§ Order for Second Reading read.
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he hoped, considering the number of new Members who had recently been elected, that the House would allow him to sketch the history of the measure. Two years ago, at the instance of a County Court Judge of great ability and eminence, he undertook to bring this subject before the House. That gentleman—Mr. George Russell—when he entered on the duties of his office was an ardent advocate of imprisonment for debt, but subsequent experience had induced him to lament it as one of the greatest evils in existence. There was a discussion upon the second reading of the Bill introduced in 1872. The Bill was negatived by a majority of 102; but it was suggested by the Government of that day that a Committee should be appointed to consider this important subject, and in the early part of last Session a Committee was appointed for that purpose. He (Mr. Bass) had been accused of making that Committee an unfair one; but he was not responsible for the nomination of the Committee. 546 The nomination was intrusted to the Gentlemen on both sides of the House who managed matters of that sort; and for himself he could say with truth that he was totally indifferent as to who its Members should be. Though he was an unworthy Member of that Committee, he might say that many of its Members were remarkable for their ability as statesmen and for their general character. The Committee, consisting of 19, sat from the 14th of February last till the 24th of July. Thirty or forty witnesses were examined, among whom were six or seven County Court Judges, the majority of whom, he believed, were decidedly hostile to the present system of imprisonment for debt by County Court Judges. But other County-Court Judges took a different view, as might naturally be expected, and he believed nine out of every ten County Court Judges were opposed to this Bill. That could not be wondered at, because nine-tenths of their business consisted in the collection of small debts, and if imprisonment for debt were abolished, the services of at least half of the County Court Judges could be dispensed with. The expenses of the County Court establishments, which were paid by the public Exchequer, were £566,000 per annum; the suitors' fees amounted to £388,000; the number of plaints issued every year was upwards of 900,000; the amount sued for was £2,600,000; and the amount adjudged was £1,300,000. The House would be startled when he stated that in the 22 years which had elapsed since County Courts were established, as many as 183,000 men and women had boon sent to prison for small debts claimed by "tallymen." Seventeen millions of plaints had been issued, most of them for debts under 40s. At the present time between 7,000 and 8,000 persons were annually sent to prison. It was alleged by the advocates of the system of imprisonment for debt that the commitments were generally for contempt by persons failing to comply with the Order of the Court; but he had evidence to show that many men had been committed for debts of which they knew nothing whatever, and that these imprisonments were generally at the suits of Scotch tallymen, who left their own country because they could not got anything to do in it. The course pursued by these tallymen was to travel 547 over this country and to induce men's wives and daughters to get into debt. He ought to add that the 183,000 persons thus imprisoned in the last 22 years were maintained while in gaol at the public expense; and, in point of fact, the total expenditure upon these County Court processes far exceeded the amount recovered under them. Although a majority of the witnesses examined before the Select Committee were opposed to the abolition of imprisonment for debt, he was entitled to point out that certainly not two of them were uninterested. They were either County Court Judges or tallymen, or the representatives of trades' unions, or collectors of debts. It was an extraordinary circumstance that the tradesmen who gave credit did not collect their debts themselves. This was a separate business, and one of great emolument. Indeed, the evidence showed that as much as.£3,000 a year was made by one individual debt collector. With regard to the period of imprisonment, it varied from 10 to 42 days. Some County Court Judges imprisoned for 10 days only, while others said it was no use to give a defendant less than 40 days. Now, suppose a man were summoned for a debt of £2, the possibility was that the Judge would order him to pay by instalments of 5s. If the defendant failed to pay one of these instalments, he might be committed to prison for 40 days. He believed it had been decided by the Court of Common Pleas, that no one could be imprisoned twice for the same instalment, although there was no doubt that this had been done in many instances. At all events, a debtor might be committed for each instalment, so that a person who owed £2 was liable to be imprisoned for 320 days, a system which would be worse than the law of the Romans, that a debtor should become the slave of his creditor. The only argument of any force against the abolition of imprisonment for debt was that a poor man would then, in his misfortune, obtain no credit; but it was proved before the Select Committee that such would not generally be the ease, as respectable men, with few exceptions, would undoubtedly get all reasonable credit, whatever their circumstances might be. It was really only the disreputable and improvident members of society who got into debt. He might venture to road to the House some extracts 548 from the evidence adduced before the Committee. Mr. George Russell, a County Court Judge, thought imprisonment ought to be done away with. Mr. J. A. Russell, County Court Judge for Salford, expressed a similar opinion, and added—The very best thing that could happen to a working man is that he should not he able to obtain credit as he does now.Another witness, a County Court bailiff, said—The present system of credit is perfectly shocking. I have had 30 years' daily and hourly experience, and I can confidently say that there is not one case out of 100 entered in our Court where the defendant had the least reason to incur the debt or the plaintiff to trust him the present system is a curse, and an Act of Parliament is required to mitigate the evil.Again, Lord Derby was reported by The Times to have said, at a meeting held in London—Look for one thing at the working of the County Courts. One half of their business would be swept away at a stroke if the custom of giving credit were to disappear.The noble Lord went on to say—What is the explanation of the frauds in the adulteration of articles of food sold to the poor? Why, as often as not, at least one cause is that the customer must take the article which is offered to him at the price at which it is offered.Otherwise, he remarked, he might be "county courted" for a debt he could not pay. There was also a great deal of evidence as to the inferiority of goods supplied by tallymen upon the credit system, and among the witnesses was Mr. Commissioner Kerr, Judge of the City of London Small Debts Court, who said that one of the effects of the credit system was that inferior goods were delivered and extravagant prices charged. The County Court system had developed a large trade which was originally a pack-man's trade, but had now become a tally-shop business—or, in other words, a business for supplying wives, in the absence of their husbands, with dresses at enormous profit. Mr. Davis, the police magistrate at Sheffield, said he had no doubt that goods were sold to poor people on the tally system at prices far in excess of their value; and Mr. Wake, a solicitor, in giving his evidence, said he knew, from his experience, that goods were sold at three times their value, as, for instance, goods sold at 1s. 10d. per yard he could get at 6d. per yard, and he mentioned a ease in 549 which a servant of his bought a shawl for 37s. 6d., while her mistress bought one exactly similar and of the same quality for 9s. The percentage derived from coals sold in small quantities to the poor was also very great. Mr. Daniel, not withstanding his hostility to this