HC Deb 23 May 1873 vol 216 cc396-408

in rising to call attention to the delay in the construction of the New Courts of Justice, and to move, "That such delay is prejudicial to the administration of the Law and to improvement in procedure," said, the question was of the first importance in the administration of the law, and was one that had excited the attention of that House, from time to time, from 1822 to the present time. That attention, gradually increasing, led to the appointment of a Committee upon the subject, upon the motion of Sir Thomas Wild. Nothing more was done until 1859, when a Royal Commission sat upon the subject, and reported upon it, recommending the purchase of a site, and suggesting that the sum of £12,000,000 stock lying in the Court of Chancery arising from accumulations of interest upon investments made by the Court, of suitors' money which would otherwise have remained idle, should be appropriated to the construction of the New Courts. In accordance with the Reports of this Commission, Bills were introduced into Parliament for the purpose of carrying out these recommendations, but from various causes they did not become law until 1865, when Lord Clarendon passed one, providing the funds for the construction of the Courts as recommended by the Commissioners. The other providing for the construction of the Courts by means of a Royal Commission, and accordingly in 1865 another Commission was appointed to consider the requirements of the offices, what the nature of the buildings should be, and to decide upon the designs, and generally upon the construction. The Commission lost no time in setting to work. They certified that £1,500,000 would be sufficient, and proceeded to invite competition by different architects for the New Courts. They also proceeded to purchase the required land. When the designs came to be reduced to estimates, the sum which the Commission had stated to be the cost was very considerably exceeded, and the Government declined to carry out the designs proposed by the Commission. Thus matters remained from 1867 to 1869, when the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. W. H. Gregory), who was now no longer in the House, raised the question of the advisability of selecting a different site—namely, on the Thames Embankment. On that occasion, great surprise was excited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer suddenly proposing another site which had never been in any one's contemplation—the Howard Street site. A Bill was brought in by Mr. Layard to carry out that scheme; it was referred to a Select Committee, who, after hearing evidence en the question, reported in favour of the Carey Street site. In 1870, his right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works produced a block-plan for the construction of the Courts, which was acceptable to the profession and to every gentleman who had taken an interest in the question; and it was hoped by all parties that the building would be proceeded with. At the beginning of the Session, he put a Question to his right hon. Friend on the subject, and from his answer he understood that, although considerable delay had occurred in the preparation of the plans and estimates connected with the block-plan, they had been completed, and it was expected that the building would be started in March last. What had been clone since he was at a loss to know; but he understood that no contract had been accepted, nor was there any prospect of the work being proceeded with. What was the consequence of that state of things? In 1865, steps had been taken for the purchase of the necessary land, and the sum raised from the Suitors' Fund in the Court of Chancery, which might be stated at £800,000, had been expended between 1865 and 1867. So far as he knew, that money had been lying practically unproductive ever since, with the exception of a short period a year ago, when the concrete foundations of the Courts were being laid. Thus, during the last five years the interest had been lost, and taking it at a sum of £30,000 a-year, the loss on that head was not less than £150,000. But that was not all. By the provisions of the Act of 1865, the Government were bound to pay all the rates and taxes to which the houses which had been removed from the site were subject, and as those rates and taxes amounted to £9,000 a-year or more, making for the five years £45,000, a sum of about £200,000 had been substantially wasted. Any one at all acquainted with the subject could appreciate the inconveniences connected with the administration of justice, in consequence of there being one set of Courts at Westminster and another at Lincoln's Inn. He ventured to say, that the Bill now before Parliament relating to the administration of justice in the Superior Courts would be wholly useless until the New Courts were constructed, for there could be no fusion of law and equity so long as the Common Law Judges and the Equity Judges had no opportunity, by reason of the distance of the Common Law Courts from the Equity Courts, of communicating with each other. The price of labour and the cost of building, moreover, had increased and were likely to increase so that nothing could be gained by delay. He gave credit to the right hon. Gentleman for a sincere desire to carry out this great work, and he would certainly have the support of the House in withstanding any adverse pressure to which he might be subjected from other quarters. In conclusion, the hon. Member asked for a frank and full explanation of what had been done since 1870 towards completing the erection of the Courts; and moved the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


