HC Deb 02 July 1875 vol 225 cc893-900

, who had a Notice upon the Paper to call attention to the Civil Bill Courts in Ireland; and to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the expediency of amending the constitution of such Courts, with a view of making them more efficient and more suitable to the requirements of the country, and to report thereon, said, he was aware the Government had given some consideration to the matter, and were prepared to recognize the fact that some legislation must take place in order to afford the masses of the Irish people legal tribunals wherein they could assert their legal rights without an expenditure which virtually precluded them at the present time from availing themselves of the Courts of Justice of the country. He could not imagine a greater grievance for a poor man than to find that justice was denied to him because he was not rich; and he thought few subjects could be discussed of greater importance, or which were more worthy the consideration of the House than the one which he wished shortly to call attention to. Why, he asked, should the representative of an humble man be denied the privilege of having discussed and decided by a properly constituted legal tribunal the rights of all interested in his assets, merely because they were not of sufficient value to enable those interested to appeal to one of the Superior Courts, which alone in such matters had jurisdiction at present? He considered it to be the duty of the Legislature to afford to the meanest and poorest of Her Majesty's subjects a cheap and easily accessible legal remedy and the means of asserting their acknowledged rights. This, under the existing law, was impossible, he asserted. No doubt, there would be some difficulty in extending the jurisdiction of the Civil Bill Courts in Ireland to the same extent as that of the County Courts in England; and his object in bringing forward the question at the present time, and under existing circumstances, was that they might know those difficulties in time to enable the Government early in the next Session to carry through some scheme for affording immediate relief in the direction indicated. He would proceed to contrast the Irish with the English County Courts. The Judges of the latter had a Common Law jurisdiction up to £50, and equitable jurisdiction up to £500; actions referred by the Superior Courts of any amount or description; in Admiralty cases jurisdiction up to £ 1,000 in amount; Bankruptcy Jurisdiction without any limit; and jurisdiction in respect of real property to the value of £20. Besides jurisdiction in these matters they had conferred on them certain special powers to which it was unnecessary to refer. The County Court Judges were not selected from barristers of eminence; indeed, the qualification for a County Court Judgeship was seven years' standing at the Bar, and the Judges were removable at the pleasure of the Lord Chancellor. The Chairman of Quarter Sessions in Ireland, on the other hand, only had a Common Law jurisdiction of £40 in personal actions and in remitted cases; with respect to real property to the extent of £20; in Bankruptcy without limit (provided the Court of Bankruptcy referred the case to them); very limited Jurisdiction in probate cases, and in matters relating to the recovery of legacies, and certain special jurisdiction not necessary further to allude to at present. The Chairmen in Ireland were selected not unfrequently from men of the highest standing at the Bar and in large practice, and were entirely independent of the Crown, being removable only upon an Address from both Houses of Parliament. The Judges of the Civil Bill Courts in Ireland, therefore, had no equitable jurisdiction at all, their Common Law jurisdiction in remitted cases and others was limited to £40, and in other matters referred to of a much more restricted nature than the English County Courts. In England there were 60 County Court Judges at a cost of £105,300 with a large staff to assist them in their business, consisting of 16 treasurers, with 13 assistant clerks at a cost of £16,898, a superintendent, with an assistant and 10 clerks, at a cost of £4,420; a registrar, a chief and second clerk, at a cost of £1,200; 601 registrars at a cost of £221,446; a large number of registrars for Bankruptcy matters at a cost of £29,500; and 395 high bailiffs at a cost of £112,358, besides a host of process servers and other minor officials. The total cost of the County Court establishment amounted to the annual sum of £399,658, exclusive of the Judges' salaries, whereas in Ireland the salaries paid to the Chairmen amounted to only £35,450, and to the clerks of the peace £37,250. In England each Judge had 18 skilled men to assist him in his labours. In Ireland there were 33 Chairmen of Quarter Sessions and the only assistants they had were 33 clerks of the peace or their deputies, notwithstanding that the Chairmen exercised almost unlimited jurisdiction in criminal matters, and had entrusted to them the entire business arising out of the Land Act of 1870. But the numerical strength of the administrative staff was by no means the most formidable grievance that the Irish Chairmen had to complain of. The filling up of the responsible office of clerks of the peace was entrusted to the Lords Lieutenant of the counties. It was scarcely credible, but that was, nevertheless, the case. He had been credibly informed that out of the total of 33 clerks of the peace 28 did not reside in their districts. Some lived on the Continent, in England, and in India. Of the entire number of the clerks of the peace eight only had any legal training, 26 had their work done by deputies, and of these only three were professional men. Under the existing law he regretted to say the great majority of those acting as clerks of the peace were utterly incompetent to transact the duties which would be required of them if the jurisdiction of the Civil Bill Courts was enlarged in the manner which he suggested. The method of appointing clerks of the peace should be at once changed, and the present deputies should be required either to discharge their duties efficiently, or to resign. The persons now holding the offices of clerks of the peace should be called upon either to discharge their duties themselves or to provide substitutes who should be thoroughly competent to do the work under the altered system. It might possibly be necessary to compensate some of the existing clerks of the peace who might be willing to discharge the duties themselves, but who were not competent so to do; but it would be found that the holders of those offices would prefer to resign when they found that something must be done for their large salaries. It could no longer be tolerated that the poor man in England should be cared for whenever he chose to have recourse to the legal tribunals, whereas in Ireland such justice was denied him. There was scarcely a member of the legal profession in Ireland who had not had experience of the hardship and injustice inflicted on the poorer classes by reason of the denial of justice to them. He knew several cases. Passing from this part of the question he called attention to the proposal which had been before the public for some time past—the advisability of making the Chairmen of the Civil Bill Courts resident Judges, and in order to do so, requiring them to give up their private practice. Nothing, in his opinion, would be more prejudicial to the interests of justice or to the administration of the law than this proposal if carried out. The necessary result of making the Chairmen resident Judges would be that they would be compelled to mix socially and become intimate with the gentry and landed proprietors resident in the districts where they would be called on to administer justice. Nothing could be calculated to diminish the confidence of the people in the impartial administration of justice more than to see the Judge the intimate friend and associate of the upper classes. In cases under the Land Act the proposed system would work very badly. What the people wanted was a sound lawyer, not a man half a lawyer and half a country gentleman, to adjudicate upon their cases. He believed that the Chairmen as a body would feel that if residence in their districts was necessary, they would be placed in a most painful and embarrassing position. Their decisions would not carry the weight which would be essential to the proper administration of justice, and the people would look with suspicion upon the action of Judges whom they would see in the closest social communication with the rich and the powerful. In Ireland they were justly proud of many of the Judges of the Civil Bill Courts. The position was sought for by the leading members of the Bar. It was a great mistake to suppose that the conferring of a more extensive jurisdiction must have the effect of withdrawing Chairmen from their practice, or forcing them to reside in their counties. Under the existing state of the law much time was lost in adjudicating upon undefended cases. Great loss of time also occurred in the hearing of paltry cases which might be adjudicated upon by magistrates sitting in petty sessions. It was manifestly unjust that a suitor seeking to recover 5s. or £1, or a trifling sum, should be called on to pay as much for the support of the Court as a suitor who recovered a large sum. Jurisdiction to hear undefended cases ought to be given to the Registrar with an appeal upon the lodgment of costs to the Judge. All cases involving questions of trifling value ought to be adjudicated on by a petty sessions Court, held before, or presided over, by a competent stipendiary magistrate without the imposition of any stamp duty. These alterations would relieve the Chairmen from a great deal of labour, and enable them to exercise the enlarged jurisdiction without driving them from practice. Any measure for enlarging the jurisdiction of the Civil Bill Courts must necessarily fail unless a staff of efficient and properly paid officers be first created. The Committee, if appointed, could very easily devise a scheme whereby the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be relieved from all anxieties, and his frustrating influence dispensed with. At the present time the Civil Bill Courts yielded to the Exchequer about £20,450. If all claims for—say, less than £5, were freed from all duty, and an additional fee of 6d. was charged on every Civil Bill process, and an increased ad valorem stamp imposed, as in England, the result would be that the system would be self-working, and very little, if any, assistance would be asked for from the Treasury. He had said quite sufficient to prove that there was abundant matter for inquiry on this subject. A few days would suffice for the inquiry, and he asked that the Government would be in a position to deal with the matter at the commencement of next Session. If this Committee took place, the Government would be able to carry out a useful and substantial legal reform, the greatest benefit would be conferred on the country, and a measure creditable to the House would be passed into law. The most feasible scheme that could be adopted would be to extend the jurisdiction of the Chairmen, and make it analogous to that of the English County Court, give to the petty sessions Court, presided over by a competent magistrate, jurisdiction in all cases under £5, appoint a competent staff of registrars, chosen from professional men, reserve power to the Superior Courts to remove any case of sufficient importance, and reserve to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland the power of making such rules and regulations for the conduct of business as he might consider advisable. There were many other suggestions that would be made to a Select Committee. His principal object in calling attention to this matter was to hasten the granting of a boon to the poor of Ireland such as for many years had not been granted to them. The Civil Bill Court in Ireland was essentially the "Poor Man's Court," and everything that was done to make litigation there cheap and easy, must necessarily be an immense benefit to the mass of the people.


