HC Deb 24 March 1871 vol 205 cc609-19

rose to call attention to the Court of Hustings (London) Abolition Bill, and to move— That it be referred to the Select Committee on Standing Orders to consider and report whether any further Standing Orders are necessary to protect the public against abuse of the Private Bill system. The hon. Member said, that in calling the attention of the House to the circumstances attending the introduction of the Court of Hustings Abolition Bill, and its withdrawal a few nights ago, and in pointing out a great abuse of our system of Private Bill legislation, he had no desire, in any remarks he might make, to reflect on the conduct of any officer of the House, or, indeed, of any person outside the House. But the circumstances themselves were such as to demand the consideration of the House, and especially of those hon. Members who constituted the Standing Order Committee. The Bill in question, which was introduced upon Petition presented in the ordinary way by the Sheriffs at the Bar of the House, was entitled the Court of Hustings Abolition Bill, and from its title any hon. Member might naturally have conceived that it was a Bill proposing merely to abolish the Court of Hustings of the City of London. But, upon examination, the Bill turned out to be one for the accomplishment of several objects, one of them being the establishment of a new Court, with powers extending over the whole of the metropolitan district, having concurrent jurisdiction with the superior Courts of Law, and, further, having like powers of foreign attachment to those which, at present, were exercised exclusively by the Lord Mayor's Court, and which in practice had of late years been very much questioned. Under the guise, therefore, of a Private Bill, powers of the most extensive and exceptional character were sought to be acquired over the whole of the metropolis—powers which even in a Public Bill would be open to very grave doubt and questioning, and which in a Private Bill he regarded as wholly out of place. The most singular part of the transaction, however, was that when, in the first instance, he drew attention to this Bill he was informed by the gentlemen concerned in its preparation that they were as greatly amazed and as much, alarmed at the powers sought under its provisions as the Attorney General himself had been when he put a Question to him upon the subject. Not a single person, directly or indirectly, connected with the Bill, would avow or acknowledge that these proposals were in any way sanctioned or proceeded with under his direction. It was a Bill which had grown up, so to speak, without any one being responsible for its paternity, and had arrived at the stage of Committee as an "unopposed Bill," simply from the fact, that being introduced as a Private Bill, no notice had been given of its contents, or of the strange powers which it contained, and no opportunity, accordingly, had been afforded to those who would be interested in opposing it to come forward. There was no doubt, he presumed, that the customary notice in the case of a Private Bill had been given, under which, in an ordinary case, individuals interested in opposing would be warned of what was in contemplation and entitled to appear; but the peculiar feature of the Bill was that there was no single person who could be served with the notice of the powers which it was sought under these provisions to obtain. The whole public of London were interested in the Bill. Every individual throughout the metropolis owing money, or who might at any time become liable to be sued in a Court of Law, was affected by the provisions of this Bill; and yet, as often happened, what was everbody's interest in general was nobody's duty in particular; and accordingly nobody appeared in opposition. He believed he was right in saying that no notice had been given to any local jurisdiction in the metropolis, to any Vestry, to any Board of Guardians, or to any authority of any kind of the intentions of the promoters of the Bill. He refrained from speaking of the City as the promoters, for they, he believed, disclaimed all intention of asking for the powers which were sought in their name. He did not wish to make matters unpleasant to anybody—he accepted in perfect good faith the disclaimer of the City; but he put it to the House—was it expedient that Bills containing such extraordinary powers should, in the ordinary course, come on for second reading without notice of their contents, and be sent down to Committee as "unopposed Bills." He had no doubt the Chairman of Committees would ultimately have stopped the Bill, or drawn attention to its provisions in Committee; but it was too great a task to impose upon any Member of that House, without the aid of counsel, to discover and point out the danger and impropriety of proposals like these in private Bills, and it would be imposing on the Chairman of Committees too great a responsibility to expect that he could check matters of principle, or of abuse of principle, such as those disclosed in the present case, without the advantage of that opposition which might have pointed out to him the danger or impropriety of granting the powers asked for. Yet this Bill was matter of serious concern to a very large population equal in number to the population of the whole of Scotland. The mere abolition of the Court of Hustings might be a very judicious measure in itself; upon that he pronounced no opinion; but what affected the public was that, under a title calculated to mislead, an entirely new Court might be established, with powers so novel, so extreme, and he ventured to think so unwise, as those contemplated by this measure. An impression appeared to exist on the part of Gentlemen promoting Private Bills that it was perfectly immaterial what was put into those Bills in the first instance; for that when they came into Committee they could put them into such a shape as would meet the views of the Gentleman acting as Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means. ["Hear!" "No!"] That was the statement made to him, and he was assured that a similar impression prevailed in the mind of the general public. If there were any such impression, it was most desirable that it should be removed at once. The House, he thought, would be disposed to concur in this general principle—that a Bill, when it reached its final stage, should, at least, resemble the shape in which it was originally introduced; that there should be no great or material alterations in its framework, and that the promoters should be bound to introduce and conduct the Bill in good faith from beginning to end. It would be a great disadvantage if the public were compelled to go to "another place" to obtain alterations in a Bill of the real nature of which they had been kept in ignorance while the Bill remained in the House of Commons. Something plainly was requisite to prevent the possibility in future of proposals being made in a Private Bill, which, if carried into effect, would work a silent, but no less radical change in the character of our legal system and of the powers of the existing Law Courts.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it be referred to the Select Committee on Standing Orders to consider and report whether any further Standing Orders are necessary to protect the public against abuse of the Private Bill system,"—(Mr. William Henry Smith,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he was much obliged to his hon. Friend for having brought this matter before the House. The Bill was surrounded by a mystery which he had vainly endeavoured to penetrate. Here was a Bill which, under the guise of a measure simply for the abolition of the Court of Hustings, would practically create a superior court with unlimited jurisdiction in the City of London, while it further proposed to extend the law of foreign attachment beyond its original and existing limits—a provision which appeared somewhat to derogate from the prerogative of the Crown. His efforts to ascertain how these clauses found their way into the Bill had been wholly unsuccessful. At the back of the Bills were the names of his hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Mr. Crawford) and several worthy Aldermen; but not one of them had the remotest idea how the Bill came to be framed thus. He thought that perhaps the City Remembrancer would be in a position to give some information on the subject; but that learned gentleman also declared he had not the slightest idea how the clauses had crept into the Bill. This Bill, which in its germinal form was a small measure for the abolition of the Court of Hustings, had illustrated the Darwinian theory, and spontaneously developed itself into a Bill for the creation of a superior court of law. Its further progress had been stopped; and he hoped no such attempt would be made again. Whoever drew the clauses he had just referred to made a very gross attempt to abuse the Private Bill legislation of this House. With respect to the suggestion made by his hon. Friend (Mr. W. H. Smith), as to the amendment of the Standing Orders, that must, of course, be dealt with by the Chairman of the Standing Orders Committee; but he certainly thought that some safeguard should be devised to prevent proceedings of this sort. It might be desirable, for instance, to make a provision to the effect that Bills of this sort should be submitted to the consideration of the Home Office. Formerly, no doubt, the courts which were established by Private Bills were courts with very limited jurisdiction; but now it had come to be regarded as a maxim of legal reform that the administration of justice should be regarded as a whole, and that every court should be in harmony with all the other courts in the kingdom. He could not help thinking, therefore, that the establishment of any court of justice, however small, was a matter of public concern, and that precautions should be taken in order to prevent great innovations being introduced under cover of a Private Bill.