measure, had written to him to say that the debates on the Bill had established the fact that the jurisdiction was exercised at an expense to the public out of all proportion to the extent of the evil, and that this was a wrong for which a remedy must be found. Mr. George Russell, a County Court Judge, said that 95 per cent of the persons committed by him came to him a second time, and probably the remaining 5 per cent were sued in some other County Court. One labouring man, earning 15s. a-week, had 27 plaints issued against him, the instalments of which amounted to £3 5s. a month. Mr. George Russell was of opinion that there was no doubt in the world that all men who had any pretensions to get credit would get it if imprisonment were abolished to-morrow. Mr. Davis said the same thing, and so did Mr. Wake. Now, he would ask the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Homo Department to consider who the eminent men were who had declared their hostility to the present law of imprisonment for debt. The late Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, whoso loss they must all regret, wrote to him insisting upon the fallacy of the present system, and offered to give evidence before the Committee on the subject. The Lord Chief Baron had assured him over and over again that, in his opinion, there was nothing in the present state of the law more objectionable than the power of imprisonment by the County Court Judges. Mr. Baron Martin had said pretty much the same thing. He had already mentioned one of the Cabinet Ministers who was decidedly hostile to this system, and he would now mention another. The present Lord Chancellor said to him a few days ago—"Personally I am decidedly of your opinion." Complaints wore made to him every day of the favour that was shown to large debtors and the cruelty practised upon small debtors in regard to this point; and he doubted whether there was a man in the House who could show him that there was a single person imprisoned for debts over 550 £50 except for fraud. But there was no fraud in the case of these poor people, many of whom got into debt through their own improvidence or that of their wives, and yet they were imprisoned by hundreds of thousands. Now, he would ask the Secretary of State, who was one of the most eminent Members of the Committee, and one of the most regular in attendance, and who, being uniformly hostile to the present proposal, had seduced into his opinions some hon. Gentlemen, who, however, would vote against him to-night, how he (Mr. Cross) could oppose the phalanx of authority he (Mr. Bass) had quoted that evening? Why should they continue this system in England which did not exist in any other country of Europe unless Switzerland? In France they had no imprisonment for debt; in Italy they had none; in the United States they had none. England was, he believed, the only civilized country in the world of any extent where this false system continued to exist. Other countries had tried it, and had been obliged to give it up. And, with regard to Scotland, he should say that there was there no imprisonment for less than £8 6s. 8d., or one hundred pounds Scots. Why did Scotch tallymen come here? Because they could not do any good in their own country. Now he asked that men should not be imprisoned for less than £5; but if they went into Committee he would consent to go as low as £2. How did people get on in Scotland without imprisonment for small debts? It was said that there was in that country an attachment of wages to the amount of 30s. But it had been proved before the Committee that the expense of this attachment was 6s., and that the thing was so detested by both masters and men that practically it was not carried into effect. He ventured to offer this subject for the consideration of the House, and only regretted that it had not boon placed in more efficient hands.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Bass.)
, in rising to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, he did so because he believed that if the measure contained in the Bill of the hon. Gentleman became law it would entirety destroy the efficiency and vitality of the 551 County Courts, and that would cause most serious inconvenience to the working classes of this country. In 1872, the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) introduced two Bills; the object of one was to abolish the recovery of debts under 40s. in the County Courts, and the object of the other was similar to that of the present Bill—namely, to abolish imprisonment for debt in the County Courts. The first Bill was withdrawn; but when the other came on for second reading, he (Mr. Lopes) moved the same Amendment as now, and on a division 136 Members voted against the Bill, and only 34 in its favour. Notwithstanding, the hon. Member for Derby, nothing daunted, in 1873 introduced a similar Bill, which was again opposed, and in the result was referred to a Select Committee, which sat for a considerable time, in the formation of which the hon. Member, or some one else, displayed a judicious discretion in the selection, because eight Members were placed upon it who were in the small minority of 34, and only two of the large majority of 13—namely, the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) and himself—but five others who did not vote were afterwards added to the number. In 1872, the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) strenuously opposed the Bill; but when it was sent to the Select Committee in 1873 the hon. and learned Gentleman succumbed to the blandishments of the hon. Member for Derby, and, to the astonishment of everyone, he became a most zealous and firm advocate of the Bill which in 1872 he had so strenuously opposed. The Select Committee ultimately consisted of 19 Members, but there was always a preponderance of declared votes on it in favour of the hon. Member for Derby's proposition. He had made these remarks to show the House that they must not be too much influenced by the Report of the Committee; and it was a most remarkable fact that the Bill did not carry out the recommendation of the Committee—namely, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, provided a large number of other recommendations were adopted. The Bill proposed, not the total abolition of imprisonment for debt, but the abolition of imprisonment when the debt did not exceed £5. He would explain what imprisonment for debt in the 552 County Courts was. It was not imprisonment for the non-payment of debt; substantially it was punishment for contempt of Court in not complying with its order. A County Court Judge was not permitted to commit a man to prison unless he was satisfied by evidence that in the interval between the order for the payment of the debt and the issue of the judgment summons he had had in his possession the means with which he might have paid the debt if he had chosen to do so. Before making an order for payment by defendant, a Judge made inquiry as to his means, his domestic circumstances, his employment, his earnings, and his indebtedness to other people; and it was not until he was satisfied by evidence on these points that he made an order for the payment of the debt, either in one sum or by instalments. When the order was made the judgment was signed, and then, if the debtor did not pay at the appointed time, it was open to the creditor to take out a judgment summons. This had to be personally served upon the defendant, and it called upon him to appear before the Judge to show why he had not made payment as ordered. If the Judge was satisfied that the man had possessed the means of paying the debt, but had contemptuously refused to do so, he then had the power to order imprisonment. The practice of the County Courts, however, was even further strained in favour of the debtor. The general practice was to make an order of commitment, and to accompany it with an order that commitment was to be suspended for a week, so as to give the defendant time to pay if he thought fit to do so. In the majority of cases the debt was paid in the interval between the making of the order and the time the imprisonment would commence, which clearly showed that the prospect of