§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. MONCKTON MILNES
, in moving the second reading of this measure, said 73 the object of its leading provision was to prevent more than 300 objections being heard in one day by any barrister appointed to revise the list of voters. In the large constituency of the West Riding of Yorkshire by the absence of such a limitation a very large number of persons to whom objections had been taken were summoned to attend, and, having been detained till a late hour, were frequently dismissed without any possibility of having their cases decided till a future day; by which means, unless they happened to be zealous politicians, they became disgusted and went away, the result being that claims which were often just and valid were struck off the roll. From the magnitude of the practical inconvenience which was thus experienced it had become necessary to establish some fixed rule on the subject; and he selected the limit of 300 in order that the proceedings of the Court might not be unduly restricted. If any assurance, however, were given that the subject would undergo the general supervision of Parliament, he would be willing to withdraw his Motion; but in the absence of such an undertaking he believed the effect of a Reform Bill, if carried, would only be to magnify a grievance, of the existence of which there could be no doubt, by increasing the number of those entitled to the franchise.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed—"That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ MR. EDWIN JAMES
said, he had no invidious feeling towards the hon. Gentleman who proposed the Bill, but with the enormous mass of important business before the House it was necessary to show the futility of this peculiar species of legislation. Some general review of the system of registration must shortly take place; that system had been originated by the first Reform Bill, and it was only natural to suppose that it would be dealt with in the measure now before the House by some provision introduced either by the Government or by some private Member. The present system it must be confessed was not satisfactory. The revising barristers, it was well known, complained that the duties of the registration, being intrusted to ignorant and insufficiently remunerated overseers, were often negligently and inefficiently performed. The Bill before them was drawn to meet a single evil, but if partial, and what he might term local 74 legislation were sanctioned on this question, there was no knowing to what extent the principle might be carried. An Act might be passed limiting the number of cases to be tried by a County Court Judge who had frequently 400 cases to get through on a single day; nay, they might even direct that a Judge at nisi prius should not have more than thirty or forty cases on his list. Grievances undoubtedly arose in practice from an excessive number of cases being set down, but it should be remembered that many were often governed by the decision in a single case; and the only proper safeguard lay in the appointment of competent and sensible officials to preside. He hoped the Motion would be withdrawn, but, in case it were persisted in, he should feel it his duty to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
SIR GEORGE LEWIS
It is a rule of law de minimis non curat lex, and I think it may be desirable that we should apply a similar rule to legislation. My hon. Friend makes this proposal from the best motives and with a desire to remedy an evil which has been brought peculiarly under his observation. But from any information which has reached me I am not aware that any general complaint is made respecting the mode in which the registration is conducted. With the exception of the 3rd clause, and of a provision that the name of the revising barrister shall be inserted in the notice, the Bill appears to be a verbatim reprint of a section of a former Act. Whether it is worth while to pass an Act of Parliament limiting revising barristers to the disposal of 300 cases a day it will be for the House to decide. My hon. Friend has not referred to any particular case in support of his argument, and I can only say that no complaint has reached me, nor am I aware that any communication has been addressed to Her Majesty's Government on the subject. If you are to legislate in this case why not in others? Why not pass an Act to limit the number of cases to be set down before County Court Judges or even those of the Superior Courts. But if you cannot trust Judges selected by authority to manage the business of their own courts, I contend 75 that the whole of our judicial system must be abandoned. It may happen that 500 persons will have claims dependant on a common principle, and, being put down for a particular day, one decision will govern the entire number. It is, I admit, desirable that the somewhat intricate legislation with regard to elections, beginning with the issue of the writ down to the withdrawal of the election petition, should be revised, or, at all events, consolidated; and Her Majesty's Government have had under their consideration a Bill for the consolidation of all these statutes. The subject, however, is one of great difficulty and delicacy; the law on the subject is diverse both in Scotland and in Ireland, and where interests of such great importance are concerned it is requisite to proceed with caution. I cannot, therefore, undertake to bring forward the measure at any particular time, but the Government recognize the necessity which exists for its being considered at an early day, and they have already taken steps with that object in view.
§ MR. BAINES
said, he had been a personal witness of the practical grievance to the electors of the West Riding which this Bill was intended to remedy. Several hundred persons whose votes were objected to were detained before the revising barrister till 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and refused on that ground to attend any more, and their votes were consequently lost. Revising barristers, instead of being paid, as formerly, for the time occupied in the revision, were now paid so much for the entire duty, by which means, as well as from the pressure of their private business, they were sometimes tempted to compress the time occupied by the revision as much as possible, and to perform each day more than an ordinary day's work.
§ MR. CLIVE
said, that speaking from his own experience as a revising barrister subsequently to the passing of the Reform Bill, it was formerly objected that too much 76 time was occupied in the revision. At that time the rate of payment was by the day; now, when the system had been altered, and barristers were paid by the job, it was said that they got through the work too quickly. There might be men in the profession who so far forgot themselves as to do that; but he did not know them. He believed the proposed limitation would be useless, and would interfere with the business of the Courts.
§ SIR FRANCIS GOLDSMID
observed, that he had heard many complaints of delays in disposing of cases in the borough registrations; persons were kept waiting three or four days in the registration courts.
§ MR. WALPOLE
said, he objected to the measure. It was true the machinery of registration required material amendment; but if they attempted to lay down such a rule as that proposed by the hon. Member for Pontefract, by fixing a certain number of cases to be heard as a maximum, and if they extended that principle to boroughs, they would find the machinery much more expensive and dilatory, and that it would come to a stand-still. His opinion was, the work was, upon the whole, at present well done. In some boroughs there were thousands of objections, a vast number of which were of a very frivolous nature, being based upon a misdescription of the household property and the like, and which broke down as soon as they came before an experienced barrister. Again, if they were to limit the number of cases to be set down to 300 in one day, the revising barrister would some days have done at twelve or one o'clock, whilst other days two or three cases might occupy him the entire day. He felt confident, therefore, that the present Bill would increase rather than mitigate the inconvenience which at present existed. The best mode of securing a good administration of the law was to take care that able men were appointed to carry it out, and then they might trust to the influence of public opinion to correct any inconvenience. He was glad the Government intended to take the subject into consideration. He thought, if they imposed any restriction, that proposal would not, at all events, answer the purpose. He hoped to see the Government take the whole subject in hand very soon.
§ MR. MONCKTON MILNES
said, he would consent to withdraw his Bill, but subject to the assurance that if, when the general measure was introduced, no such 77 provision was embodied in it, he should move the insertion of a clause.
§ Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.