HC Deb 14 March 1862 vol 165 cc1557-65

said, that in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to provide further accommodation for the Courts of Justice, he wished to premise that the measure was founded on the recommendations of the Commission which sat in 1860. He need not detain the House by dwelling on the insufficient accommodation at present provided for conducting legal proceedings in the Courts of the Metropolis. Any one who would look at Westminster Hall would see that the buildings adjacent were very unfit for the purposes for which they were originally intended. As the population, the wealth, and the commerce of the country increased, so had the accommodation diminished, and the buildings which formerly might have been adequate were now become inconvenient. The present Courts were built between the years 1820 and 1825, and though the architect, Sir John Soane, had displayed great ingenuity in putting to advantage the space at his disposal, and in placing each Court between the buttresses of Westminster Hall, yet there was not sufficient accommodation for the persons frequenting the spot. There was no waiting-room for the jury or witnesses, no library for the barristers, and, with the exception of two consultation-rooms, there was no place where the opposing parties could meet; and it occasionally happened that a barrister and solicitor were discussing their cause in one corner of a small room, and the adverse barrister and solicitor discussing the other side of the question in the same room. Then the single entrance was so narrow that the order and decorum of the Courts were often interfered with, and that tone of propriety which ought to prevail could not be maintained. The Probate Registries also, which were separate from the Court, were utterly insufficient for their present purposes, and the utmost inconvenience was often felt in consequence of the remoteness of the registry from the Courts. The buildings near Doctors' Commons oc- cupied by the Registrars were well fitted for temporary purposes, but would not be sufficient to hold the documents necessary to enable the increased business to be carried on. Then the Courts which were held in Lincoln's Inn were placed in buildings which were never intended for the purpose, two of the Vice Chancellors' Courts having been run up in a great hurry, and there were universal complaints that they were too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and exposed to many other inconveniences. The chambers in which the Vice Chancellors had to sit to hear parties might be well suited for barristers, but were utterly unfit for judicial business. From that brief survey of the manner in which the different Courts and offices were lodged, it would be seen that a considerable sum of money would be required, and that was the time to consider whether some comprehensive plan ought not to be adopted which should provide, not only for the pressing wants of the moment, but also afford means of future extension, and give those advantages which all the legal profession acknowledged would arise from concentration under one roof or in one neighbourhood of all the Courts. The matter was well considered by the Royal Commission, which reported in 1860; they gave very strong reasons for concentration, and recommended the site which the Bill on the table proposed to provide. That site lay between Carey Street on the north, the Strand on the south, Bell Yard on the east, and Clement's Inn on the west, and seemed to be the best that could be found for the purpose in the Metropolis. It was in what was called the legal district, being inhabited by barristers and solicitors, and being the place where the legal business was mostly carried on. The plan had another advantage, which was that the site proposed consisted of a series of courts, alleys, and small streets, which were in an unwholesome and discreditable condition, and which ought to be removed. There was no carriage thoroughfare through the whole site; the inhabitants consisted partly of persons who lived by the law, and partly of persons who lived by breaches of the law, and appeared oftener in the dock than as hangers-on of the Courts.