imprisonment secured to the creditor his rights, and deterred the man who had the money from doing a dishonest act. And why should not a man who had the money be made to pay? Why should he be permitted to snap his fingers at the Court and at his creditor? It was said that this was a pernicious system because it generated credit, and that if we did away with imprisonment, credit would go too, and all would buy with ready money at more reasonable prices. But that pre-supposed that the working man had the money, 553 while, in fact, his wages were paid at intervals, and illness might supervene or he might lose his work. If the security of imprisonment were taken away, would not the tradesman, instead of lowering prices for ready money, keep them up in order to make these who paid cover his losses? Perhaps it would also be said that a man who had a good character would always get credit. That was very well in theory, but it did not work in practice. Supposing two men went to a shop, the one with a good character and the other with an indifferent character, how, he would ask, was the tradesman to know which had the good character and which the bad? Working men moved about from place to place, and where they were not known, character would not toll in their favour. It would probably be urged that it was an unjust system, because it made a great difference between the debtor who owed a small sum and the debtor who owed a large sum—that it was one law for the rich and another for the poor; and that the bankrupt who paid 10s. in the pound, or compounded with his creditors for even less, wont free, while execution was issued against the small debtor in the County Court, and he might be imprisoned from time to time. But in reality the cases were not identical, and there was no analogy between them, because bankruptcy pre-supposed that a man had not sufficient money to pay his creditors, whom he was willing to pay, and that he handed over to them all that he possessed. The County Court proceeded on the supposition that a man had the means to pay, but did not, and would not do so, and punished him for perversely disobeying the order of the Court, A great deal had been said about the tally system. Far be it from him to advocate that system; but these who had read the evidence given before the Committee would agree with him that that system had been to a great extent unjustly maligned. The case was certainly not so black against the tallymen as the hon. Member for Derby had attempted to make out. The hon. Member for Derby talked much of the evil of giving credit to the wife behind her husband's back; but his Bill would not have the effect of preventing it. At present the recovery of a debt was not jarred till after the expiration of six years; he thought it would be well that 554 the period should be limited to three years. But he saw no harshness in the present system, when credit was essential to the working classes, and when imprisonment was practically only the punishment awarded for contempt of Court. He would conclude by reading extracts from the evidence given before the Committee by four County Court Judges. The hon. Member for Derby had stated that County Court Judges were interested witnesses, but he could not understand how they could be so; because they honestly and sincerely conceived it to be their duty to maintain the present system for the purpose of securing the orderly and proper conduct of the business of their Courts. Mr. Worlledge, the County Court Judge of a large agricultural district including Ipswich and Yarmouth, stated before the Select Committee that, in his opinion, imprisonment for debt was necessary for the welfare of all classes within his district. An agricultural class could not subsist without credit, and if imprisonment for debt were abolished they would not be able to obtain it with the same facility as now, even if they got it at all. Mr. Yates, the County Court Judge of a district with a large manufacturing population, was of opinion that it was beneficial to the working classes, because credit was necessary to them at times, arising from a variety of circumstances. Mr. Daniel, another County Court Judge, a witness whom the hon. Member for Derby had vouched, said that credit for the necessaries of life was as essential to some classes as oxygen to the air we breathed; and the Registrar of the Nottingham County Court considered it would be a public inconvenience to abolish imprisonment for debt. Shopkeepers, he said, would not give credit if it were abolished. He further added that, after 50 years' experience, he considered it was a humane law to enable a wife to pledge her husband's credit without his knowledge, for the common necessaries of life, where the husband did not bring home all his earnings. In conclusion, he hoped the House would not read a second time a Bill which would not only be injurious to the retail tradesman, of whom, however, he did not think so much, but highly injurious and inconvenient to the working classes of the country.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Lopes.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ SIR HENRY JAMES
said, his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Lopes) was quite correct in stating that he had opposed the Bill of his hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) when it was introduced in 1872, and he had done so because he then took, what his hon. and learned Friend would allow him without offence to say he had now taken, a superficial view of the simple legal question, and had not treated it as a matter involving grave questions of a social and economic character. Indeed, he had carried that superficial view to such an extent that when he entered the Committee he was strongly opposed to the abolition of imprisonment for debt. He did not yield to the blandishments of his hon. Friend the Member for Derby, but he yielded to the evidence placed before the Committee, and the result was that, before the labours of the Committee concluded, he came to the conclusion that the power of imprisonment for small debts was an evil winch called for a remedy, and that it ought to be got rid of altogether. He was satisfied that the great majority of the House could have no sympathy with the dishonest debtor, and there could be no wish to render him assistance in evading the obligations he had incurred. This, however, was only the sentimental view of the question, although it was invariably used as an argument for maintaining imprisonment for debt. There could be no virtue in imprisonment for debt in itself; there could be even no virtue in County Courts themselves if they were maintained as a remedy against an evil. When the hon. and learned Member for Frome (Mr. Lopes) said this was striking a blow at the vitality of the County Court, he would ask the hon. and learned Member what was that vitality? The County Court was not the forum for settling differences between litigants so much as it was a great debt-collecting office. It was used entirely by creditors who were traders, as against the honest portion of the community, on a reckless system of credit. If the evil could be 556 abolished by abolishing the remedy, it was surely wise to attack the remedy which fostered the evil. Regarding the question from a social and economic point of view, he did not say that credit could be abolished by any statute that might be made. It was impossible to argue that the turnover of the wealth of the country, or the capital of any man, could consist of so much metal or of so much currency. The merchant who accepted or drew a hill of exchange on a foreign country was to a certain extent dealing on credit, and this it was necessary to maintain. But that was not the form of credit which they were considering now, which was a credit given to imprisonment for debt; because they were not giving credit to an individual with whom the creditor dealt—not credit between man and man, but credit which was given to the means of recovering the debt. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Lopes) asked how the tradesman was to know which of two men who went into his shop was honest and which was dishonest? Well, he might not know; but what did he do now? Why he gave credit to both men, whether honest or dishonest. He gave credit, not to the character of the man with whom he dealt, but to the means of recovering what was due to him. His hon. and learned Friend said—"If you takeaway imprisonment for debt you take away credit." Well, that was what the supporters of this Bill wished to do; and let them see how such a thing would affect the people of this country. They had—and on this, he presumed, they all agreed—no sympathy with the dishonest debtor, though they might have with the honest one; then let them see how the dishonest debtor made the honest man pay his debts. It was proved before the Committee that tradesmen charged 25 or 80 per cent more on all their goods for credit than they would for ready money. This extra charge was borne by the honest man who paid ready money or at the end of his credit, while the dishonest man sometimes did not pay at all. Twenty-eight per cent had also to be added for the fees and costs, so that the working man, in cases where he was proceeded against, had to pay 50 per cent more than he would do under a ready-money system, and yet it was represented as a benefit to the working classes. His hon. and learned Friend 557 said the working man would not be able to obtain credit if imprisonment for debt were abolished. Well, in the first place, it was to be hoped that when it was abolished he would not require credit. The working man, after having obtained credit, and a judgment having been recorded against him, fulfilled his obligation by laying by and paying a certain sum per week. A witness in favour of imprisonment urged that a man earning 30s. a week had to buy a coat worth 30s., and that he could not find ready money to pay for it; but the witness admitted that for ready money it would cost 25s., or perhaps less; and it was pointed out to him that whereas buying it on credit he would have to pay 5s. weekly for seven or eight weeks to pay for it and for the costs, if he wore sued, he might procure it for ready money by laying by 5s. weekly for only five weeks. He thereupon admitted that it would be a good thing to make him adopt the latter course, but pleaded that at present he would not do so. Why not? Because he had the moans of doing otherwise. Surely, if it could be effected, a man had better be provident before obtaining the article than after. The Tippling Act of George II. had recently been extended to all beer-houses, so that money could not be recovered for beer drunk on the premises. The result was that the working man invariably went to the public-house with ready money, and, as he could assure the hon. Member for Derby, got as much as was good for him, while his wife went to the grocer and draper and bought goods on credit. If imprisonment for small debts were abolished, he would find ready money for the draper as well as for the publican, and would get goods at a lower price without incurring fees or imprisonment. The Committee of which his hon. and learned Friend and the present Home Secretary (Mr. Cross) were Members, had before them a County Court Judge (Mr. Russell), who was asked whether he thought the abolition of imprisonment for debt would or would not enable honest working men to obtain credit. The case of the cotton famine consequent upon the American War was mentioned to him, and he was asked whether, if imprisonment for debt had been abolished, shopkeepers who had allowed operatives to get into their debt would have boon able to obtain what was 558 owing to them. Mr. Russell said he thought the character of the men was very well known to the local tradesmen, and all honest men would have been able to obtain credit, whilst all dishonest men would not, and he thought the latter class had much better begin in the workhouse than end in the gaol. This question and answer concisely stated the arguments on either side. It was a matter for experience whether, in the event of this imprisonment for debt being abolished, that which existed in larger dealings in the mercantile world would not also become prevalent amongst smaller dealers—namely, credit being given to men who were known to be honest, these who were not known being refused it. In 1833, a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into this matter, and they reported to this House in 1834, and upon that Report the law which at present existed in Scotland was made. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Bass) had informed the House that in Scotland there was no imprisonment for debt under the sum of £8 6s. 8d., and that law was founded upon the Report to which he referred. The Commission showed that men sent to prison and brought into contact with characters of the worst description never recovered from its effect; that a remedy against the property of the creditor ought to be sufficient; that imprisonment for debt fostered excessive and reckless credit; and that creditors resorted to it for recovering debts which prudence should have prevented them from allowing to be incurred. That Report showed that the law of Scotland went further than his hon. Friend by his Bill sought to do, and the law had been found to work well in Scotland. The number of Petitions which had been presented against the Bill had been referred to; but he was afraid hon. Members were too apt to consider what would please their constituents, without looking at the question in a broad and clear light, for hon. Members had said in the lobbies of the House, "I have not considered this much, but I have heard a great deal about it from my constituents. I have two or three Petitions from them against the measure, and I am afraid I shall not he able to support it." If hon. Members would take the trouble to compare the various Petitions, they would see that one form was adopted for all, 559 and that they all came from the same source. One of the Petitions was presented by the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Kinnaird), and anything that came from the hands of his hon. Friend was deserving of respectful attention. The Petition in question was from the Chamber of Commerce of Perthshire, and like all the other Petitions—for the Petition was in the same form as those which had been presented from Bristol, Birmingham, and other places—the Petitioners said that they had read the evidence given before the Select Committee, and that in their opinion a wrong conclusion had been arrived at. But the law which prevailed in Perthshire and under which these very gentlemen now existed, went further than the Bill now before the House went. What the Chamber of Commerce of Perthshire prayed in effect was that the law which existed in Scotland should not be applied to England. They would not allow the law of the two countries on this subject to be assimilated, or an Act to be passed for England which in its operation bad proved wise and beneficial in Scotland. The time, he hoped, was at hand, when this question would be regarded otherwise than in a superficial manner. Hon. Members had a common object in view—namely, to benefit the poorer classes of the country, and he believed that the passing of such a Bill as that of his hon. Friend the Member for Derby would operate to their great advantage. In conclusion, the hon. and learned Member stated that he knew not whether the Bill would, or would not, be read a second time that night. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department when sitting on the Select Committee had expressed strong views on the subject; probably he retained them now. He might throw out the Bill, but the hon. Member for Derby would eventually succeed. In the course of a life, not now a short one, his hon. Friend had performed many acts of charity towards these with whom he had come in contact; but when this measure was better understood, and when some such Bill as that now before the House passed into law, his name would be associated with greater benefits than he had ever yet conferred on individuals, for he would have done this great good towards a class—he would have rendered these economical who had hitherto been extravagant 560 and have caused men to become provident who had previously been reckless and inconsiderate in their dealings.