said, the land on this site had been bought seven years ago, at a cost of £800,000, and the loss of interest on that sum, together with the rates paid every year, amounted since then to little short of £250,000. Four years ago a Select Committee had reported in favour of the present site, and there was no reason why the building should not have been begun very soon afterwards. But these seven acres were left in a most neglected state. The grass was growing there a foot high, and you might suppose that, instead of being in the most valuable part of the Strand, the land was in Timbuctoo. He was also informed that owing to the rise in the price of labour the building would cost 15 per cent more than if it had been taken in hand at once. But a point of greater importance than the pecuniary loss was, that we should never get a proper fusion of law and equity until our Courts were brought under the same roof. Possibly, the babe unborn might practise in the New Courts, though he himself despaired of doing so; whereas, if due diligence had been used, they might now have been completed.


remarked upon the loss to the suitors arising from delays which might, to a great extent, be avoided if the Courts were concentrated. It was estimated that the total amount of property in litigation was not far short of £200,000,000, and if each suit could be accelerated by one month, the gain to the suitors would be enormous.


hoped the discussion would urge on the work, but he could not entirely blame the Government for the delay, because the first scheme of the Commissioners was of the most extravagant description and would have cost at least £3,000,000. It could not be denied, however, that in all public works undertaken in this country there had not been a single building in which the delay had been so great. To look at the site one would almost say that the property had "got into Chancery."


