HC Deb 23 July 1866 vol 184 cc1326-32

in rising to call the attention of the House to a case of very great hardship which had lately come before the Roll's Court in Ireland, and which had excited considerable interest in that country, would remark that it was of the utmost importance that those who stood in the position of owners or agents of property in Ireland should administer that property in a just and equitable manner; for while good example on the part of individuals of influence and position would be always attended with beneficial results, the bad example of the same class would be attended with the worst possible consequences. Now, the parties who had given a flagrant example of injustice in the present instance were no less a body than the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who were the administrators of a considerable property, the annual income of which, after defraying necessary expenses, was devoted to the purpose of erecting and repairing churches. Amongst other property under their management and administration, were the estates belonging to the suppressed sees, of which that of Dromore, in the county Down, was one. From the case, as it came before the Master of the Rolls, in the form of a petition on the part of a Mr. M'Murray to compel the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to grant a renewal of his lease, the following facts were elicited:—In the year 1793 the then Bishop of Dromore made a lease of three acres of land to Moses Bodel, in pursuance of the provisions of an Irish statute, the main object of which was to promote the linen manufacture in Ireland. This lease con- tained a covenant for perpetual renewal. In 1815 Bodel made a sub-lease to a person named Scott, and in 1827 the interest in this sub-lease became vested in the father of the petitioner, who expended a considerable sum in building and in machinery. On the death of Mr. M'Murray, the elder, the petitioner succeeded to the property. In 1853 he received a fee-farm grant from the original lessee, under the lease of 1793, a rent of £15 11s. being reserved; and this rent was bequeathed by Bodel to a person named Burrowes. Mr. M'Murray was the tenant in possession, the assignee of the lease, and in fact the only one who had any interest in the land. The reserved rent of £15 1ls. was sold in the Court of Incumbered Estates during the last year, and was purchased by Mr. M'Murray for £510. The ordinary conveyance was made by the court to Mr. M'Murray, who then applied to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to grant him the renewal, according to the conditions in the lease of 1793. But, to his astonishment, the reply he received from the Commissioners was that his property was forfeited, inasmuch as renewal had not been taken out in compliance with a notice served, not on him, Mr. M'Murray, the tenant in possession, but on another person who had no interest in the estate. The Commissioners affected to know nothing of Mr. M'Murray, although he and his father had been on the property for nearly forty years; and they allowed him to purchase the interest of the lease in a public court, situate in the same city in which they transacted their business—almost within the shadow of their board-room—without affording him the slightest notice of the risk he was incurring. If the Commissioners should persist in their determination not to grant Mr. M'Murray a renewal of the lease on the faith of which a considerable amount of property had been expended, they would commit an act of the grossest injustice, by robbing a respectable man of the fruits of his and his father's industry. The case came before the Master of the Rolls on the 18th of June, when that upright and fearless Judge animadverted on it in the strongest possible manner, and expressed his extreme astonishment that the Commissioners, among whom were many eminent men, could consent to adopt so dishonest a defence as that pleaded against the just claim of the petitioner. He expressed his opinion that this was the work of the "paid officials," and not such men as the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, the Archbishop of Dublin, Mr. Guinness, Member for the city, and others; and he adjourned the case in the hope that he should hear no more of it—that the Commissioners, on having it thus brought to their notice, would renew the lease for the petitioner, and thus put an end to the scandal. But the Master of the Rolls did hear more of the case; for on the 2nd of July it was brought on again, and the Commissioners were represented by a strong bar, to defeat the claim of the petitioner. The Commissioners insisted on their "pound of flesh"—not because of any default on the part of M'Murray not because of non-payment of rent—not that any of the ordinary covenants had not been duly fulfilled; but because a certain formality had not been complied with by a person upon whom notice had been served two years before, but who had no interest whatever in the property. The Commissioners pleaded several things. They pleaded ignorance; they asserted that they had a right to do what they liked with their own; and they represented that they had a sacred trust to protect, for that all the money they had received was expended in the erection and repairs of churches. The Master of the Rolls refused to accept the plea of ignorance, and considered the alleged excuse as most disgraceful, inasmuch as it was their duty to ascertain all the particulars connected with the property which they administered. He denied that the property was theirs, or that they could do what they liked with it; and he begged to remind them of the aphorism of Mr. Drummond—that property had its duties as well as its rights. When they represented that it was their duty to manage the property in the best manner, with the end which they had in view—to erect and repair churches—the Master of the Rolls asked whether, because the money derived from the estates under their control was to be devoted to the erection of temples to God, they were, therefore, authorized to oppress and plunder the tenants? It was stated by counsel, and also in a document purporting to be a resolution of the body of Commissioners, but signed only by the Secretary, that if the petitioner failed in his application, and if the renewal of the lease were not enforced by an order of the Court, the Commissioners would take the case into their consideration, and deal with it on the principles which ought to regulate their dealings as landlords with their tenants. But the reply of the Master of the Rolls was most scornful and emphatic. He said, "I would as soon place a lamb under the care of a wolf as to trust the petitioner in this case to the tender mercy of persons who could act so badly towards him as these men have done." The Master refused to believe that the Commissioners, as a body, had really anything to do with what he characterized as so "iniquitous," a case, and he asked to see the book in which the minutes were inserted, so that he might learn the names of the Commissioners who had been present, and who consented to have so unjust a defence pleaded in their behalf. But that book was not produced in court, some shuffling excuse having been given for its non-production. The Master has now postponed his judgment to November, perhaps in the hope that the Commissioners would have the good sense to withdraw from a disreputable position, and perform a simple act of justice at last. The case had excited intense interest in Ireland, the people of which country loved justice and fair play, possibly all the more keenly because so little of either was usually accorded them. The wrong inflicted, or sought to be inflicted on an industrious and honourable man, was the more disgraceful from the position of the wrong-doers—not some miserable village usurer, who, having clutched a fragment of property in the Court of Incumbent Estates, exaggerated in his dealing with his unhappy tenants the worst vices of Irish landlordism—but men of high rank and repute, whose only duty was to carry out a religious purpose—the erection of temples to the honour and glory of God. And now there was a matter of importance which he desired to ascertain—namely, whether the proceedings taken by the Commissioners had been taken under the advice or with the sanction of the Law Officers of the Crown in Ireland? It was customary for public bodies to consult the Law Advisers of the Crown whenever they were about to take any important step; and surely in this case the Commissioners were about to take an important step, inasmuch as they were about to brave and defy public opinion in the country, and peril the honour and reputation of their body. The Law Officers were generally men of eminence in their profession, as, undoubtedly, the late Law Officers in Ireland were; and the advantage of consulting them was not only on account of their legal eminence, but because of their entire impartiality. They were not like the private counsel of a public body, who mutually saw with each other's eyes; but they were in a position to advise what was really for the honour and dignity of a public body to do. Had the Law Officers been consulted in the present instance, it is scarcely possible to believe that they would have rushed into court, and thus justly incurred the bitter and stinging rebuke of the Master of the Rolls, who, in this, as in all other cases of a similar kind, proved himself to be alike fearless and unsparing in his denunciations of wrong and oppression. For years that able and upright Judge had stood between the oppressor and the oppressed; and while he justly rebuked and punished the fraud of the humble wrong-doer, it was on the back of the great and the strong that he dealt with vigorous and evenomed lash. Some eight years since a case of aggravated injustice—that of "O'Fay v. Burke"—came before him in the Rolls; and his memorable remarks on that case were so forcible in their indignation, that he was mainly the cause of an attempt at legislation immediately after, with the view to bring about more equitable relations between landlord and tenant in Ireland. It was to be hoped that his indignant strictures in the case of "M'Murray v. the Ecclesiastical Commissioners" would be the means of bringing about a more wholesome relation between the classes on whose united energies mainly depended the progress and prosperity of Ireland. He (Mr. Maguire) had no personal knowledge whatever of the Master of the Rolls, nor had he ever had any communication with him; but he took that opportunity of expressing for him in his judicial capacity his respect, his gratitude, and his admiration. He would conclude by asking the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland—which he did officially and formally, though that noble Lord had nothing to do with the proceedings of the Commissioners, and who was not in office at the time, Whether his attention has been called to the proceedings in question, and to the observations of the Master of the Rolls thereon; and as the late Attorney General for Ireland was in his place, he would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he had been consulted in the case by the Commissioners; and if he had been consulted, would he have advised them to adopt the course which they had taken?


