HC Deb 15 March 1861 vol 161 cc2075-8

CAIRNS said, he rose to ask a question relative to the intentions of Government with reference to the money of suitors in the Court of Chancery. The House might not be aware that the funds in the custody of that Court amounted to no less a sum than £2,000,000, in which a vast number of individuals were interested. A few evenings ago his right hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) asked for information respecting a Royal Commission which had been issued to inquire into the custody and management of the funds in the Court of Chancery, and he stated that considerable surprise and even alarm had been felt in consequence of the issuing of that Commission. He did not think the alarm felt was much dispelled when the Chancellor of the Exchequer declared himself sponsor for that Commission—not from any reason personal to him, but from the circumstance that almost all Chancellors of the Exchequer for many years past had looked with rather longing eyes after, at least, a portion of those funds. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) gave two reasons for the issuing of the Commission. The first was that a Committee of that House had inquired into the subject of fees in all the courts of justices, and that the recommendations of that Committee not having been followed out, it was necessary to have a Commission to examine into the nature of those recommendations. Now he was aware of only one recommendation of the Committee that had not been carried into effect. The Committee found that there was in the Accountant General's Office, when a large amount of stock was sold, and at the same time another quantity of stock purchased, a habit of making a charge on both. The Committee recommended that the difference only between the purchase and the sale should be operated upon. That recommendation had not been complied with; why, he did not know, but surely it could not be necessary to issue a Commission on such a subject. The next reason given by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Commission being issued was that a Commission on the Consolidation of the Courts of Justice had recommended that the Suitors' Fee Fund, amounting to £1,400,000, should be dealt with in connection with the building of the new courts. That reason he regarded as more extraordinary than the other, as the Commission to which the right hon. Gentleman referred had supplied them with every information that could be desired. Those reasons, then, were not considered satisfactory, and had increased the alarm already felt by the suitors. But the composition of the Commission was even a greater source of surprise. The Commission consisted of seven or eight Members. The first name which he would mention was that of Lord Kings-down, in whose nomination all would agree, as his presence upon the Commission would insure a vast amount of learning and experience. The next two Members of the Commission were the Lord Privy Seal and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Sir George Grey). The present was the first occasion upon a question of reform in the Court of Chancery when it was proposed to grace a Commission by the presence of two Cabinet Ministers; but he and the public also were less impressed with a sense of the honour than with a sense of alarm at the presence of such distinguished personages upon a Commission to inquire into the manage of a Ministerial office of the Court of Chancery. If the Government had any scheme of future action in relation to this matter, it was sufficient to say that the views of the two Cabinet Ministers upon the Commission would be to carry into effect the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The next Member of the Commission was to be the hon. Member for London (Mr. Crawford), who upon questions of banking and commerce was a high authority, but that hon. Gentleman was a staunch supporter of Her Majesty's Government, and could not be supposed to be free from the same kind of considerations which he had suggested in the case of the two Cabinet Ministers. Then there was a clerk in the Treasury-—a gentleman, no doubt, of great skill and experience in that department, but who had nothing to do with the management of the Accountant General's Office and the funds of the suitors of the Court of Chancery. This was the first time at which it had been proposed by any means to establish a connection between the Treasury and the funds of the Chancery suitors, and was a subject of alarm to the public. The remaining Members of the Commission were two solicitors,—one, Mr. Cookson, a gentleman of high honour and great experience, but a strong advocate of the plan of the Commissioners for concentrating the courts, and the appropriation for that purpose of the funds which, hitherto, had been considered as the funds of the suitors in Chancery. The last gentleman was Mr. Field, a solicitor of large business, who was examined before the Commission, and whose views, therefore, were known. That gentleman was of opinion that the office of the Accountant General was perfectly useless, and that the whole staff of clerks should be sent over to the Bank of England. He also expressed an opinion that the fee paying question should be taken out of legal hands and intrusted to a department of justice or to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which would deal with it in a practical and commercial spirit rather than upon legal or theoretical considerations, the legal and theoretical considerations being that the money was the property of the suitors alone. Mr. Field also thought it would be well to call the attention of the Commissioners to the provisions of the Savings' Banks Bill which had been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer^ in which he proposed to take the funds of those institutions upon a State guarantee of 3 per cent. Thus Mr. Field was an advocate for the Chancellor of the Exchequer being allowed to deal with these funds. But the question was not so much who were upon the Commission as who were not upon it. It was the first time when a Commission had been appointed to inquire into the Court of Chancery that there were not placed upon it some of those who were most experienced in the working of the Court, and responsible for its action—the Judges in Chancery. A reason for their exclusion did present itself, which he would mention in order that it might be contradicted if it were not the true reason. Upon the former Commission several of the Chancery Judges, the Master of the bells, Lord Justice Turner, Vice Chancellors Wood and Stuart were examined, and they all thought it was a most grave and serious matter to deal in any way with the funds of the Court of Chancery, except for the benefit of the suitors, and that it was a question deserving great consideration, and in their minds one involving much doubt whether it was a legitimate course for the Chancellor of the Exchequer or any one to take the money which had always been regarded as the sole property of the suitors. All circumstances seemed to argue that the Commission was intended to carry out and establish a foregone conclusion at which the Government had arrived, and in some way to connect the Treasury with the funds of the Court of Chancery. He had heard a rumour that it was the intention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to propose that some new stock should be created, to be called Chancery stock, and that the funds of the suitors in Chancery should be required to be invested in that stock at a fixed rate of interest. He did not know whether there was any ground for that rumour, but he must say that he could conceive nothing more at variance with the legislation of the last few years than any such scheme. By an Act passed last Session suitors were enabled to invest their funds in other securities than Consols, such as Bank Stock and India Stock. If, in the face of such legislation, giving suitors an option of investment, Parliament were now to pass a compulsory measure restricting the investment to one particular stock, that would indeed be going backwards. He should be glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that no such scheme was in contemplation. He desired to ask what were the specific purposes which the Commission was intended to work out; next, at what time the Commission would commence its sittings; and lastly, whether the Government would object to do that which had hitherto been an invariable practice, and to advise Her Majesty to add to the Commission other names, and especially those of some of the Judges of the Court of Chancery, who might be able and willing to give them assistance.