HC Deb 27 April 1858 vol 149 cc1802-14

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the expediency of further improving the administration of justice, by increasing the number of assizes for civil business in the several counties of England and Wales. At present there was an extraordinary inequality between the mode of administering justice in London and in other parts of the country, for while there were ninety-six sittings in London and Middlesex in the course of the year at which causes might be tried, there were only two in such counties as Stafford, Gloucester, and Lancashire. All the great provincial towns were now placed in exactly the same position with respect to the administration of justice in which they had stood before the passing of the Reform Bill in relation to political representation. To prove to the House how very unequal, as well as inconvenient, was the working of the system under the operation of which that state of things prevailed, be might mention the fact that while a person residing at the Middlesex side of Westminster-bridge was afforded an opportunity of having an inquiry instituted into a question of injury done to his real property sixteen times in the year, a person living upon the Surrey side would have that question tried only upon two occasions. So great, indeed, had the grievance arising from the anomalies of the present system been found to be that various remedies for it had been devised— among others the establishment of County Courts, which tribunals had, however, failed to give that amount of satisfaction in that regard which the country was entitled to expect. The establishment of a winter assizes had also been found to be but a very partial remedy for the inconveniences to which he adverted, and he might add that the Committee of the Incorporated Law Society had stated it to be its opinion that the true remedy for those inconveniences was to be found in a measure giving the same facilities for bringing on cases for trial in the country as now existed in London. Mr. Gordon, Master of the Common Picas, had also published a pamphlet, urging the expediency of adopting that course, and the Law Review—the organ of the law reformers—had in two articles advocated a precisely similar policy. He might also state that the law societies of Manchester, Hull, Plymouth, and Liverpool had all expressed themselves as being strongly in favour of having three assizes in the year, and the only law society, he believed, which had not approved that proposition, was that of Devon and Exeter. An objection had been raised to this course on the score of the additional expense it would entail on the country, but he did not imagine that it would be so great as had been supposed, inasmuch as it would, in his opinion, be unnecessary to appoint in consequence an additional number of Judges, and if the expenses of jurors should be increased there would, on the other hand, be speedy justice and prevention of delay in the settlement of mercantile disputes. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) had moved for a Committee to consider the expediency of establishing Tribunals of Commerce. Now, he thought that it would be better to improve the old courts than to establish new ones. The County Courts had already cost £100,000 a year, and in respect to Tribunals of Commerce, the best that could probably be said of them would be what was said of the old Courts of Requests, that persons would get a great deal of injustice for very little money. The adoption of the course he advocated involved no novel principle, inasmuch as the Great Charter which had been passed in the reign of King John provided that writs of assizes should be issued four times in the year, while in the reign of King Edward I. it had been twice expressly enacted that assizes should be held annually three times. Another point which was well deserving of consideration was the great distances which persons now had to travel in order to reach their assize towns — in some instances no less than eighty miles. In order to meet that inconvenience a suggestion had been made to divide counties. That plan was no novelty, for it had already been adopted in respect to Lancashire, which now possessed two assize towns, and a further division had been proposed in order that Manchester business might be disposed of upon the spot. If that proposition were carried out it was estimated that the cost of building courts, even to the extent of £50,000, would be saved in one year by the reduction of expenses. Then, again, the great county of Yorkshire, with a population of 1,800,000, had but one assize town, and the inhabitants of the West Riding, numbering 1,325,000, were compelled to go to York to dispose of their law business. Out of the 1,325,000 inhabitants of the West Riding, only 72,000 were nearer to York than to Wakefield, which had been suggested as an assize town, and 736,000 were more than thirty miles, some fifty-five miles from York. There were other counties, Warwickshire and Staffordshire for instance, which required division, and altogether the subject was one which was entitled to consideration. He had no objection to adopt the Amendment notice of which had been given by the hon. and learned Member for Knaresborough (Mr. Collins) that after the word "assizes" in his notice of Motion there should be inserted the words "and assize towns," and that after the word "civil" there should be inserted the words "and criminal," and therefore he should move A Select Committee to inquire into the expediency of further improving the Administration of Justice by increasing the number of assizes and assize towns for civil and criminal business in the several counties of England and Wales.


seconded the Motion.