§ MR. HOLKER
said, he had not read the evidence given before the Committee or the Petitions presented to the House, but he thought that without doing so one could come to a right conclusion on the subject under consideration. It was desirable, in the first place, to have a clear notion of what the existing law was. They had heard a great deal about imprisonment for debt; but, in the true sense of the word, imprisonment for debt existed no longer in this country. Formerly, a creditor could keep his unfortunate debtor in prison until the debt was paid or until his death, if he were not able to pay. The severity of that law was mitigated by various Acts of Parliament; but that which was a blot and disgrace upon our Judicial System was not finally removed until the passing of the Act of 1869, a measure of a most beneficial character, by which imprisonment for debt was totally abolished. It was not the case that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor, or that the power of sending a man to prison was confined in its operation to these who came before the County Courts. The law was that no man should be imprisoned for debt, but that dishonest debtors should have punishment inflicted upon them. Before an order could be obtained to send a debtor to prison, the creditor must show that his debtor had the means of paying, and a man could now only be imprisoned, and then only for a period of six weeks, for not paying that which he had the means of paying. Such was the law, and it related to all debtors alike, whether they owed a thousand pounds or a thousand pence. The debtor who had the means of paying, and who was sent to prison as a punishment for not paying, could by discharging the debt release himself at any time within the six weeks, and in nine cases out of ten the money was paid and the debtor did not go to prison at all. He saw no injustice in the existing law, no harshness, and indeed nothing deserving the censure which had been passed upon it by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) and the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James). The law gave to creditors of this country a certain share of security. 561 When a workman temporarily out of work went to a tradesman and asked for credit, the shopkeeper gave it cither because he thought the man personally honest, or else because he knew the moment his creditor got work he could make him pay, with the alternative of summoning him to the County Court and imprisonment, if he failed to pay when he had the means to do so. The advantages of the system were, in his opinion, obvious. The workman got credit, when he needed it. His wife and family were maintained while he was out of work, even though it was known that all workmen wore not honest, because they had the compulsory powers of the Country Court to fall back upon in the cases whore debtors were able, but unwilling, to pay. There were, as they all knew, steady, honest workmen, who were not affected by the present law; but there were also thoughtless, reckless, dissipated workmen, who spent their wages in drink when they got into work, instead of supporting their wives and families. When such men found themselves summoned to the County Court, and found they could be compelled to pay, was there any hardship in that? If the present system were put an end to, the dishonest workman's family would have to go to the workhouse while he was out of work, there to be kept at the expense of the honest workman. That system was no hardship upon the honest man, who was in no way damnified by it, and what was it to him whether a score or so of dishonest workmen were sent to gaol under it, there to be kept at the public expense? The hon. and learned Member for Taunton said that the present law operated harshly upon the man of good character, who, if it were abolished, would still be able to get credit from shopkeepers and tradesmen. Perhaps in some instances that might be the case; but it must be recollected that everybody could not be virtuous, that a man could not get a good character all at once, and that it was rather hard he should have to starve in the process of getting one. Unfortunately, there were in the world plenty of persons, workmen and others, who were not honest, and who were quite indifferent to the advantage of possessing a good character, while a great many others were endeavouring all their lifetime to get a good character without 562 success. How were such people to be dealt with, except by compelling them to pay their debts? If the law of 1869 were repealed, as it would practically be by the passing of this Bill, the result would be that the tradesmen, in order to cover their average losses by dishonest debtors, would stick on the prices to their honest customers, and so make the good pay for the bad. He did not think that that would be a desirable result of legislation on the subject, though he confessed that if the Bill passed that was what he would do if he were a tradesman or shopkeeper. Reference had been made to the large number of the plaints brought in the County Courts by what were termed the "Scotch drapers," or "tallymen," and he confessed that he agreed with very much that had been said upon that subject. There was, no doubt, an abuse of the present law by that class; but, after all, that was less the effect of the law than of the individuals themselves who became customers to these pedlars or tallymen. If any amendment were needed, he would suggest that the limits to which these tallymen should be allowed to recover, with the alternative of imprisonment for non-payment, should be narrowed until they ceased to exist. But even as it was under the present law, a wife could not contract debts in her husband's name unless she was his agent, and the assumption was that if the debts she contracted were for necessaries only that agency existed. But if the wife of a working man purchased without her husband's knowledge luxuries—say, for instance, a costly shawl—and the husband were summoned to the County Court for non-payment, non constat the County Court Judge would have the power of refusing to order payment. Apart from these general objections, it appeared to him that the Bill was indefensible on much narrower grounds. He could understand the Bill of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) if it proposed at once to do away with the Act of 1869; but the proposal to apply it to debts which did not amount to £5 seemed to him to be altogether objectionable. If that were agreed to, it would afford a direct temptation to small traders to induce their customers to Run up their bills to over £5, and in some cases it might be a temptation to stick an extra shilling or two on to the Bill, so as to 563 bring it up to £5 1s. or £5 2s. For the general and the particular reasons he had given, he should record his vote Against the Bill.