supported the views of the hon. and learned Member for Kildare. The present system was not the most desirable for the administration of the law in Ireland. The Government ought to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the subject.


said, the present aspect of the House, there being only a few Members present, did not show that much interest was felt by Parliament in the question. He considered that his hon. and learned Friend who brought forward the subject had gone much beyond the question in which the people of Ireland felt most interest, inasmuch as the Quarter Sessions in Ireland was the tribunal which most concerned the masses of the people. If any tribunal was popular in Ireland and enjoyed the confidence of the people it was those Courts, for they were known as the "Poor Man's Courts," and he should be sorry to see the English system introduced into them. The Court of Quarter Sessions was certainly a most important Court in Ireland; and here he would say that there was no country in which the law was more cheaply administered than in the Quarter Sessions Courts in Ireland. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend that the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions in Ireland required to be extended; but while the Act was more limited in its jurisdiction than similar Courts in England, it was yet a most important measure. For his part, he could not see any occasion for inquiry into matters with which all interested in them were perfectly well acquainted. A more efficient, high-minded, and honourable body of men could not be found in Ireland than those who discharged the business of Quarter Sessions.


said, his hon. and learned Friend had not advanced any argument against the administration of the law in Ireland to show that the people had not confidence in the tribunal of Civil Bill Courts in Ireland. "With regard to the extension of the jurisdiction of the Chairmen of Quarter Sessions in Ireland, he concurred with him that it was desirable; but he hoped his hon. and learned Friend would not press his Motion for a Select Committee to inquire into the matter, and that he would be satisfied with the pledge given by his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, that he would, if possible, bring in Bills in the ensuing Session of Parliament to deal with this and other questions relating to Ireland. In the Bill to be brought in, when time allowed of its being dealt with, the points raised as to the position of clerks of the peace would not be overlooked. There was no necessity for the inquiry asked for, and he hoped the hon. and learned Member would facilitate the passing of the Bill when it was laid before the House.