Question proposed.


said, that as the hon. and learned Gentleman had adopted his Amendment, it would be unnecessary for him to detain the House on the subject, further than to say that, in giving his notice, he had merely followed the words of the Royal Commission which was issued about a year ago. The condition of Yorkshire alone was a proof that some change was necessary, the inhabitants of the West Riding being especially interested in the adoption of some more convenient arrangements than those at present existing. The population of the West Riding is nearly one million and a half, and 19–20ths of this population live within a circle of fifteen miles of Leeds and Wakefield, and are distant an average of thirty-five miles from York. I am at a loss to say what reasons can be assigned for carrying this vast population out of the West Riding into another. South Lancashire, with a smaller population, and a much smaller area was to be subdivided, and why not Yorkshire. This change had been recommended by a Judicial Commission as far back as 1834, and two of the Judicial Commission last year had reported in favour of a separate assize at Wakefield in the West Riding; and I, for one, would prefer to support the view maintained by my right hon. Friends the Member for Droitwich and South Lancashire to that held by the judicial part of that Commission. It might be said, indeed, that the grand juries had on several occasions passed resolutions in favour of retaining York as the sole assize town for the county; but I don't think much weight should be given to this. The grand jury come for the week and enjoy themselves, and return not, nor wish to do, to their own homes at night. York possesses a pleasant club as every Yorkshireman knows, pleasant walks by the river's bank and pleasant societies, and both to bar, and bench, and magistracy, is a more pleasant place of sojourn than manufacturing towns like Leeds or Wakefield. To the petty jurymen, however, to witnesses, and parties generally, any plan that would reduce the distance they had to travel, and enable them to return to their homes at night, would be a great boon. He hoped that something would be done, and that the House would not be satisfied simply with the opinions of the Judges upon this point, but that Her Majesty's Government would pay that attention to the opinions of their colleague the right hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich, and to that of the Member for South Lancashire, which such opinions eminently deserved.


said, that before the House assented to the Motion for the proposed Committee they ought to consider whether it was necessary or desirable that they should obtain any further information upon that subject. The hon. and learned Gentleman who had made the Motion had directed their attention to the Report of the Commissioners who had been appointed to inquire into the common-law judicial business. Now a Commission was issued— For the purpose of inquiring into the present arrangements for transacting the judicial business, civil and criminal, of the superior Courts of common law in England and Wales, and also into the times and places at which assizes are now holden, and as to the division of the country into circuits; and to report whether any changes can be made by which such business may be transacted with greater convenience and at less expense; and also whether any reduction may be made in the present number j of the Judges of the said courts without detriment j to the public service. The House would therefore see from the directions given to the Commission that the inquiry which they instituted was, in point of fact, of a far more extensive character than that contemplated by the Motion before the House. The inquiry of the Commissioners was not only more extensive than that now proposed, but, with great respect for hon. Members of that House, he doubted very much whether the Report of a Committee of the House of Commons would carry with it greater weight than the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners. On that Commission were the Lord Chief Justice, Viscount Eversley, Lord Wensleydale, Sir Cresswell Cress-well, Baron Martin, his right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir J. Fakington, Mr. Wilson Patten, and the Under Secretary for the Home Department, Mr. Waddington, of whom he would take that opportunity to say that a more able public servant, or one better acquainted with the special subject under discussion, did not exist. It was a pleasure to him (Mr. Walpole) to make that public acknowledgment of the hon. Gentleman's services. As, then, the inquiry by the Commissioners had been of the most extensive character, and been conducted by men of the greatest knowledge and experience, was it likely that the House could obtain, through the medium of a Committee, any further information to enable them to deal with this subject? He doubted very much that they could. The object of the hon. and learned Gentleman's Motion being to increase the number of assizes for civil and criminal business in the several counties of England and Wales, he (Mr. Walpole) was confident that that could only be obtained by a large increase of the judicial staff, and he wished the House to consider what would be the consequences. If they were to have more assizes for the transaction of civil and criminal business than at present, they would greatly curtail the important business which. was transacted in London, and impose upon the Judges a greater amount of labour than they could get through with anything like satisfaction. The Commissioners stated in their Report that they should have been better satisfied if arrangements could be made for holding an assize three times a year in every important assize town, but they were satisfied that, owing to the number of Judges that would be called on to leave their town duties for that purpose, this object could not be effected without very serious incon- venicnce to the public, which would more than counterbalance any advantages to be derived there from by the particular localities. The House could only get over that difficulty by increasing the number of Judges, and against any arrangement of that nature he was sure his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford would seriously set his face. But, independently of that, he wished the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. M'Mahon) to consider whether the addition he had suggested to the number of assize towns was really required at the present time. Thirty or forty years ago the case was very different. The means of communication were then much less than they now were. They had not then established County Courts all over the kingdom. The whole of the business at that time was much delayed by the want of facilities for rapid communication, and by the want of more circuits; but he doubted whether they would improve the administration of justice by laying down a general rule that they were to have three circuits for civil and criminal business all over the kingdom. With regard to the criminal business of the country, it would be within the knowledge of the House that special Commissions were issued in the winter for the transaction of that part of it which lay in the northern counties whenever the state of the business to be transacted called for such a course. He stated the other day, when a question was put to him on this subject, that the adoption of the recommendations in the Report of the Commissioners materially hinged on the success of a Bill which had been introduced by the corporation of Manchester to enable them to hold assizes in that city. When it was seen how that arrangement worked the House would be in a position to consider whether Wakefield or Leeds should be added to York as an additional assize town, or whether those towns should claim the right to have assizes holden there in lieu of York. Taking all these things into consideration, he thought the best course to take was to go over the Report of the Commissioners, and see how far, by acting on the recommendations contained in it, any defects in the administration of justice were likely to be supplied, and how far the objections taken by the hon. and learned Gentleman could be removed. For the reasons he had given he did not think it expedient to grant the Committee.