§ MR. SERJEANT SIMON
said, he should vote for the second reading of the Bill upon the grounds slated in the Report of the Committee. His hon. and learned Friend who had just spoken seemed to have ignored these grounds altogether. At the same time, he confessed that he did not think the Bill of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) was a perfect measure. He (Mr. Serjeant Simon) thought it should have gone further and abolished imprisonment for the non-payment of a debt altogether. It had been stated that the imprisonment was not for debt, but for fraud; but it was impossible to disguise the fact that, practically, a man was punished for not paying his debts. If a man was to be punished for fraud, why was he not put upon his trial for that offence in the ordinary way, instead of being condemned in this summary manner by a Judge? He could not accept the allegation of the hon. and learned Member for Preston (Mr. Holker) that the law on this subject was equal as regarded the rich and the poor. If a man owed more than £50 he could go to the Court of Bankruptcy, and on paying 10s. in the pound, or on compounding with his creditors even for less, he obtained a full discharge; whereas the poor man, who owed a few shillings, might be sent to gaol over and over again without obtaining relief from his debt. Such a state of things was manifestly unjust. With the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) he agreed that the Bill only provided a limited remedy for a great defect. It was impossible to examine the County Court Returns without perceiving that the great mass of debts under 40s. was incurred by the reckless system of credit. No doubt four Judges of County Courts who were examined before the Committee were in favour of the present law, but three or four were strongly opposed to it, and one stipendiary magistrate gave overwhelming evidence against the present system. It was shown that the Scotch pedlar called when the husband was at work, and tempted his wife to buy a new shawl or dress. She went on paying the debt out of the house-money without telling her 564 husband, until one day the husband found himself summoned before the County Court for the debt, and then beat his wife for incurring it. Mr. Russell, in his evidence, stated that in the Manchester County Court 14,261 claims were issued in 1872. Of these nine-tenths were for sums under £5. The proportion of these under 40s. was 60 per cent of the whole, so that three-fifths of the plaints were for sums under 40s. The total sum recovered was £17,963, of which two-thirds were sold by the plaintiff to the agents who undertook to recover the debts. A regular traffic went on among drapers and others in the sale of these debts, and it was proved that one firm in Derby made a considerable income by buying these debts and proceeding against the debtors. Did the Legislature keep up the County Courts in order to encourage such a system of credit-giving, and to lower and degrade the working-classes by sending them to prison? Mr. Russell stated that the cost of sending every debtor to prison was 15s. 6d., and that while there his maintenance cost 6s. per week. Mr. Leech, of the Derby County Court, said that the gross amount of debts in 219 cases was only £46 18s., while the costs were £36 4s. 6d. The fact was that the contract between a creditor and debtor was a civil contract, and that the power of imprisonment should never be invoked for its enforcement. It was calling upon the community at large to compel the fulfilment of a private contract with which they were not concerned. The expense of the imprisonment, the support of the debtor in prison fell upon the ratepayers, who were strangers to the transaction. This objection was well expressed by the Commissioners who reported in 1838 in favour of the abolition of debt by mesne process. He trusted that the hon. Member for Derby would succeed hereafter, if not now, in removing a great stain from our Statute-Book, and in making the law equal between all classes of Her Majesty's subjects.
§ MR. SAMPSON LLOYD
wished, as a new Member, to crave the indulgence of the House while he adverted to one or two points which had either been omitted or insufficiently treated by previous speakers. If the question before the House were the maintenance of a system oppressive on the poor and not oppressive on the rich, he would be a sincere 565 supporter of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass); but it was because be believed that the question at issue was not chiefly or principally one between rich and poor that he ventured to oppose the Bill. If the cases of imprisonment were inquired into, it would be found that the working classes were not exclusively concerned; but that the debtors imprisoned were many of them well-to-do persons, who, having the means, dishonestly and wilfully refused to pay their just debts. It was, therefore, a mistake to argue this question as one between the middle and the working classes. The hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) said it could not be expected that the evidence given before the Select Committee should be extensively read; but he could assure him that the Blue Book had been carefully read and studied by the Chambers of Commerce and Trade Protection Societies. The conclusion to which they and he had come was that it was absolutely necessary to maintain this power. The case of one person was in evidence who, although he had an income of £370 a-year, had been committed 12 times, and had paid his debt each time on the eve of going to prison. In other cases the debtors who refused to pay until ordered to be committed were a dentist paying a rental of £70 a-year, an annuitant having settled property of £110 a-year, a clergyman, and a solicitor. The Judge of a Northern County Court had told him that he was dismayed on one occasion to find 110 colliers before him, earning £7 and £8 a week, who had refused to pay, and who were on the point of being imprisoned. He said to one of the Court officials, "Why, the county gaol will hardly contain all these men!" The subordinate, however, said, "Make the order, Sir. If you do, these men will all pay." He made the order accordingly, and the debts were all paid. It was proved that these men were earning from £7 to £8 a week and that some of them were feeding their fighting dogs on butchers' meat and port wine. It was important for the House to know that these in whoso behalf the hon. Member for Derby endeavoured to excite their sympathy were not working men in many cases, but dishonest members of a class above them. Imprisonment was never inflicted by the County Court Judges upon these who could not pay, but only upon those who were able to 566 pay and who refused. Now, he admitted he did not see the hardship of imprisoning the man who, to the satisfaction of the Judge, had the means of paying and refused to do so. It was argued with some force that the debtor above £50 had an unfair advantage over the debtor under that amount by moans of the Bankruptcy Law. If the hon. Member had endeavoured to level down the Law of Bankruptcy so as to meet these cases he should have desired an opportunity of considering the clauses of the present Bill. It was, however, necessary that the just remedy of the trader should not be done away with without providing some other means of recovering small debts. The extent to which this power had been used had been much exaggerated. In one important trade at Leeds, out of 100,000 customers only 13 went to prison, and in Liverpool, out of 92,000 customers only nine went to prison; while in the same trade at Walsall the commitments were on the average a couple per annum. If hon. Members who supported this Bill inquired into the cases of the 8,000 persons who suffered annually imprisonment for debt they would probably find that the average rate of their confinement was not more than a day or two each. He would remind the House, too, that the Committee who had considered this question were anything but unanimous in the conclusion that they had arrived at, and he most earnestly hoped that the House would not abolish a remedy which had worked very well, and with the slightest possible hardship, especially as nothing was proposed to be substituted.
