HC Deb 04 June 1869 vol 196 cc1244-54

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the revision of the Statute? Law (with a view to the preparation of an edition of the Statute Law comprising only enactments now in force) under the following Acts, namely:—26 & 27 Vict., c. 125 (1863); 30 & 31 Vict., c. 59 (1867); and 24 & 25 Vict., c. 101 (1861); and to inquire of the First Lord of the Treasury whether the revision is considered to be completed to 16 & 17 Vict.; whether it is intended to revise and repeal useless enactments subsequent to the 16 & 17 Vict., to the current year during the present Session; whether, in either of such cases, the publication of the revised edition of the law is in course of being prepared for public use, and when it will be ready for publication; and whether it will be purchasable in a complete set of volumes or in separate volumes, and purchasable from time to time as each volume was published. We were as much removed now from having a plain intelligible code of statutes as we were thirty-six years ago. In France the Code Napoleon could be had for 7½d, and in New York the whole code of American laws could be had for a small sum; but the statute book of this country comprised forty-six quarto volumes closely printed, and averaging something like 800 to 1,000 pages each. They occupied three shelves of his library, and cost him, as nearly as he could estimate, £130. It was in a chaos like that that the laws of England were to be found, and when you wanted a statute it was very like seeking for a needle in a haystack. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury might not say that the uncertainty of the law was a good thing for the profession; but that was not the opinion of the profession. There was no class of men who had done more to amend and revise the law, and he was satisfied—putting aside a sense of honour—that their own professional advancement would be promoted by its simplification. Under these circumstances he would say—Let us begin over again. The old Law Commissioners were altogether worthless, and he wished he could say that he himself had received that assistance from the Law Officers of the present Government to which he was entitled. On March 18th he put a Question to the Government, and the inaccuracy of the reply was evident. The hon. and learned Attorney General had shown no knowledge of the subject, nor had he taken any pains about it; for he thought the revision had extended, not to the present time, but to something like the 10 George III.—that is, 1770, or nearly 100 years ago; while, in fact, it extended to 17 Viet. Let us have no more to do with these Commissioners, but come to a new state of things. Other countries had revised their laws in a few years; the revision of our statute book had taken thirty-six years, and had cost £80,000, which might as well have been thrown into the river. In 1833 a Royal Commission was issued for inquiry into the Statute Law, with the view of reducing the bulk. That produced nothing, but it left a mark on the revenue of the country. It became necessary to have a second Commission in 1845. Nothing was done by that body, but it cost the country £12,557. Further action was taken on the subject in 1851, in 1861, in 1863, and in 1867, the object being to relieve the statute book of obsolete laws. Instead of forty-six volumes, he was confident that not more than one-eighth of the number would be actually necessary. Private efforts had been made in this direction; an arrangement of leading statutes in two volumes, with notes for the use of the legal profession, had been made by the late Sir William David Evans; and the late Mr. Chitty had also brought out the statutes in a revised shape, with notes. Chitty's work, he believed, had superseded Evans's. One of the two gentlemen who had lately been engaged on the work of revision had been discharged, as they had been informed, by a Treasury Minute; and, therefore, there was only one who was now engaged on it, at a salary of £1,000 a year, and with a secretary. What was that gentleman doing? Did the right hon. Gentleman expect that that gentleman would revise the statute book and enable it to be given to the public at a cheap rate? He (Mr. Hadfield) would regard the £80,000, and the thirty-six years that had been spent on the revision, as nothing if the working man and the public generally could be furnished with the statute book at a cheap rate. The purchase of the statutes was no small achievement to a young man upon entering on his professional career; and, therefore, barristers and attorneys, as well as the public, were interested in having the law codified. The present state of things tended to the infliction of injury even upon persons who acted under legal advice. He knew of three persons so situated, who believing that they were acting in accordance with law, found themselves subjected to four months' imprisonment. Till he got information on the subject from his hon. Friend the Member for Surrey (Mr. Locke King) be had had no idea that the work for which £80,000 had been expended was done so slovenly. A gentleman proposed to satisfy the country if they would allow him to revise the statute book, but he was dismissed and treated with ignominy. The policy of the Commissioners seemed to have been to occasion as much delay as possible. They received £1,000 a year, and their principal work seemed to be to sign receipts for their salaries. That system must be put an end to. No blame attached to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government. Many Governments had had to do with this matter but nothing satisfactory had been accomplished.