said, that as the Com- mission had conceded the principle of the Motion before the House, he could not see why the right hon. Gentleman had objected to it. If the rule was to be that the additional assize depended upon considerations of the area and population of a district, he was at a loss to conceive why a concession was refused to Yorkshire which had been granted to Lancashire, as the case of Yorkshire was much stronger. Sheffield, which was at such a great distance from York, contained more people than some counties, and he could cite numerous cases in which injustice had been done, in consequence of the expense of bringing the necessary witnesses to the assize town. He did not think that to effect the alteration asked for any increase in the number of Judges would be necessary. Formerly there were only twelve Judges, now we had fifteen, and in the Common Pleas there was not half business for the Judges of that Court. The true principle on which they ought to act in all these matters was to bring justice as much as possible home to every man's door.


said, he was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department say he was not disinclined to consider the claims of the West Riding. He must say, on behalf of his constituents, that they were little inclined to acquiesce in the Report of the Commissioners in so far as it affected them; and the inconveniences to which the West Riding was subjected had been so clearly proved by the hon. and learned Member for Wexford (Mr. M'Mahon), that he had nothing to add to his observations except that he entirely concurred in them. With regard to the proposition of Wakefield being removed from the Northern Circuit, and attached to the Midland, he should prefer to hear the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) say he would agree to grant this Committee rather than that he would consider the question when the time came for carrying into effect the recommendations of the Commissioners. As to the expense, the right hon. Gentleman seemed to fear that to incur it would bring down upon him the censure of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford; but he should remember that the good administration of justice was a thing superior to all considerations of expense, and with regard to the West Riding of Yorkshire it was next to impossible this could exist without the establishment of a a separate assize.


said, he consi- dered the question now before the House was not whether the recommendations of the Commissioners should be implicitly adopted, but whether an inquiry with a view to certain alterations in the present system should be granted or not. With respect to this, he thought that the reasoning of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Walpole) was entitled to great weight. It was highly inexpedient to have a Committee to inquire into facts which were sufficiently known already through the Report of the Commission. Many memorials were presented to that Commission and to the claims of the memorialists the closest attention was paid, and a variety of important recommendations made regarding them. They expressed an unanimous opinion that it was inexpedient to have three assizes uniformly throughout the country, but recommended that a third assize should be held for criminal business in cases where a gaol delivery might be advisable during winter, and they also recommended that in Yorkshire and Lancashire a third assize for civil business should be established; and, in consequence of that recommendation, he believed that assizes had been held in some twenty counties during the course of last winter. He did not understand the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary to say that the Government would consider itself bound by the recommendations of the Commission though he considered these were entitled to the highest respect and ought to be carried out in so far as that could be done. He thought, under all the circumstances, that there was no necessity for the inquiry proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Wexford.


