges in India. The right hon. Gentleman, on that occasion, said he was exceedingly anxious to embody such a provision in the Bill, but he found it necessary to postpone any legislative measure until the report of a Commission in this country. A Commission was therefore appointed, consisting of most eminent men, and at the end of two years they presented a Report which had received the sanction of the most distinguished jurists in this country. When, however, legislation was expected here as the result of the Commission, a paper was circulated among Members of Parliament, to the great surprise of all who were interested in this question, stating that the Court of Directors had transmitted this Report to India for the purpose of obtaining the opinion of the Government there upon it. It appeared now, from what had taken place in India, that instead of transmitting their opinions upon, the reforms proposed—which he admitted would be entitled to due consideration—the Legislative Council were undertaking to legislate upon the subject. They were doing even more than this, for they were setting aside the determination of the Home Government, and were about, if not stopped, to pass an Act which could be productive of nothing but unmitigated evil in India—they were going to put British settlers in India under the Company's unreformed courts which had so long been denounced, and were thus setting aside the fundamental position on which the eminent jurists he had referred to had based their reforms. Now, he wished to know, if the Legislative Council had really taken upon themselves to overrule the determination of the Home Government, what course his right hon. Friend proposed to pursue? Since the creation of the Legislative Council that body had been laying claim to almost uncontrollable powers of legislation. The late Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, had not countenanced these claims, and he (Sir E. Perry) should like to know what his right hon. Friend's views were on this important question, which had now been agitated for twenty-five years.


said, it was true there had been a law Commission—a very expensive one, and that from it had emanated many Reports which had never been acted upon. It was also quite true that in 1853, during the discussion upon the Indian Bill, his right hon. Friend (Sir C. Wood) stated that his opinion was in favour of amalgamating the Sudder Court and the Supreme Court in Calcutta. Finding, however, that inquiry was necessary before any steps could be taken in the matter, a Commission was appointed to consider this question, and at the end of three years a formal Report was made by it. When this Report was submitted to him (Mr. Vernon Smith) upon first taking his present office, he came to the conclusion that the best course was to send it out to India for consideration by the Government there. He was never more satisfied on any subject than with the perfect wisdom of this proceeding, because he heard from the Governor General that, if he had done otherwise, he would have affronted the whole Legislative and Executive Council of India. He would remind them that the Legislative Council was established after much deliberation in this House by the Act of 1853. It was an attempt to provide something like representative authority for India. Of course it was utterly impossible that they could have a representative Government in that country, but Parliament intended in 1853 to make a nearer approach towards something like representation in that Council than. previously existed. Was it expedient, then, that his first official act should tend to set that Council at nought, and to set up his own ipse dixit founded upon the Report of the Commission? he contended that to have done so would have been an act of the greatest folly and imprudence. Accordingly he sent out Acts on the subject of these judicial reforms, directing that they should be submitted to the Legislative Council, who were probably on such subjects much better able to legislate for India than the House of Commons. Had such Acts been proposed in this House every lawyer would be starting up to make objections to them, and he would appeal to his hon. and learned Friend whether, after his experience of this House he thought they should be able to secure anything like an attendance of hon. Members for the consideration of such a subject? He thought, therefore, he was perfectly justified in the course he had pursued, and he was glad to hear this impression confirmed in another place by one of the highest authorities upon India—a noble Earl who had filled the office of Governor General. Fortified by such authority, he thought it would have been most inexpedient in him to submit to the House of Commons Acts which might afterwards have met with the reprobation of the Legislative Council of India. His hon. and learned Friend had asked him whether the Legislative Council had power to reject these Acts, and also what course he (Mr. Vernon Smith) proposed to take in case they did so? Of course that Council had power to modify or reject any reforms which might be suggested by the Home Government, but he should not tell his hon. and learned Friend what course he should pursue in such a case until he knew what had actually passed in the Council. This, however, he would tell his hon. and learned Friend:—If the Legislative Council passed Acts which, in his opinion, were prejudicial to the good government of India, he would annul those Acts; and if he could not induce this body to amend them, he would then, and not until then—not until he had exhausted every means—call upon Parliament to legislate upon the subject. It was not supposed, however, that whenever a conflict of opinion took place between the Home Government and the Legislative Council those gentlemen were to be dismissed; and such was his (Mr. Vernon Smith's) opinion of the civil service of India, that he believed, if he were to dismiss the Legislative Council under such circumstances, it would not be easy to find gentlemen to fill their places. Measures of judicial reform would no doubt be passed in good time, perhaps rather slower than he and his hon. and learned Friend might wish, owing to the cautious habit of that body, which required a period of three months to elapse between the second reading and the Committee of a Bill; but that the Council would pass such a measure as would be palatable and agreeable to the whole of India he had no doubt, and, if they did so, that measure would become law.


said, he concurred generally in the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Control, and he could not help observing that, probably, no man was less fitted to be a guide in the matter of Indian law reform than the hon. and learned Member for Devonport (Sir Erskine Perry); for perhaps the three evils which most seriously afflicted India were English law, English lawyers, and the English language as the medium for the administration of justice. His main object in rising, however, was to ask the noble Lord at the head of the Government whether he could not fix a day for the renewal of the debate on the question of cotton-growing in India, which had been adjourned on Tuesday last? Considering the gross misstatements which had been made with regard to the government of the East India Company, and reflecting upon an honourable body of servants who were not there to defend themselves, he thought that a resumption of the debate was imperatively called for. He would not trespass further on the time of the House, but would rest satisfied with having called the attention of the noble Lord to the real urgency of a full discussion on the affairs of India, reminding him that the question involved was not merely whether India could supply England with cotton, but whether India were well or ill governed.


said, he rose to support the request of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, because, as Motions on the Ballot and the Civil Service Superannuation were appointed for Tuesday next, to adjourn the debate on the Motion of the hon. Member for Stockport to that day was, in fact, equivalent to adjourning it sine die. The question raised by that debate involved the question of the good or ill government of 180,000,000 of people, and was, therefore, of the last importance.


said, he wished to remind the House that the Motion for adjourning the debate had not been made by the Government but by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devonport; and according to the custom in such cases, the hon. Member who moved the adjournment had fixed the day for resuming the debate. Government did not undervalue the importance of the debate, but it was difficult in the present state of public business to appoint a day for the purpose, and he thought that it was premature to talk about another day for renewing the debate before it was ascertained that it could not be resumed on Tuesday next