said, he was fully alive to the fact, that there had been very considerable delay in concentrating on some one spot, all the Courts and offices necessary for the administration of justice in the metropolis. That, however, was a grievance to which the public and the administrators of the law had been subject for centuries, and, as in other matters, the idea of re-construction had proceeded with extreme slowness. It was as difficult to deal with the material fabric of the Courts as with any alteration in the administration of justice in those Courts; and it was a singular fact, that Parliament was that year engaged in making arrangements not only for the building in which the Courts were to administer justice, but in re-constructing the entire basis on which justice was to be administered; for it appeared that the legal profession had been going on for several centuries with a system of jurisprudence that was now announced to be erroneous. The hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) proposed a Resolution, to the effect that since the Government would not create by enchantment New Courts of Justice, the administration of the law was likely to be thereby impeded. No doubt, these were matters of the deepest concern, but it was impossible to hold the First Commissioner of Works, or the present Government, or even the present Parliament, responsible for all the delays that had taken place since the moment when it had been determined to concentrate all the Courts in one building. The inconvenience was recognized when the first Royal Commission reported that a reform was necessary, and when an Act was passed to carry that Report into effect. The responsibility was, however, divided between a second Royal Commission, appointed in 1865, and the Treasury, which found it impossible to transact business properly with a body so dignified and numerous as the Commission. While the Treasury seemed to leave the business in the hands of the Commission, the Commission on the other hand, cast the onus of responsibility upon the Treasury; but what were the real facts of the case? The Act of 1865 prescribed that the Commissioners were to satisfy themselves, and to certify publicly and solemnly that the site and the building together would not cost more than £1,500,000. The Commissioners signed a certificate accordingly, that the land could be acquired for £750,000; and that the building could be constructed for a similar sum, the site between Carey Street and the Strand being regarded as the most appropriate. Upon that certificate, the Treasury directed the site to be obtained, and it was acquired. While the public and the Legislature, however, were under the impression that the duty prescribed by the Act was being performed, the Commissioners, by a gradual process which he need not further describe, found that it was expedient to carry out the provisions of the law by embarking in au expenditure of £1,453,000 for the site, and £1,650,000 for the building, with £147,000 for further miscellaneous expenses, making a total of £3,250,000. The House knew what "rough estimates" were, and there were some who talked about the site and buildings as being likely to cost £4,000,000 before the edifice was finished. These proceedings had been carried on without any sense of responsibility, and was it surprising that when the present Government came into office in 1868, and had to face these proposals, that they should pause in sanctioning such an expenditure, when the Commissioners had solemnly certified that the building and site would only cost £1,500,000, and when Parliament had required that the work should be accomplished for that sum? It was a solemn undertaking also, that all the expense of the new building should be borne by suitors, and that none should be charged on the Consolidated Fund; therefore, any further expenditure beyond that originally sanctioned by Parliament would have been a great injustice to the public, as well as to those who resorted to the Courts for redress, and it was the duty of the Government to take care of the interests both of suitors and the public. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, for that reason, proposed a new scheme of a less expensive character. It was examined and, for various reasons, Parliament thought it better to adhere to the old site. The discussion, however, had the effect of opening the eyes of the public to the fact that so large a scheme was unnecessary. At the beginning of the year 1870 the matter came into his hands as First Commissioner, and he might therefore take that date as his starting point, although it had been necessary to make some remarks respecting the antecedent transactions. He also satisfied himself that what was necessary for the due administration of justice might be accomplished as regards the building for £750,000. As to the question of land, he put it aside now, because an Act had been passed to charge the additional expenditure for land on the unfortunate suitors in time to come; but £750,000 having been set apart by the certificate of the Commissioners and the Act of Parliament for the construction of the building, he gave Mr. Street directions to prepare plans so as to keep the building within the specified sum, while covering all the expenses incidental to making it fit for occupation. After some time Mr. Street put him in a posi- tion to deal with this question as it ought to have been dealt with from the first; on the responsibility of the Government alone, or on that of the Board of Works, if the Government chose to leave the responsibility to that Department. The plans he submitted to the Commissioners, who, without pledging themselves to a minute and specific approval of any detail, considered they properly fulfilled their functions by signing a Report which approved generally of the plans. That Report was made on the 27th of July, 1870, and it was not until then that the requirements of the statute had been fulfilled; for, according to the law, the Government possessed no power to proceed with the construction of the building before the Commissioners signed that Report. Although the end of July was not a convenient period for embarking on an important undertaking, that was for him (Mr. Ayrton) no obstacle. As soon as he was placed in possession of the Report, with a request from Her Majesty's Government to give effect to it, he proceeded to make the necessary arrangements, and on the 23rd of September he arrived at the conditions on which Mr. Street was to be employed to execute the plans. As soon as that gentleman had signed his contract, instructions were given to him to prepare sketch-plans to be delivered on the 1st January, 1871, the further condition being that he was to deliver the contract-plans and drawings within six months after the preliminary sketch-plans had been approved by the Office of Works. When Mr. Street sent in the sketch-plan in January, 1871, many questions arose of a practical character as to the nature of the accommodation to be afforded and the mode of constructing the building. Discussions arose between Mr. Street, the Office of Works, and the Treasury. Several modifications were made in the plans, and on the 5th of August the Treasury stated that they were prepared to approve the contract-plans, provided they were so made that the work could be executed within the limit of the amount prescribed by the law. From the 5th of August, 1871, Mr. Street had six months to prepare his contract plans, but the details were of such a kind, that it was not until the 27th of February, 1873, that the Office of Works was put in a position to invite tenders for the construction of the build- ing. The tenders were sent in by the 25th of March, 1873, and in the judgment of the Office of Works, the lowest of them greatly exceeded the prescribed sum. Mr. Street was called upon, and was bound by the obligations into which he had entered, thoroughly to revise his designs and plans. He (Mr. Ayrton) put it to the House whether, from the 25th of March up to the present time, there had been any loss of time which could properly be said to justify the use of the term "delay" which had been made use of in the Resolution? The time, he maintained, was insignificant compared with the magnitude of the building. The Treasury having requested himself to undertake the task of revision, he had without delay, proceeded with the consideration of the question; and he had given an assurance that he would as soon as possible state the result to the House. What advantage, then, was there in discussion now? He had certainly much more reason than the hon. Member opposite for being anxious to bring the matter to a close, and to hand the building over to Mr. Street. The hon. Member wished to know what had been the tenders, and what were the points in dispute. It would be injurious to the public interests, while tenders were under consideration, to give information about them to the House; and he considered that it would be highly injurious to the public interests if he were to state all the views and opinions which he entertained as to the best mode of carrying out the contract. All that the Government could do was to state their own determination of what was to be done, and to submit their conclusions to the consideration of the House. What he wished to impress upon the House was, that that was not a mere question of money, for something more than money was involved in the question. He could not conceive a greater blunder than that the Government, for the sake of saving a day, a week, or a month, should precipitate themselves into the construction of a building, which might render it necessary for them to retrace their steps. These buildings were designed before the new system of administration of justice had been adopted, and it was necessary to consider some points as the mode in which justice was to be administered. Now, who was to be responsible? Was Mr. Street to be responsible, or was the responsibility to rest on the Government? He contended that it was the duty of the Government to see that the buildings were suitable for the purposes for which they were to be constructed, and that the public money was not wasted in their construction. The Office of Works employed Mr. Street on behalf of the Crown, and he considered that Mr. Street was the servant of the Office of Works, and was bound to obey the orders of that Office. It would be incompatible with the conduct of the public service if it were to be assumed that Mr. Street was the employer of the Office of Works, and that it had nothing to do but to carry out its desires. In that there was nothing derogatory to the position of any architect. It might be instructive to the House to know what had occurred with respect to the construction of other public buildings carried on under Votes in Supply, and it was remarkable that all these buildings had undergone the fate of the proposed building from similar causes. Everyone knew what had occurred with respect to the buildings of the Houses of Parliament; why that very House was an example of what happened, until one of his predecessors was made responsible, and completed the building. So were the Home and Colonial Offices, on which it was proposed to spend £460,000. He (Mr. Ayrton) called upon the architect to reconsider his proceedings; and that architect, Mr. Gilbert Scott, at the head of his profession, had no difficulty in responding. Mr. Scott never made the least difficulty about doing what he told him. As he had said, he was told the Treasury had determined to make a "radical change," and it was a good thing to deal with these matters radically. The result was the expenditure was reduced to £264,000, and the building was in many respects better. When it was proposed to erect the new building for the University of London in a particular manner, it went on rapidly, but when it had risen five or six feet the House learnt about it, and immediately passed a Resolution condemning it, and it had to be pulled down at a cost of £5,000 and re-erected conformably to the views of the House. Was that an example to be followed in the present case? The same thing had occurred in the case of the Museum at Kensington, and yet nobody would say that building, though much less expensive, was inferior to that which had been originally projected. The question was, whether it would not be better to spend one or two months in arriving at the solution of questions affecting the building rather than precipitate themselves into proceedings which would require future correction. It was absolutely necessary if they saw errors in the design or construction of a building that they should check those errors, and that they should not, either from a feeling of consistency or from a desire to shirk responsibility, allow the building to go on, and leave it to others to discover errors which it would require both time and money to correct. He did not anticipate that they would need to delay the construction of this building beyond a few weeks, in order to settle the questions which were now under consideration; but the House could not take a more unwise step than to cut into the middle of the negotiations which were now going on. It was impossible to explain all the details; it would be the work of hours and days—the work of a Department; but however that might be, when he had arrived at a result, he would be prepared to state that result in a perfectly intelligible manner; and when an estimate was brought forward any hon. Member would have it in his power to take the opinion of the House respecting it before any action Vas taken upon it or any expenditure incurred. That was the best footing on which he could at present leave the matter.