said, he hoped the Select Committee would not he granted. As far as regarded Yorkshire, the county with which he was connected, he could fairly say that the distances which witnesses had to travel to and from the assize town was a matter of very small importance in these railway days; and it was scarcely necessary for him to state that not a single witness need sleep at York. In addition to that he did not think that any town in the West Riding was at present prepared to supply the necessary accommodation to the Judges, barristers, and witnesses, and all those who attended the assizes.


said, that, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Colonel Smyth) had the honour of representing the City of York, there was no great difficulty in understanding why he objected to the Motion before the House; but he was surprised that the hon. and gallant Gentleman did not see that a great case was made out with regard to the town of Wakefield and its neighbourhood. He (Mr. Bright) had received a letter that very morning from a magistrate at Wakefield, independently of a document forwarded to him in common with every other hon. Gentleman in that House, setting forth in a forcible manner the claims of the West Riding to have a third assize. Now, it would appear that the country was perfectly well satisfied with the experiment which had been tried with reference to Lancashire, and they were about to extend it. Well, then, if Manchester had made out a case for itself, was not the claim of the West Riding much stronger? He (Mr. Bright) was not competent to say which was the best town in the West Riding, although no doubt Wakefield was the capital of the Riding, and probably would be chosen when any change came to be effected. At present, a poor man committed to take his trial at the assizes—and poor men formed the bulk of persons charged with crime in our courts of law—was sometimes obliged to bring his witnesses from one end of the county to the other, and it therefore stood to reason that his chances of acquittal were fewer than they would otherwise be. This threw great difficulties in the way of a man proving his innocence, and was one of the greatest hardships to which the citizens of any country could be subject. In his opinion there was no necessity for a Committee, because the facts of the case were patent. The change which had worked so advantageously in Lancashire the people of the West Riding must necessarily acquire, and he thought they had an absolute right to ask the Government to make it for them. The only result of a Committee would be to produce a vast blue-book without making the case a bit stronger than at present, and he would therefore ask the hon. and learned Gentleman not to press his Motion to a division, but rather let the inhabitants of a district, where a necessity for a change in the periods of holding the assizes was felt, bring their claim before the Home Office, and, if necessary, before Parliament.


said, that as the representative of the borough of Wakefield, he begged to express his thanks to the hon. and learned Member who had brought this question forward. There would be great convenience in selecting the town of Wakefield for the assizes of the West Riding. Lancashire had two assize towns already, and was about to have a third. The principle had also been acknowledged by the Government in the Probate and Registration of Wills Act. A court was held at Wakefield under this Act, which had been the greatest been ever granted to the inhabitants of the West Riding. He hoped that the Government would bring forward some measure for the more easy and convenient administration of justice in counties.


did not wish to prolong the debate, but the House would not fail to observe that, while the Motion of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wexford related to the administration of justice in England and Wales, the question had been debated almost exclusively in relation to the West Riding of Yorkshire. The noble Lord (Viscount Goderich) might rest assured that when the Report of the Commission came under the consideration of the Government, due regard would be paid to the claims and interests of the West Riding. He doubted whether any evidence could be delivered before the Select Committee which would not be found in the Report and appendix of the Commission. A question had been raised whether the county of York should not be taken from the Northern Circuit and thrown into the Midland Circuit, so as to necessitate a redistribution of the counties composing the present circuits. He wished also to remind the House that, with regard to the only two counties in England that had been mentioned in the debate, the Report of the Commission recommended that provision should be made at the winter assizes for the administration of justice in civil as well as criminal causes. No one had suggested any inconvenience in any other county in England except York and Lancaster, and they had been provided for by the Report of the Commission.