, in seconding the Resolution, said, that having on so many former occasions gone into that question, he would now only remind the House that the state of our law was most disgraceful. The unwritten law was scattered over he did not know how many volumes of reports, and the written law was scattered over he did not, know how many thousand statutes. Those statutes used to occupy forty ponderous volumes, but he believed the number was now more than fifty. In 1838 a Commission was appointed, consisting of men who were anxious to obtain salaries, but by no means anxious to do any work, and who went on for fifteen or sixteen years without producing a single result. At last the Commission—which was a great job —dwindled down to one Commissioner—a notorious individual, who took a good deal of killing. He believed that he (Mr. Locke King) was at him for seven years before He could quite be got rid of. This one individual, with his secretary, professed to do something but did nothing. Then those who took an interest in the matter were fed with new promises, and a Lord Chancellor made a grand speech on that subject winding up with a promise that he would give them a "Code Victoria"; but everybody know that nothing would be done. Mr. Anstey and Mr. Rogers wore employed, and actually set to work and prepared an expurgatory list, which he himself extorted from the Commission, as the groundwork of anything else which might afterwards he done. But Mr. Anstey and Mr. Rogers were dismissed, really because they did too much, and because if they continued their labours at the same speed the Commission would not last, and the notorious individual to whom he had referred would have lost his place. Nothing having resulted from the great expenditure mentioned by the hon. Member (Mr. Hadfield), the only course now open was to begin de novo. When Lord Bacon made his memorable complaint about the state of the Statute Law in the reign of James I., the Statute Law was comprised in one large folio volume, the average number of public and general statutes then passed being six per annum; whereas they now passed about 100 such Acts every year. The statute book should be expurgated of all useless matter and re-printed in a condensed form. By that process the fifty volumes would probably be reduced to ten; and then they might eliminate all the parts of statutes which had been repealed. In that way they would get a consolidation of the law, and after that they might proceed to do that which had been done in France. It was no Radical proposition that it should be done in England for Lord Lyndhurst had advocated it. The French code was published every year for 75 centimes. What he desired to see effected here had also been effected in America, at a small cost, and in the short space of two years. He had no desire to press that question at the present moment on the Government, who had enough in hand. But he wished to obtain from the First Minister of the Crown an assurance that the ground would be cleared in that matter by getting rid of the incumbrance of men who were professing to do something, and yet really did nothing; and that the work of consolidating the law would be vigorously pursued in the course of next autumn. They had now a Lord Chancellor whom they knew to be sincere, and they had also a most diligent Law Officer of the Crown sitting in that House. The cost of the work, which would be nothing like the sum of £80,000, which had already been thrown away, would not be grudged, and the people of England would have, as they were entitled to have, the law of their country in their hands.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the of the Question, in order to add the words "the Royal Commissions (1833 and 1845), and other measures for the revision of the Statute Law, having occasioned an expenditure of £80,619 5s. 1d., and the results being unsatisfactory, it is, in the opinion of this House, expedient to discontinue the present course of proceeding, and the expenditure consequent thereon,"—(Mr. Hadfield.) —instead thereof.