said, that they must all admire very much the tender and conscientious susceptibilities revealed in the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works; but he had not met the point which had been raised by the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory). He appealed to them almost passionately not to cut into the middle of negotiations, and declined to tell them the source of the delay which had arisen, but his hon. Friend had not asked for any Cabinet secrets; he had merely pleaded that some progress should be made in view of that great expenditure of time and money which all deplored. The right hon. Gentleman had not explained the present state of the negotiations. He simply told them what they all knew—that the plans had been hung up, and that Mr. Street was on his trial, forgetting that it was four years since the Committee sat and 15 since that Commission had been appointed in the Session of 1858 on his (Mr. Beresford Hope's) Motion, which decided upon concentrating the Law Courts in one building. The right hon. Gentleman had spoken with considerable amplification of the magnificent scheme propounded by the Commission at that time much under the influence of that active man of large views, the late Mr. Field, whom all so much lamented; but that scheme had been entirely set aside, and no one thought of reviving it. The present scheme had been hung up not by the architect, but by that architect's many masters—the lawyers—who naturally wished to breathe fresh air, and to have easy staircases instead of breakneck ladders, and every one of whom wanted the largest and best accommodation for his own particular department, totally regardless of all the other Courts and officers, and of the stint of money which unfortunately stood in all their ways. Our Law Courts in London should not be made the embodiment of Napoleon's sneer against England as the nation of shopkeepers. During the last year builders' prices had risen at least 15 per cent, and much more than that, taking a longer period back. Should, then, the price of the building be restricted to the original estimate of £750,000, with the consequent deficiency, and want, and discomfort, which must be the result of such parsimony, and that at a time when the revenue was more elastic than ever it had been before, and when we could afford to pitch our millions across the Atlantic? The right hon. Gentleman spoke of £750,000 as if it was something in itself sacred and immutable, and not the mere symbol of the particular building which the law needed and which naturally came out at that cost calculated upon former prices. This building, but none other, they were now morally bound to carry out upon as reasonable terms as the actual labour market made possible, but in not less dignity than was intended three years ago, or the national honour would suffer.