said, he was anxious to see a third assize established all over the country for criminal business; and in proof of this, he called the attention of the House to the hardship of the case of those prisoners who, committed in the month of August, might have to remain in prison six months waiting for trial in consequence of the present system. He looked upon the administration of justice by assize courts as one of the last relics of barbarism, and thought we were approaching the time when we should see a far greater extension of the system of local courts. Those who had any experience in assize courts would be able to tell the House how the arrangements were made and what were their consequences. The Commission days for the various towns were struck in London, and if at any particular place a heavy case came on for trial, it was either made a remanet or else it deranged the whole business of circuit. In consequence of the present system, many causes were hurriedly tried, while in others suitors were put to enormous expense in having to conduct their cases before a referee—generally some barrister who had no practice, and who was inferior in experience to the County Court Judges. He believed that the House must look to a further development of the system of County Courts, and that the remedy must go a great deal deeper than his hon. and learned Friend had contemplated in his Motion.


observed, that although a great deal had been said about Wakefield, he would maintain that Leeds ought to be the town selected for the assizes of the West Riding. It was more convenient, and its population alone entitled it to the preference, while it had other claims to be selected.


said, that although he did not approve the system upon which assizes were at present conducted, he could not support the proposal of the hon. and learned Gentleman for the appointment of a Select Committee. The Report to which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) had referred contained all the information which was necessary for the formation of a correct judgment on this subject. He conceived, however, that the matter was one which could not be determined by such an inquiry, but that it was purely a question of practical administration which ought to be decided by the executive Government. He concurred with his hon. and learned Friend below him (Mr. Bowyer) in the belief that the prompt administration of justice would be greatly promoted by the development of those local tribunals which had been recently established.


observed, that he entirely concurred in the reasons of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department for declining to assent to the appointment of the proposed Committee. They had already abundant information before the House. The Report which had been referred to contained the evidence of law officers of all descriptions, such as clerks of the Crown, clerks of assize, and other persons who were familiar with assize business, and it appeared from their statements that the expediency of establishing additional assizes should be dependent upon the general convenience of the inhabitants of the districts, and the cost with which such arrangements would be attended. It seemed that in one circuit there were five large and important assize towns, in which the average number of causes tried was not more than five or six at each assize. He therefore thought that there were but few places where additional as sizes were needed, and that the establishment of even these should depend upon special requirements, which might, from time to time, arise. The Committee would multiply expenses, and would prove, he believed, entirely useless.


expressed his general concurrence in the views of the noble Member for the West Riding, and hoped the Secretary of State for the Home Department would give this subject his serious consideration. He could state that in Yorkshire great annoyance, dissatisfaction, and expense, were occasioned by the circumstance that witnesses and attorneys were compelled to resort to the assizes at York from the remotest districts of that extensive county. The hon. Member for York had alluded, and very properly, to the great advantage derived by the public from the facilities afforded by railway trains, in which he quite concurred; but against that, he omitted to mention that a taxing officer was now appointed by Government, and that the costs allowed by him to witnesses, attorneys, and counsel, are reduced to so low a scale as to he utterly inadequate to cover inevitable expenses, and as a natural result, more especially in criminal cases, no encouragement being held out to the police and parties aggrieved to do their duty, the ends of justice were not unfrequently entirety defeated.


remarked, that he was convinced that, under the present system, the assize business was frequently conducted in a very hurried and unsatisfactory manner.


observed, that one part of the Report of the Commission was against much of the evidence, and he would, on a proper occasion, be prepared to prove that such was the case. He agreed in the principle that it was desirable to extend the administration of justice according to the population, but in the Report it was proposed to give additional facilities at the expense of the Principality of Wales, which would be unjust and a very great hardship upon Wales.

MR. M'MAHON, in reply, expressed his belief that it was the opinion of all hon. Gentlemen who had studied the evidence that there ought to be three assizes within the year, and also a division of counties for the better administration of justice; but the Report of the Commissioners was altogether at variance with the information contained in the blue-book. The Law Society had expressed their decided opinion that there ought to be three assizes in the year, and that opinion was shared by all the solicitors who had been examined before the Commission.

Question,— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the expediency of further improving the Administration of Justice, by increasing the number of Assizes and Assize Towns for Civil and Criminal business in the several counties of England and Wales,

Put and negatived.