The Royal Commission, having unanimously recommended the site, then proceeded to show whence the funds for the purchase might be procured. It fortunately happened that there was vested in the Accountant General of the Court of Chancery a sum amounting to about £ 1,400,000, consisting of two separate investments of stock—one called the Surplus Interest Fund amounting to £ 1,290,000, and the other the Surplus Suitors' Fee Fund amounting to £ 200,000. The history of those two funds was somewhat complicated. They were the produce of investments made from time to time by the Accountant General, under orders of the Court of Chancery. It was the custom of the Court of Chancery to require that any money which was the subject of a suit should be paid into Court at the commencement of the case, to be kept ready for distribution to such of the parties as might prove they were entitled to it. There were many cases in which, from the smallness of the sum, the negligence of the parties, or other causes, no order was obtained for the investment of the cash, and it was therefore carried to the account of the general balance of cash held by the Accountant General, and he was simply bound to repay the amount if called for. Previously to the year 1725 it was customary for the Masters and ushers of. the Court of Chancery to invest the money for their own advantage; but some defalcations having taken place when the South Sea bubble burst, an Act of Parliament was passed having for its object to indemnify the suitors, and accordingly certain fees were levied on writs and processes for that purpose. The Act also provided that after all claims were paid the remainder should be reserved for the benefit of the public in such a way as Parliament might direct, and that was the commencement of the fund under consideration. About ten Acts were passed in succession, enabling the Accountant General to invest certain sums, and authorizing him to carry the proceeds to his general balance. Finally an Act was passed which empowered the Lord Chancellor to give orders for such investments in all cases. The result was that a sum of £ 1,290,000 had accumulated. The money might be said to belong to nobody. Former suitors were not entitled to it, it did not belong to suitors at the present moment, and the fund was, in fact, created by virtue of the Act of Parliament authorizing the Accountant General of the Court of Chancery to invest the money. There had been various occasions in the past and present century where, in compliance with Acts of Parliament and decrees of the Court of Chancery, sums had been paid out of the fund for purposes similar to the present. In Ireland, also, funds which had accrued from payments by suitors were employed in enlarging the Four Courts at Dublin; so that there were precedents for the course he proposed to take of appropriating the money to the erection of courts of law and justice. As the fund had originally proceeded from duties levied in the common law courts, no distinction between the propriety of its application to courts of law and courts of equity could well be maintained. The Suitor's Fee Fund had no claim upon it, because it resulted from the surplus of unappropriated fees. Both these funds occupied very much the same position as the reserve kept by a banker to meet any demands which might possibly, though by no means probably, be made. These two funds, now invested in Consols, if sold would realize about £ 1,400,000. But, as they at present formed a guarantee for certain charges, it would be necessary that the Consolidated Fund should be substituted for them. It was scarcely possible, at the same time, that any real liability would attach, because the Suitors' Fund could be called in only in the very improbable contingency of the Court of Chancery being wound up and the stock sold. The money, moreover, having been invested, on the average, at a price below eighty-six, it followed that a deficiency could only arise in case the whole of the fund had to be converted into money at less than that rate. The fact that the surplus interest fund had gone on accumulating for a number of years sufficiently showed that no apprehensions need be entertained on that score. The employment of those funds would necessitate the abstraction of the dividends at present received, which were carried to the Suitors' Fee Fund. From that fund £ 90,000 was paid in charges for pensions, salaries, and relieving allowances. As he proposed to diminish the fund by £ 35,000 a year, he had to consider how any detriment arising to the fund from that abstraction should be provided for. There was a charge upon the fund of £ 69,000 a year for compensation allowances, which would terminate with the lives of the existing parties.

An hon. MEMBER

here moved that the House be counted; but notice being taken that there were forty Members present,


said, he would not trouble the House with further details of a matter which seemed to be disagreeable to hon. Gentlemen opposite, and therefore it would be enough to state that the maximum charge which could be thrown on the public Exchequer would be £ 35,000, and it by no means followed that that sum would be thrown on the public taxation. The Exchequer during the last year had received from fees in the common law courts and Court of Probate no less a sum than £ 34,000.


said, he rose to order. He wished to ask whether the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman did not fall within the scope of the standing order which required that any Motion for public aid or charge upon the people should be brought in in Committee of the Whole House.


This, being money of the Court of Chancery, does not come under the description of public money. But if there be a guarantee on the part of the public—as I understand will be the case—the clause embodying such guarantee will have to pass through a Committee of the Whole House.


said, the objection of the hon. Gentleman would not prevail, because the monies which would be expended under the Bill would be voted by the House, and the guarantee would be added to the Bill in Committee. As he had said, there might be thrown upon the public a charge equivalent to the amount received from fees, but the result of the employment of the two funds—the Surplus Interest Fund and the Suitors' Fee Fund—in building these courts would lead to a great saving in the public Exchequer; for by capitalizing the rent saved, calculating the value of the sites of certain buildings now used for offices and courts of justice, and taking into account other expenditure which would be dispensed with, a total of probably £ 500,000 would go to the credit of the State. If it were found possible to do all that was required for concentrating the courts and legal offices and providing accommodation for the transaction of legal business, for the sum which the present Bill intended to appropriate, £ 1,400,000, there would be no further charge thrown on the State. It might be, that when Parliament came to vote the necessary money, it would be thought desirable to add an additional sum to carry the principle of concentra- tion further; but that would be a matter for future consideration, and was not embraced by the present proposition. There existed a large sum of money, which was not appropriated for any purpose, which belonged to nobody, and he believed that it could be employed in no better manner than in the way he proposed. It would not be correct to take the money and employ it for the purpose of relieving the general taxation of the country; but it was not wrong to follow the precedent already established, and to employ the fund for the object which he now explained; and the Commission of 1860 were of opinion that there was no way in which suitors could be so much benefited as by preserving them from the vexations and delays arising from the scattered position of these courts of justice. He would therefore conclude by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to supply means towards defraying the expenses of providing courts of justice and offices belonging to the same.


