HC Deb 25 June 1869 vol 197 cc572-82

[Progress 22nd June.]

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 5 (Saving of power of committal for small debts).


said, he rose to move to add to the clause words prohibiting County Court Judges from sending debtors to prison in respect of a sum not exceeding 20s. exclusive of costs. He found from a Return obtained by the hon. Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), in 1862, that there had been committals for twenty days for sums so small as 7d. Considering that every one of those committals cast upon the country a charge of 10s. and 1s. per day for the maintenance of the prisoner, it was proper that the House should interfere. In one case a person had actually been sent to prison six times in order to recover 7d. and he had thus put the country to the expense of £9. His attention was directed to this subject about ten years ago by the Governor of Stafford Gaol, who sent him a Return of the persons committed to that gaol by the County Court Judges between April, 1857, and April, 1859. They were 1,207 in number, and their maintenance cost the county 7s. per week for each prisoner, amounting in the aggregate to £1,412. Of these 1,207 prisoners fifty were committed for debts under 10s., 255 for debts under £1, and 326 for debts under £2. He might add that 140 of them had been committed at the instance of a tallyman, of which number twenty-five owed less than 10s., fifty-nine less than £1, forty-four less than £2, and twelve less than £3. The cost to the county in respect to these 140 prisoners was £136; and the same tallyman, he might remark, had got sixty-three County Court debtors committed to gaol in Worcestershire in the course of the same two years. It was monstrous that such a power should exist, and it was obviously unfair to throw upon the rate-payers the expense of maintaining prisoners of this class. It might, perhaps, be urged that working men themselves were in favour of imprisonment for very small debts; but if this were so they must surely have some ulterior object in view, and, indeed, he had been informed that the power of imprisonment for small debts aided very materially in supporting strikes, by enabling the trader to give credit with safety. By the old law a creditor, if he imprisoned a man, had to pay the cost of his maintenance. In Scotland there could be no imprisonment for a debt under £12; and in Prance one native could not imprison another for less than 300f., though he might imprison a foreigner for 150f.

Amendment proposed, At the end of the Clause, to add the words "Provided always, That the jurisdiction by this section given shall not be exercised in respect of a sum not exceeding twenty shillings, exclusive of costs."—(Mr. M'Mahon.)


said, he did not think that any consideration of strikes should influence the Committee in the discussion of this question. To adopt the Amendment would be to depart from a principle to which the House had already given its assent, when it decided that there should be no limit to the amount of the debt for which a man might render himself liable to imprisonment. Besides, if imprisonment for debts below 20s. were altogether abolished, the County Courts would no longer be the Poor Man's Court; as they had been so repeatedly called. Something was to be said on the ground of morals against a proposal which practically meant that a person might swindle with impunity up to 20s. If a man could pay and would not, he ought to be made to pay whether the sum was £5 or 5d.


said, as an extensive employer of labour, he entirely agreed with the Amendment, believing that its operation would not be likely to curtail the credit of the working classes; that the honest man would always be able to get credit, and that the facility of obtaining credit was frequently a disadvantage rather than a gain to the poor. He felt it, at all events, to be his duty to pro- test against men being imprisoned for such small sums as 20s., and he should like to see the amount fixed at £5, or £12, as in Scotland.


said, he would give his strongest support to the Amendment. It was a disgrace and a scandal that the rate-payers should be obliged to maintain these small debtors in prison for such trumpery sums. The whole question of imprisonment required to be considered on its merits. The great argument against its abolition was that it would put a stop to credit, and materially interfere with trade, but, as a manufacturer, he wished it would. Any honest man could get credit in a legitimate manner at any time, and it would be a great advantage to working men if the means for obtaining credit could be limited. The working men were inveigled into debt in order that the shopkeepers might have a hold on them for the continuance of their custom. To curtail credit by abolishing imprisonment for debt would be a great advantage to the working classes.