thought the right Eon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works had strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. He said he would not go beyond the original £750,000 fixed by the Commission; but while he was waiting, he was spending £40,000 a year, the annual interest upon the sum paid for the land. That could hardly be called economy. Mr. Street in 1870 submitted a plan for building the Palace of Justice according to the then prices, and he ought not to be blamed if, three years later, prices had augmented 25 per cent. He (Mr. Goldsmid) did not understand the statement of the Government with regard to the tenders, as he found from The Architect newspaper that the highest tender was £950,000; the lowest, £732,000, the latter price being within the Government limit. It was the fault of the Government which had caused the delay, and he thought that the work should be commenced immediately, before any further rise in prices occurred. If Mr. Street were called upon to cut out the central hall in order to reduce the cost of the building, much further time would be lost—probably another year— and, besides, the public would be injured by the diminished accommodation. The loss of that year would involve a loss of £40,000 in interest, and of £9,500 a-year paid in rates; and it was very possible a further sum for the building, owing to a further rise in prices; so that this cutting down of the plans was the worst possible economy. It was not fair to the architect, nor to the public, nor to the suitors, that further delay should be allowed. He hoped the Government, after this strong expression of opinion from all sides of the House, would not hesitate to proceed with the building at once, and would not grudge the £50,000 or so, which they were in vain trying to save in this matter.


said, there was a rumour that the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works meant to curtail very seriously the accommodation which was to have been afforded to the public and the profession in the New Law Courts. That would be a very serious mistake, and he thought the right hon. Gentleman should state what his intentions were in this respect, before the contract was signed, instead of afterwards. Competent authorities thought the rise in prices in the building trade would continue, delay would therefore result in an increase of costs.


deprecated the system of paltry economy which seemed to actuate the First Commissioner of Works, in respect to the subject under discussion.


said, he would admit you must cut your coat according to your cloth, but apprehended it was necessary in all cases to have a coat that would fit. It was, therefore, out of the question to suppose the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works would persist in his intention to economize, by providing insufficient accommodation.


commended the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works for not having proceeded with the work in the present unsettled state of the building trade.