said, he was afraid he would not be able to answer his hon. Friend (Mr. Hadfield) as satisfactorily as might have been the case if he had been more fully aware of the gist of the proceeding which his hon. Friend intended to take. Having had no other knowledge of it than could be derived from the Questions on the Paper, he had concluded that his hon. Friend aimed at nothing more than eliciting from him a short account of what was now in course of proceeding, and that there for the present the matter would drop; but his hon. Friend had moved a Resolution which involved a further subject—namely, whether they should break in upon the process now going forward, and substitute some new process. He was, therefore, hardly in a position to give either of his two hon. Friends who had last spoken the positive assurance for which they asked, that a new method of proceeding would be adopted, in as much as the Members of the Government more competent than himself to form an opinion, and especially the Lord Chancellor had not had an opportunity of considering the subject. He was much less competent than either of his two hon. Friends to judge of the proportion which did obtain, and which ought to have obtained, between the very large expenditure returned to Parliament in connection with a revised edition of the statutes and the results already attained, But while he was not competent to pass a judgment or a censure upon anybody, he yet shared to a great extent in the regrets which both his hon. Friends had expressed on finding that a sum of over £80,000 had been expended, not upon the higher process of codifying the law, but upon a series of attempts to produce simply a revised edition of the statutes, and that still they were not in possession of that edition. He would explain as well as he could the present state of the operations and the expenditure; and it would then be for his hon. Friend to consider whether he would call for further information in a more strictly official shape, and whether he would now press upon the House any positive proposal for altering the mode of proceeding. As no notice had been given of the Resolution, he might assume that his hon. Friend would not now require the Government to give a definite judgment upon it. The present state of the pro- ceedings and expenditure he could best describe by referring to a letter addressed by Lord Cairns, as Lord Chancellor, on the 9th of July, 1868, to Sir John Shaw Lefevre. That letter, he believed, had not yet been presented to Parliament, but there would be no objection to lay it upon the table of the House. In that letter Lord Cairns stated that, with the concurrence of the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, he had determined that an edition of the statutes should now be prepared and published, "containing, as far as may be, only such Acts as are now in force." His Lordship then proposed to nominate a Committee for making the necessary arrangements—and he might here remark that there were not now in existence any Commissioners for the expurgation or revision of the statutes. Well, Lord Cairns proposed the nomination of the Members of the Committee, and the choice certainly appeared to have been made with very great discretion. After requesting Sir John Shaw Lefevre to act on the Committee, Lord Cairns said— I desire to associate with you the following gentlemen—namely, Sir Thomas Erskine May, K.C.B., Clerk Assistant of the House of Commons; Mr. Richards, Mr. Speaker's Counsel; Mr. Thring, the Parliamentary Counsel to the Home Office; and Mr. Reilly, who was for some time engaged in the work of Statute Law revision. He believed that none of these gentlemen received any remuneration for the labour they gave in connection with this work. Lord Cairns added— Mr. Arthur John Wood, who has been engaged in that work from its commencement to the present time, will be the editor, subject to the superintendence of the Committee. Mr. Wood was a paid officer, and the Treasury were in communication with him, with a view to fixing the period over which the work was to extend. That was the state of the case at present as far as expenditure was concerned. With regard to the progress which had been made, his hon. Friend had first asked whether the revision was considered to be completed to the 16 & 17 Vict. The answer to that was that the Act of 1861 covered the period from the 11 Geo. III. to the 10 & 17 Vict; and that the revision for that period could not be said to be absolutely completed, and for this reason—Further experience had shown that the process of revision by express repeal might be beneficially extended to some classes of useless statutes. as, for example, expired Acts. But with the exception of those the revision was complete as regards the period ending in 1861. With regard to the second Question, whether it was intended to revise and repeal useless enactments subsequent to the 16 & 17 Vict, to the current year during the present. Session, the reply was that a Bill was in an advanced state of preparation for the completion of the revision front the close of the period embraced in the Act of 1861 down to the present time. But it was not contemplated that that Bill should he passed in the present Session, inasmuch as the exertions of these gentlemen were still engaged on the revision of the earlier period before 1861. The question of the preparation and publication of the revised edition of the statutes, with the requsite notes, was under the consideration of the Treasury, and the edition, he could not doubt, would be published, but the publication of an edition of the statutes with a large number of copies distributed gratuitously involved considerable expense as well as considerable labour, and the Treasury had not yet entirely come to an agreement with the Committee as to the form and the cost, which they, of course, desired to keep within moderate bounds. The first volume might probably, he understood, be published in the course of this year, as a part of it had been already sent to press. In reply to the hon. Gentleman's fourth question, he would state that the volumes would undoubtedly be purchasable separately as published. There were two other works which it was considered would be very useful, and which were in preparation along with the expurgated edition of the statutes. The first was a chronological table describing the statutes of the earlier period, with a column showing whether they had been repealed, and. if so, by what Act. The second work was an index to all statutes now in force, digested under alphabetical heads. These two works, though not comprised within the strict definition of the edition, would yet be of great utility, and both of them brought down to the present day, would be ready for publication before next Session. Such was the position of this important question, as regarded the proceedings which were going on, the progress which had been made, and the expenditure which was now being incurred. If his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield) required further information, probably his best course would be to confer with his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Ayrton) as to the best form in which it could be laid before the House. The hon. Gentleman would then be in a position to consider whether he should ask the House to come to a positive vote on the subject. At all events he hoped the hon. Gentleman would not on the present occasion ask the House to divide on his Resolution.