agreed with his hon. and learned Friend that the hon. Member for Westminster had rendered good service by calling attention to the circumstances connected with this Bill. Had the hon. Member been in a position to offer to the House on a second reading the remarks he had addressed to it now, in all probability the measure would not have passed that stage. Speaking for himself, he might say that if at that time he had been acquainted with the provisions of the Bill he should certainly have voted against the second reading. The hon. Member for Westminster had stated that a belief was prevalent among some persons that anything might be deposited as a Private Bill, and that Amendments to any extent might be introduced in Committee. This, however, was not the case, even with an unopposed Bill. Indeed, the present Bill was a proof of his assertion; for as soon as he became aware of its provisions he sent for the gentlemen who were acting for the promoters, and having informed them that, in his opinion, it would not have passed the second reading if the House had been aware of its nature, he intimated that it ought to be withdrawn. In answer to their proposal that the Bill should be amended in Committee, he said it could not be so amended without being practically transformed into another Bill. The hon. Member for Westminster proceeded in his remarks on the supposition that a Private Bill had an easier passage through this House than a Public Bill; but this was just the reverse of the fact. A Private Bill had to go through as many stages in the House as a Public one, and was subjected besides to peculiar ordeals of its own. Notices must be given by advertisements in the local newspapers in the months of October and November as to its intended provisions; and it had to go before the Examiners in order that they might ascertain whether the Standing Orders had been complied with. Even if it were an "unopposed Bill," it must go, after the second reading, before a Committee, which would examine it clause by clause; and, while under the consideration of the House, it was subject to examination by officers appointed for that purpose, whose duty it was to inform the House of any provisions in the Bill that might appear objectionable. In the Lords, the Bill would, have to pass through the same stages, and undergo the same scrutiny. It would, besides, be sent to the Judges to be examined. It was, then, next to impossible to introduce objectionable clauses in a Bill without discovery. The hon. Member had stated that a Bill of this character could not possibly, as a Private Bill, meet with opponents. This, however, was not the case. It was true that Private Bills for the amendment of local courts were not of very frequent occurrence; but several had been introduced in the course of the last few years, and had been opposed either by communities or bodies of practitioners who had interest in the proceedings of the courts sufficient to give them a locus standi. The circumstances connected with this Bill had drawn his attention to a casus omissus in the Standing Orders of the House, which, if supplied, would meet the objections of the hon. Member. By Standing Order No. 41, it was provided that printed copies of certain Bills should be deposited before the meeting of Parliament, not only in the Private Bill Office, but also in the Department of the Government with which their scope and character most naturally connected them; but, curiously enough, there was no provision that Bills relating to local courts should be deposited with any Department. He would, therefore, venture to suggest that, as an Amendment to this Standing Order, it should be provided that every Bill for the establishment or the amendment of the procedure of local courts should, at the time it was deposited in the Private Bill Office, be also deposited in the Home Office. If the hon. Member for Westminster would withdraw his Motion, and confer with him and the Chairman of the Committee on Standing Orders, he believed they would be able to amend the Standing Order No. 41, so as to remove the blot which the hon. Gentleman had pointed out.