said, he thought the Bill should be called, not a Bill for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt, but a Bill for the Extension of Imprisonment for Debt. Retaining the power of imprisonment in the County Courts for debts under £50 the Bill became a Bill of Pains and Penalties against the working classes. He should certainly support the Amendment, because it seemed to him to contain at least the germ of justice to those classes. The mechanic with a good character would always be able to obtain legitimate credit; and it would be an advantage if credit were refused to the man whose character was not good. It often happened that the honest artizan was drawn into debt by the imprudence of his wife. He would not send to prison the man whose wife or daughter had obtained credit in his name. He thought the exemption should extend to £5.


said, he had always objected to exceptional legislation, and he thought that, as richer debtors had been subjected to the risk of imprisonment in these cases, the poor should be equally liable. No doubt the charge upon the rate-payers was something; but the case was the same as if a person was prosecuted for petty larceny. Such prosecutions were instituted for the protection of the public at large, and it was equally for the public benefit that if debtors refused to pay, having the means to pay, they should suffer punishment. He must remind hon. Members that, under the clause, the Judge could not imprison unless satisfied that the debtor had the means, and fraudulently refused to pay the debt.


said, the Committee had already decided in favour of retaining imprisonment for debt in the single case of a man being able to pay and contumaciously refusing to pay, and he regretted to hear from the hon. Baronet (Sir Henry Hoare) statements which showed that he was not acquainted with this Bill or with the subject. So far from this being a Bill of Pains and Penalties against the working classes, it actually limited the power of imprisonment which now existed, under certain circumstances, in the County Courts, and the same limitation would apply to the Superior Courts. He did not think the hon. Baronet was present when he explained this point. He should be glad, if he could do so, to abolish even this power of imprisonment, but public opinion was not ripe for such a measure. The sole question, however, now before the Committee was whether the rule already adopted should apply to small debts, and whether a hard and fast line should be drawn at £1. He submitted that no such distinction should be drawn, and that the same principle applied whether the debt was 19s. or £1 1s. He must, therefore, oppose the Amendment.


said, that having had communications with some of the leaders of the working classes here, he could say that they were not in favour of retaining this power of imprisonment. In its present form the Bill was a retrograde one. In Scotland there was no imprisonment for debts under £12; and the plea here that the imprisonment was not for debt but for contempt of Court was a transparent fiction, because it was impossible for County Court Judges, with the immense amount of work devolving on them, to inquire so minutely into cases as was necessary for a just decision. He would suggest that debtors under £2 should be exempted from imprisonment.


said, he also regretted the retrograde step which had been taken in this matter, because the fact was that rate-payers were really called on to pay in the support of these prisoners for the enforcement of a private contract. He asked the Attorney General most earnestly to consider the question. It seemed to be a hardship on the rate-payers that they should be called on to pay for the support of debtors in prison, because the creditors allowed them to get into debt for such small amounts.


said, he would beg to remind the Committee that no debtor could suffer under the clause except by the sentence of a Judge. Among the County Court Judges were to be found men of great ability and, it is fair to presume, of great humanity also. The County Court Judge connected with the Greenwich district, with whom he had conversed on this subject of imprisonment, considered that great injury would result to public morality unless some power was left in the hands of the County Court Judges to punish the men who were able to pay their debts, but who would not.


said, he should be glad to put an end to imprisonment for debt at once and for ever. It belonged to the dark ages. He did not, in the slightest degree, believe that the working men wished imprisonment for debt to be continued, in order that they might be able to get their small wants supplied. Credit depended more on character than on any power in the creditor of imprisoning his debtor, and most dealers were shrewd enough to know whom to trust amongst working men. He thought that the system of imprisonment was bad, because it fostered a false and pernicious system of credit— particularly at the West-end — credit which would never be given but for the existence of this power. He believed that there were a number of lawyers, not of the most respectable class, who got their living entirely by collecting debts which never ought to have been contracted. A tailor in a large way of business had some time since refused to sign a Petition against the abolition of imprisonment for debt, because he said it was high time something should be done to put an end to the present system of unsound credit. It had been justly said that a County Court Judge was not the best man to judge of a debtor's ability to pay; and, at all events, before he made an order of imprisonment, he should be satisfied that it was in the power of the debtor to discharge the debt. He believed, however, that the people were not quite prepared for the entire abolition of imprisonment for debt, and therefore he thought the next best thing would be to support the proposition of the Attorney General, and he hoped his hon. Friend (Mr. M'Mahon) would not divide the House against it.