§ MR. G. CLIVE
wished merely to state, as a Judge who had presided for some years over a Metropolitan County Court for a district second to none in population and importance, that the Bill was an injudicious one, and that the arguments which had been used in support of it were fallacious. Between himself and Mr. Whitmore, his successor, there were 26 years' experience of the Southwark County Court, and both Mr. Whitmore and Mr. Herbert, the Judge of the Hereford County Court, were strongly opposed to the Bill. Surely, the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James) would not think of comparing the authority of Mr. George Russell, a very recent appointment, with 567 that of these Judges. Nothing could he more absurd than the limitation to £5, except the reason given for it. It was said that men were made liable for the debts contracted by their wives for dress without their knowledge; but then debts almost always exceeded £5. The small debts below that limit were mostly due to the greengrocer and the baker for credit given, where the wife and family had been neglected by the husband and lather, or where he had boon out of work. To abolish the power of imprisonment in eases of debt below £5 would be to begin at the wrong end. The present law had worked well, and it would be little short of madness to attempt any interference with its operation.
§ MR. FORSYTH
desired to remind the House that the decision of the Committee of last year was opposed to the measure now under discussion. The Committee agreed to two Resolutions—that upon the hearing of any judgment summons, the Judge should inquire whether there were any other debts, and the debtor should be required, within such time as the Court might direct, to deliver a full and true account of all the debts due from him, and of his means of payment, and the Judge was thereon to make order for payment of the debt, either in full or by way of instalment, or by execution against the goods of the debtor, as should seem to him just. The other Resolution was that such sums of money as the debtor might be ordered to pay, and the produce of the sales under execution, should be brought into Court, and distributed rateably among all the creditors. The Committee reported that on their recommendations being adopted it would he expedient that the power of imprisonment for debt as now exercised by County Court Judges should be abolished. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) did not, however, embody them in his Bill.
§ MR ROEBUCK
considered the question one of great importance to a large portion of the community, including not merely the interests of the trading classes, but the interests of the working men themselves. He maintained that the working classes would be materially injured if the alteration proposed by the present Bill should be carried into effect. The law was that a person who 568 had the power to pay, and who refused to pay, could be sent to prison once, and once only. [Several hon. MEMBERS: No, no!] He begged the hon. Members' pardon. He had before him a case in which Chief Justice Bovill and another Judge in the Court of Common Pleas had decided that a debtor could be sent to prison once and once only. [An hon. MEMBER: For the same instalment.] The case of Jolly v. Roes also showed that a wife could not hind her husband if he did not give her power to do so. That was the present law. ["No, no!"] The question at issue concerned working men, and he would confine his argument to them, because hon. Members who dealt with these matters affecting humanity always referred to the working men. But what was the real state of things? A working man who went to his work was not paid his wages at once, but the person who employed him kept a fortnight's wages in his hands so that he might have power over him. Then how was the working man to live during that fortnight. If they took away the power of imprisonment they took away credit. [Mr. BASS: Hear, hear!] It was strange to hear a merchant cheer that, for the whole commercial business of England proceeded upon credit. What did the working men do in South Wales during the long strike, and how did they live? They did not go to the parish. No; the trading community trusted them and gave them credit, and during these three months the working men and their families lived upon that credit which was common in a commercial community. If the power of imprisonment had been taken away, that credit would have been withdrawn, and the men would have been reduced to beggary or the workhouse. It had been said that the present course of proceeding was an expensive one. [Mr. BASS: Hear, hear!] He had in his hand a paper giving the opinions of 59 out of the 60 County Court Judges, and they were all in support of the present state of the law. It might be said that they were wedded to their power, and power was no doubt attractive, but this was very ungrateful. Their power was a very poor one; it was attended with very great difficulty, and they would be the first persons to derive an advantage from an alteration of the law. They were now bound to inquire into 569 the ability of the debtor to pay. It was very painful for them to send any man to prison, and he had before him the expression of opinion of a most upright and tender-hearted County Court Judge, who said that the power vested in him was a painful one, and that he should be glad to get rid of it; but knowing that the interests of the working classes and of the community were bound up in it, he gravely and solemnly urged the House not to change the law. This power was not an exclusive one. The Judges of the Superior Courts had precisely the same power as the County Court Judges; but how was it exercised by them? In the case of the latter the debtor was never sent to prison for the full term; but the Judges of the Superior Courts invariably sentenced him to the whole term of imprisonment. He (Mr. Roebuck) contended that the power now exercised by the County Court Judges was not an expensive power. In 1869, there were 562,917 County Court plaints. The cost of hearing them was £446,432, loss £367,136 fees, showing an actual expense of £79,296. During, the same period in the Superior Courts there were tried 6,762 cases, at an expense of £180,333, loss fees £95,630, showing an absolute outlay of £84,700. So that while the Superior Courts, with 6,762 plaints cost £84,700, the County Courts disposed of 562,917 suits at an expense of £79,296. This showed that the cost of the County Court system was loss than the other. County Court Judges, moreover, sat all the year round, and he opposed the Bill, as the first step to depriving them of their power. The operation of the County Courts was beneficial, and their power was administered wisely, carefully, and equitably. It did good not only to the mercantile community, but to the working community; and therefore he asked the House to pause before they listened to the request of the hon. Member for Derby. If this power was abrogated they would break the staff in the hands of the County Courts; they would do away with the power of credit which the mercantile community gave to the working men, and reduce them to beggary, and drive them to the workhouse.