, as the only Member of the Standing Orders Com- mittee present, would say that they would be perfectly willing, by amendment of the Standing Orders, to get rid of any blot that existed in the way thought most expedient. He was not at all surprised at cases of this kind occurring, when he considered the solicitation that was used to induce hon. Members to allow their names to be put upon the back of Bills. Backing Bills, however, was a dangerous operation in any way, and the danger seemed to extend to Bills in that House. He thought it would be affording a necessary protection to hon. Members themselves if the House were to put a stop to the efforts being continually made to induce Members to put their names on the back of a Bill on the statement that it was a mere formal matter involving no responsibility whatever.


said, that it seemed to be supposed that this was an inferior court seeking to attain the powers of a superior court with extensive jurisdiction. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Lord Mayor's Court was, without doubt, the oldest court in this country. It existed before the Courts of Queen's Bench and Common Pleas, and he believed even before the time of the Saxon Heptarchy. It existed when there was only a Port-Reeve in London, before there was a Mayor. It possessed the peculiar power of foreign attachment, and had now the advantage of being presided over by so distinguished a Judge as his right hon. Friend the Recorder. Some years ago, before the judgment of the House of Lords very much curtailed the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor's Court, a Bill was prepared to be submitted to the House as a Public Bill upon this subject, and he believed the present one had been introduced as a Private Bill by mistake instead of as a Public one, and there was no one connected with the City of London who was not glad that the mistake had been discovered.