said, there was some force in the argument that the rate-payers would have to bear the expense of enforcing small contracts.


said, that while the Amendment would not prevent decent men from getting legitimate credit, it would put a stop to the practice of giving undue credit to improvident workmen. He knew that the bulk of the convictions in Staffordshire were obtained by packmen against poor men, who suffered with their families from a system of reckless credit. A man in his own employ was summoned for a debt of 4s. contracted by his wife. To avoid losing 5s. wages he did not appear, and the result was that he was sent to prison, and he and his family lost many pounds which he would have earned. He hoped the Committee would adopt the Amendment.


said, that in consideration of the fact that general opinion was progressing in favour of total abolition of imprisonment for small debts, he thought it would be inexpedient to press the Amendment to a division.


said, he should support the Amendment; because he objected to the whole system of imprisonment for debt; and he feared the Judge would be unable to ascertain with certainty whether a man could or could not pay. If a small debtor had property, let it be seized; but to threaten him with imprisonment was most unwise, because if he paid to the order of the Court he would most likely do so by getting credit elsewhere, and thus let another tradesman in for it. He should like to know what became of all the orders that were issued. He believed that in most cases the result was that the parish had to keep the man's wife and family.


said, that his experience as president of a Small Debts Court was that three-fourths of the orders for payment, on pain of imprisonment, produced the money before the Court rose.


said, he desired to withdraw the Amendment, in deference to the opinion of the Attorney General, who, he believed, was working diligently to secure the end he had in view, and who, in due time, would doubtless take the initiative in the matter.

Question put, "That those words be there added."

The Committee divided: — Ayes 29; Noes 177: Majority 148.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6 to 11 inclusive, agreed to, with Amendments.

Clause (D) 12 (Penalty on fraudulently obtaining credit, &c).


objected to the clause as going beyond the scope of the Bill, and creating a new class of criminal offences incidentally in a measure which did not propose to deal with the Criminal Law generally. He particularly objected to sub-section 2 of the clause, which subjects any person to a penalty "If he has wilfully contracted any debt or liability without having had at the time a reasonable expectation of being able to discharge the same." Any thoughtless, but—it may still be—respectable young man who got in debt might, he contended, under such a provision as that, be arraigned before a magistrate at any moment on a criminal charge.


said, he proposed that sub-section 2 should be struck out. He did not concur, however, with the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Serjeant Simon) on the distinction which he sought to establish between bankrupts and those who were not bankrupts, so far as the fraudulent contraction of debt were concerned.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he wished to put a stop to the system of "kite-flying" by means of accommodation bills, which did not represent real transactions, and which had been strongly reprobated from the Bench. Thirty-two Chambers of Commerce in February unanimously resolved that any measure dealing with the relations between debtor and creditor ought to provide for the punishment of persons putting bills of this kind into circulation. He did not wish to put a stop to any bonâ fide transactions, but simply to check the practice— he was sorry to say, a growing one—of drawing and accepting bills which were really fictitious and fraudulent. He, therefore, proposed in clause 12, after line 31, to insert the following subsection:— If he has, within four months before his bankruptcy, put into circulation and used the proceeds of bills drawn or accepted by him, for which full value has not been received, and which bills, in the opinion of the jury, are fictitious or accommodation bills.


said, that the same proposition had already been made by the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood), and the Committee decided that they would not entertain it. He maintained that a great number of accommodation bills were perfectly genuine; and if credit was obtained under false pretences by accommodation bills, or any other means, that case was provided for in another part of the Bill. He could not agree to the Amendment.


said, that they were now dealing with a Bill for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt, and not for an extension of the Criminal Law, and he thought they had gone quite far enough in that direction.


said, that, considering the authority from which the Amendment proceeded, it was a curious illustration of the morality of the present day, of the way in which success or failure was now looked on as creating right or wrong. If the issue of an accommodation bill was dishonest, why should they not declare it so absolutely? But, according to the Amendment of the hon. Member for Leeds, it was only a crime when unsuccessful—namely, in the case of a bankrupt.


said, that many doubtful transactions were carried on that were not discovered; but, if those engaged in them could not be subjected to punishment, it was desirable, at all events, that there should be some means by which the reprobation of society might be expressed with respect to such individuals.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause agreed to.