MR. ASSHETON CROSS
said, he thought it would not be right, however anxious the House was to close the debate, that they should proceed to a division 570 without hearing a few words on the part of the Government. But, in the first place, he begged to bear his testimony to the honesty of purpose of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass), who had charge of the Bill, and to the able manner in which he had conducted the inquiry before the Committee last year, at a time when from ill-health he was unequal to the task of undertaking the duties. No one felt more than himself (Mr. Cross) that the effect of the debtors, when imprisoned, being kept at the expense of the country was ever regarded as an injustice to the ratepayers of the country; but it must, at the same time, be remembered that by paying the expense of a few debtors, the country gained great security in the matter of recovering just and lawful debts to a very much larger amount. Every one who, like himself, had inspected gaols as a Visiting Justice, and had seen debtors undergoing no real punishment, must have desired some punishment for these who had committed frauds. He could not help thinking that a great many of the evils which had arisen, or were supposed to have arisen, under this Act of Parliament had come rather from the way in which it had been administered than from the law itself. That point was fully borne out by the evidence given before the Committee of last year, and if the Act was bonâ fide carried out in the spirit in which he believed it was intended to be carried out wheal it was passed, the alleged evils which had been brought before the House would to a great extent disappear. Let the House look at the protection which the law afforded the debtor. In the first instance, there must be the judgment of a competent Court that a man had actually incurred a debt—and here he could not help saying that there had been a laxity in some places in allowing a tradesman to recover against a debtor for goods which had been supplied to his family without his knowledge, and for which he was not practically bound to pay; but that was not the fault of the law, but of the administration of it. The second shield that the law throw over the debtor was that the only jurisdiction as to the payment must be exercised by the Judge and his deputy, and by no one else. It was to be exercised in open Court, and only when it had been proved to the satisfaction of the Court that the 571 debtor had the means of paying and had wilfully neglected or refused to do so. A great amount of evidence was given before the Committee as to what constituted in the mind of the particular Judge the real test of the ability to pay; and he (Mr. Cross) thought that if the County Court Judges would lay their heads together and frame some rules by which they might act more in harmony one with another upon that point, they would do away with a great deal of the supposed hardships of the law. Again, no order was to be made unless the debtor had had the summons personally served upon himself, and he thought that some of the evils, or supposed evils, of the Act had arisen in this way—namely, that the original summons was not served personally upon the debtor, and therefore it had happened in many cases that the man had never heard actually of the debt until the judgment summons was personally served upon him. That was a fault that might be remedied, but not in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Derby. As he had stated, the object of the existing Act was that when a man had money to pay his debts, and that fact was proved to the satisfaction of the Commissioner, an order ought to be made for payment, and that when it was proved that he had wilfully refused and neglected to pay, he should be considered guilty of fraud, and deserving of imprisonment. He believed that if any amendment was required in the present Act, it should be in that direction, and not in the way recommended by the hon. Member for Derby. The hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson), in answer to a question put by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Henry James), told the Committee that the meaning of the law as it stood was that only the dishonest creditor should suffer imprisonment; but this Bill was framed on entirely different lines, and did not seek to carry out the original intention of the Act. When the Committee discussed the question, they recommended that any amendment which should be made should be in accordance with a Resolution suggested by the late right hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton)—namely, that such of the provisions of the Debtors Act of 1869 as related to fraudulent debtors should be revised for the purpose of extending the same as far as might be necessary 572 to persons against whom an order of judgment debtor summons might be issued the hon. Member for Derby, who had moved for the Select Committee that inquired into this subject, and had given great attention to its proceedings, had certainly neglected all its recommendations in a most extraordinary way. Apart from their recommendations in the matter of bankruptcies, he had entirely neglected the recommendation first referred to. He had also neglected the only recommendation with regard to which the Committee had been unanimous—namely, that inasmuch as the system of credit at present regulating dealings between tradesmen and persons of small means would be materially affected by the proposed changes in the law, it would be expedient that any Act which might be passed should not come into operation till a reasonable time had elapsed within which persons affected by the measure might be able to adapt their modes of dealing to its provisions. If the Bill now under consideration were passed, it would take effect immediately, and would throw the whole system of credit throughout the country into the greatest possible confusion. And how would it work in other directions? The hon. Member said, "You are not to put a man in prison for a debt of £5." Upon what principle was it possible to defend such a piece of legislation? Why should a difference be made in the case of the man who had incurred a debt of £6? What difference could there be between the one debtor and the other; and why was a shield to be thrown over one while the other was left still exposed to all the evils that were at present supposed to exist? The Bill was illogical, and he could not support it. It was also framed entirely in opposition to the recommendations of the Committee. It would also offer in its working a great temptation to both debtor and creditor to engage in improper practices. The debtor, feeling secure against imprisonment, would be easily induced to contract the small debt in the first instance. When that was done the creditor would feel it clearly to be his interest to allow the debt to run on and swell in amount until it had increased beyond the sum of £5, in order that he might then avail himself of the power of imprisonment. He (Mr. Cross) could not support the Bill; he believed it to be contrary to 573 the views of the Committee, and believed the proper remedy, and one which he should not be displeased to see adopted, would be the one suggested by the Committee—namely, the application of the Debtors Act (1869) more perfectly to the case of fraudulent debtors.
said, he admitted that the Bill was not logical. The Committee said they must abolish imprisonment for debt by degrees; and therefore it was that, instead of asking the House to abolish imprisonment altogether, he only proposed to abolish it in respect of debts under £5. The evils of the present system were clearly proved before the Committee, where it was shown that in some cases men were imprisoned eight times for one small debt, and the object of his Bill was to remedy that state of things.
supported the Bill, on the ground that even a small instalment of reform was desirable.
§ Question put.
§ The House divided:—Ayes 72; Noes 215: Majority 143.
§ Words added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
§ Second Reading put off for six months.