said, he had never heard of the case to which the hon. Member referred until he read the notice of the hon. Gentleman on the Notice Paper. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, as the House probably were aware, were in no degree under the control of the Government, and therefore it was not his duty to defend them or to express an opinion on the merits of the case. It would be especially improper for him to do so then, as the case was sub judice, the Master of the Rolls having reserved his judgment, he believed, until next November. With regard to the question of the hon. Gentleman, as to whether the proceeding of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were taken under the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown, he felt it his duty to read a letter which he had received from Dr. Gayer, the paid Ecclesiastical Commissioner, in reply to a communication from him (Lord Naas) in reference to this matter. Dr. Gayer stated that there was no law of custom binding the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to ask the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown in such matters. They had an experienced and able advising counsel. It was only in the event of a doubt arising in the mind of this learned counsel, that they consulted the Attorney or Solicitor General; but in this case no communication had been held with either of those Gentlemen. The suit against Mr. M'Murray was not yet decided.


I am anxious to disclaim any connection with the proceedings to which the hon. Member for Cork has referred. They were never advised or sanctioned by me, and I first became acquainted with them through the reports in the newspapers. The case had attracted a good deal of attention in Ireland; and so far as I can judge, the proceedings savour very much of the character given to them by the hon. Member for Cork. Without adverting to the legal question upon which the Master of the Rolls has reserved his judgment, I entirely concur in what fell from the learned Judge as to the impropriety of a public body endeavouring to avail themselves of a technical objection in order to confiscate the estate of a tenant. I beg to say that I think the Master of the Rolls is entitled to the thanks of the public for the bold and fearless manner in which he condemns every dishonest attempt to defeat the just rights of tenants by taking advantage of the present state of the law in Ireland. His observations in the case of "O'Fay v. Burke," to which the hon. Member for Cork had referred, had been the means of calling public attention to the Law of Landlord and Tenant in Ireland, and had led to a consideration of the best way of improving it. In my opinion, a Judge does not travel out of his proper province when he comments upon the facts brought before him, as his sense of justice and his conscience suggest to him.