Clause 13 amended and agreed to.

Clause 14 (Order by court for prosecution on report of trustee).


moved in page 7, line 3, to leave out "the Court may" and insert— Or where the Court is satisfied upon the representation of any creditor or inspector that there is ground to believe that the bankrupt has been guilty of any offence under this Act, the Court shall, if it appears to the Court that there is a reasonable probability that the bankrupt may be convicted. The object of this proposal was to ensure the certainty of prosecution, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the Court; for it had been found that that discretion was sometimes used to the disadvantage of the creditors.


said, he had no objection to adopt the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.


said, he had given notice of an Amendment which he thought would meet the circumstances of the case far better than Clauses 14 and 15, by providing that— Where it shall appear to the trustee in any bankruptcy that a bankrupt has been guilty of any offence under this Act, the trustee shall report the same to the court having jurisdiction in the bankruptcy, and if it shall appear to the satisfaction of the court, or if in the course of any proceedings in any bankruptcy it shall at any time appear to the satisfaction of the court that, the bankrupt has been guilty of any offence under this Act, and that there is a reasonable probability of procuring a conviction for the same, the court shall order the registrar of such court to prosecute the bankrupt for such offence, and the registrar shall, upon such order being made be bound to prosecute the bankrupt accordingly at the next assizes for the county or place within which the jurisdiction of the Court wholly or in part extends, or, if in the London district, in the Central Criminal Court. He thought it much better that where a prosecution was instituted it should be conducted by the Registrar of the Court, who would supply the place of a public prosecutor, rather than by the trustee or any of the creditors.


said, that the hon. and learned Member might now state his reasons for proposing the clause, but it could only be brought up after the other clauses of the Bill had been gone through.


said, he thought his clause preferable; but if the Attorney General was of a different opinion, and thought the Amendment of the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. Morley) on the previous clause was sufficient, he would, of course, give way.

Clause ordered, to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 16 and 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 (Quarter Sessions to have jurisdiction in respect of offences under Act).


said, the proposition contained in that section was one of a somewhat novel and startling character. Courts of Quarter Sessions had never had jurisdiction in Bankruptcy cases, and he was afraid they would not be competent to deal satisfactorily with protracted, difficult, and complicated questions, such as would be brought before them under the Bill. He believed, moreover, that Chairmen of Courts of Quarter Sessions generally would be extremely unwilling to have those new functions imposed on them.


said, he concurred in thinking that, as these cases were often of a very complicated nature, it would be most inconvenient that they should be tried before Chairmen of Courts of Quarter Sessions. He hoped that the Attorney General would see fit to withdraw the clause.


said, he hoped that the Attorney General would see fit to beep the clause in the Bill, a course which, on consideration, would seem reasonable. He hoped that all these cases would go before a magistrate in the first instance. Those cases which were at all complicated ought to go to the Assizes and the Superior Courts; but there were many of them of a simple and, it might be, a very fraudulent nature, such, for example, as the burning of books. Many of the persons accused of those misdemeanours might be very humble people, wholly unable to get bail, in which event they might have to lie in prison seven or eight months before they were tried, if, as might happen, there were no winter Assizes. For that reason the jurisdiction given in the clause should exist.


said, he thought the grounds put forward by his right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Henley) were quite conclusive in favour of that clause, which would conduce both to the speedy and the economical administration of justice. Not one in fifty of these cases would be complicated; and, moreover, he hoped by that Bill to get rid of nine out of ten of the puzzling legal perplexities connected with the present Bankruptcy Law. Again, Courts of Quarter Sessions now tried cases of obtaining money and goods on false pretences; and why could they not equally well try cases of obtaining credit upon false pretences? He was surprised to hear an objection taken which implied a reflection upon the Chairmen of those Courts.


said, he should support the clause. The absence of a "bar" from those Courts was not, as some legal Gentlemen supposed, necessarily a disadvantage.

Clause, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 19 to 24, inclusive, agreed to.

Then several new clauses added.

House resumed.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered upon Tuesday next, at Two of the clock, and to be printed. [Bill 179.]

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