said, he was of opinion, notwithstanding the assertion of the right hon. Gentleman that the money belonged to nobody, that it belonged to the suitors in the Court of Chancery. Demands were being constantly made on these funds, and since the agitation upon this question of building law courts, fresh demands had been made on them last year. The Bill substantially laid upon the public funds a charge of £ 35,000, and therefore he trusted, when the clauses on the point were proposed, that the matter would be carefully considered in a fuller House than the present.


said, that if it was true that the fees of the Court of Chancery went into the Exchequer, this Bill would in effect take money out of the national funds. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer would give the House his opinion upon the subject. The fund it was proposed to employ had, he thought, accumulated mainly because of the protracted delays that used to take place in the Court of Chancery, leaving suitors to die before they could make out their claims.


said, if those hon. Members who were not able to make up their minds on this subject would read the evidence of the Commissioners for concentrating the Courts, which he had read from beginning to end half a dozen times, they would see clearly how this fund had arisen. The fund was formed, not from the money belonging to any particular suit, but from the profits which had been made out of the investment of the loose cash of the suitors, and which had accumulated for 120 or 130 years. It was of the nature of the profit which a banker made from investing the deposits of his customers. The subject was very intricate and complicated, and ought to be well considered.


observed, that the measure was one of such importance as to render it desirable that hon. Members should have their attention closely directed to its provisions, even in its earliest stages. The history of many great works undertaken by the public, and especially of the magnificent building in which they 'were housed, had not been satisfactory. Parliament had commenced that work with a somewhat inadequate consideration of the cost, and the impression made upon the community by the quadrupling and quintupling of the original Estimates was a feeling that the next time the outside cost of the works ought to be stated in the first instance. The proposal of his right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works, however, distinctly showed that in the view of the Government the concentration of our law courts was a scheme of practical improvement, which was worthy of being prosecuted, even at the hazard of a considerable public charge. That being 80, they found at their disposal in the Court of Chancery funds which, on every ground of public and private justice, they deemed to be applicable to the attainment of that object, and on the soundness of that view he had no doubt hon. Members generally would concur. So far as he had been able to form a judgment on the matter, it was pretty clear that the funds to which he referred would supply the greater portion of the expense of the undertaking in question; but it was, at the same time, evident from the computation which had been made by the Commissioners, that there was a margin which might render it necessary, first of all, that the public credit, and secondly the public purse, should be called into requisition. The precise extent to which that might be the case he was unable to predict; but the worst aspect of the question had been laid before the House, and hon. Members would have the fullest opportunity of ex- amining all its details for themselves. It was, at all events, but right to state that, according to the computation of the Commissioners, it was plain there would be a certain amount of public charge in connection with the proposed buildings, and that he believed that charge would be even greater than the amount at which they had fixed it; for there was one fund in particular, that which related to the proceeds of the fees of the common law courts, which was at the present moment part of the public property. It was quite plain, therefore, that the proposal of his right hon. Friend presented features which were well deserving of the careful consideration of the House; but for his own part he must say, that although he should be exceedingly reluctant to contemplate the imposition of any additional charge on the public, he felt the advantages of economy and despatch in the administration of justice, which would be likely to be brought about by the concentration of our courts of law, were so great that he had no hesitation in recommending the Bill under discussion to the approval of Parliament.


said, he felt bound, after the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, from which it was evident that the right hon. Gentleman contemplated that some portion of the expense of the proposed buildings would fall on the public, again to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Speaker) to know whether the First Commissioner of "Works had not failed to comply with the principle laid down in the Standing Order in not introducing his Bill in Committee of the whole House?


As far as I understand the matter, the Bill as presented to the House proposes to deal with the monies accruing from funds in the Court of Chancery. If anything is contained in the Bill itself which imposes a charge on the public, the suggestion of the hon. Member that it should have originated in a Committee of the whole House is perfectly well founded. I do not, however, understand that the Bill contains a provision of the sort; but if it should prove otherwise, then its introduction, save in Committee of the whole House, would be out of order.


asked, whether the present measure was the same as that of last year?


said, that the Bill en- acted that, when Parliament voted a sum of money for this purpose, the amount should be taken from the funds belonging to the Court of Chancery.

Leave given. Bill to supply means towards defraying the Expenses of providing Courts of Justice, and Offices belonging to the same, ordered to be brought in by Mr. COWPER, Mr. ATTORNEY GENERAL, and Mr. SOLICITOR GENERAL.