said, he thought the House ought to receive a more positive assurance that some responsible Minister would undertake to ascertain from time to time what progress was being made, and to report to Parliament at the commencement of every Session what had been done during the previous year, otherwise we might find ourselves in the same position thirty years hence. The delay was owing to the fact that the men appointed to do the work were generally barristers having a large practice, and in attending to the daily business of their profession they neglected the work of revision. He did not think that absolutely nothing had been done; but still he was of opinion that what had been done was nothing in comparison with the time and expense which had been bestowed on the undertaking. A codification of the whole of our law was required, as well as a consolidation of the statutes of the realm. Lord Westbury, some years ago, proposed a comprehensive scheme on this subject, but nothing was done in the matter.


said, he could assure his hon. Friend behind him (Mr. Hadfield) that the Government approached the subject fully alive to the importance of the views to which he had given expression. "When this proposal was brought under the consideration of the Treasury, the first thing they had to inquire into was the prospect of completing the work on which Lord Cairns directed the Committee to embark, and the Treasury determined that the work should not be undertaken until a clear arrangement had been arrived at to insure the publication of an expurgated edition of the statutes within some definite period. The attention both of the Committee and the Treasury had been directed to the subject with the view of coming to a positive understanding on the point, and as soon as it was known precisely what an expurgated edition of the statutes would cost, and when it would be delivered to the public, and not before, the work would be undertaken. The Treasury, he could assure the House, would very carefully watch over the proceedings of the Committee to see that they adhered to the arrangement when it had been made. The Treasury had been warned by the enormous sums that had been wasted in such attempts, and would, as far as possible, enter into a definite contract to complete the whole operation, which, if his non Friend desired it, might be laid on the table of the House. If the undertaking were embarked in on a great scale the result would be that the Committee, in seeking to do too much, would be likely to effect nothing, and for that reason the labours of the Committee had been limited. The codification of the whole of the statutes was a work which it would take years to accomplish without a considerable number of persons were employed upon it. The next effort would be consolidation, but as that re-opened many difficult questions, it also required much time. The least difficult course was expurgation, which required less time and expense, and could be readily carried out, and the best course to pursue was, he thought, in the first instance to adopt a scheme which was practicable, and afterwards to go on improving in the way which might be deemed most desirable.


said, he wished to know whether it was proposed in this consolidation of the statutes to include those of Ireland, because it was a matter of considerable importance to that country, the present state of things being a real grievance. The statutes in force in Ireland were divided into four classes. The statutes passed in England before Poyning's Act—those passed in Ireland before the Union—those passed after the Union, which applied alone to Ireland, and those which applied both to England and Ireland. The statutes before Poyning's Act would of course be consolidated; but would the Irish ante and post Union Acts by dealt with by the Committee?


said, the only satisfactory statement which he had heard on this subject was that just made by the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government. He hoped that this expurgation, which had been dragging on for thirty-five years, would soon be completed.


, in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry (Mr. Serjeant Dowse), begged to state that this expurgation of the statutes would embrace all the Irish Acts passed since the Union, but not those passed before that time. The hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Hadfield) had accused him (the Attorney General) of having shown ignorance in asserting that the revision of the Statute Law had not been completed beyond the tenth year of George III. It was but too true that the revision was not complete beyond that date. Although an Act had been passed in 1861 purporting to carry the revision down to the 16 & 17 Vict., that Act had been found to be defective, and a Bill was now in preparation for completing the revision from the 10 Geo. III. to the present time.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 217; Noes 64: Majority 153.

Main Question proposed, "'That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."