said, that as his name was on the back of the Bill, he wished to state that he knew nothing whatever about it. He was applied to with the other Members for the City, including the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty, to put his name upon the back of it, and he said—"Certainly," as he had done on former occasions. He had not, however, been bored to do so in the Lobby.


was surprised that his hon. Friend the Governor of the Bank should put his valuable name upon any paper without knowing what was inside it. That was a very dangerous practice. He rose, however, for the purpose of suggesting that Private Bills should be revised after they had passed through Committee for the purpose of ascertaining whether any provisions affecting the public interests had been slipped in. There were many instances, especially in such Bills as Gas and Water Bills, in which clauses very adverse to public policy were almost surreptitiously introduced. He thought such Bills should receive official examination before being read a third time.


said, that this Bill was nothing less than a gross scandal to the legislation of the country. The attempt to bring it forward as a Private Bill arose from the conviction that if it were brought forward as a Public Bill it would be scouted at once. The Bill attempted to confer on this Court a jurisdiction far exceeding any that existed in this country or in any country in the world. There had been for many years past an attempt to extend the process of foreign attachment against the opinions both of lawyers and politicians, until the attempt was put an end to by the judgment of the House of Lords in "Cox v. the Lord Mayor of London." Further, this jurisdiction, until it was stopped, was continually drawing this country into serious complications with foreign Powers. Foreign potentates were sued in this Court—the Pacha of Egypt was recently sued there under a process of foreign attachment. This Bill would reverse the decision in "Cox v. the Lord Mayor of London," and it would give a jurisdiction extending over the whole world wherever they could bring in foreign attachment. There was also this extraordinary provision, such as no civilized country in the world had ever adopted—that no defendant should be allowed to plead to the jurisdiction of the Court. He might observe that attempts such as these were not confined to Private Bills—there were some things in connection with the passing of Public Bills which were scandalous and astonishing. In 1869 a Public Bill was brought forward which he was requested to oppose, and having intimated that intention to those in charge of the Bill it was withdrawn. Yet, towards the end of the Session, in July, whilst the parties opposed to the Bill were passing a resolution congratulating themselves upon its withdrawal, at that very time the Royal Assent was being given to a Bill in another form, which carried out the objects of the original Bill. Something really should be done to prevent Bills slipping through the House at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, in such a way that the most vigilant persons might be deceived.


said, that during the short time he had been a Member of the House he had been instrumental in stopping more than one Public Bill which had been brought in by private Members to alter, or, as it was called by the promoters, to amend, the law. He was astonished to find that no means were provided by the Government to examine Bills brought in by private Members affecting the law and jurisprudence of the country. Any private Member might, without check, introduce a Bill, however absurd, making the largest alterations in the law. He had drawn the attention of the Law Officers of the Crown to several Bills of that character, and in consequence they interfered and stopped the Bills. But the Law Officers of the Crown were not appointed for that purpose. He thought that every Bill brought in by a private Member which would alter the law ought to be examined by a competent person, and that a Report upon it should be made to the Government, so that the Law Officers might be able to advise the Government on the propriety of allowing the Bill to proceed. Such a course would stop these amateur attempts at legislation. He could mention an instance similar to that just stated by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. W. Williams). A Bill was brought in, the result of which would have been to effect a revolution with regard to the law of mortgages. He mentioned the matter to the Solicitor General, who stopped the Bill. A very short time afterwards a Bill was brought in under another name, and in the same Session, to effect an object similar to that aimed at by the Bill which had been stopped; and that Bill also had to be stopped. Such matters should not be left to mere accident.


said, he would withdraw his Resolution, on the under- standing that the course suggested by the Chairman, of Ways and Means should be adopted.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.