HC Deb 21 May 1875 vol 224 cc745-57

, in rising to call attention to the disallowances enforced by the Treasury in respect of the costs of Criminal Prosecutions, said, the Treasury Minute of the 29th January last, which was intended to remove the grievances of local ratepayers, had introduced another grievance; and if it had been in order at that stage, he would have submitted a Motion embodying his contention that the whole of the prosecutions in England ought to be defrayed out of monies provided as heretofore by Parliament without those deductions which had of late years been, as he maintained, improperly made there from. He very much regretted that the Forms of the House would not permit him to move his Resolution, because he believed it would have met with general acceptance. Practically, it was identical with one which was moved by the hon. Baronet the Member for South Devon (Sir Massey Lopes), and which was on that occasion supported by the present Prime Minister and the present Home Secretary. The state of things of which he complained was neither fair to the ratepayers nor conducive to the due administration of justice. The grievance of the ratepayers was this—that whereas it had been intended by Parliament and admitted by the Government of the country that all the costs of the prosecution of offenders should be borne, not by the local rates, but out of the Imperial Treasury, yet, owing to what he regarded as the unlawful intervention of certain subordinate officers of the Treasury, the intentions of Parliament had been defeated and an irregular portion of the costs of these prosecutions was, contrary to the intention of Parliament, saddled on the local ratepayers. Since 1846 the intention of Parliament in the matter had been considered quite clear—namely, to relieve the ratepayers of counties and boroughs entirely from the costs of those prosecutions, and accordingly the costs were taxed by the proper officers in various Courts of Justice in the manner provided for by law, and when the order of the Court was made it was compulsory that it should be obeyed. The costs being paid the Bills were taken to the Treasury, whose duty it then became, after satisfying themselves that the money had been paid, to refund the money paid in the first instance. That intention was defeated by the interference of the Department of Examiners of the Criminal Law Accounts, who, under the provisions of no Act of Parliament, but merely under the directions of the Government of the day, reviewed the taxation of the proper taxing officers and made deductions, which they called their schedule of disallowances, knocking off a shilling here, and sixpence there, and thus saddling the sums disallowed upon the counties and boroughs. The County of Lancaster appealed to the Court of Queen's Bench in 1871 against this state of things, when Sir Robert Collier advised that the Treasury disallowances were totally indefensible. Next year, Lancashire. West Yorkshire, and other counties came to the Court, which unanimously disapproved the allowances, while holding that it had no jurisdiction over the Treasury, and expressed the opinion that the conduct of the Treasury was illegal, and a violation of the Appropriation Act. When this subject was brought under the consideration of the House there was a long debate but no division. Why? Because no one ventured to dispute the facts alleged or the conclusions arrived at by the hon. Baronet. Mr. Bruce and Mr. Winterbotham had nothing to say in defence of the Home Office or the Treasury; Mr. Cross supported the hon. Baronet in an able speech; Mr. Henley characterized the proceeding as a piece of robbery and swindling—nobody contradicted him; the present Prime Minister twitted the Chancellor of the Exchequer because he had not ventured to show himself; and finally, Mr. Baxter promised that the subject should receive the immediate consideration of the Government. The whole proceeding was admitted to be indefensible, and therefore the hon. Baronet withdrew the Motion. That was the way in which the grievance had been treated by the House of Commons, and yet, though denounced by all these high authorities, it had survived in full vigour till January this year. The Treasury Minute dealing with the subject was dated the 29th of January, and no doubt the intention was very fair. But there were several serious objections to it. The first blunder in connection with the Minute to which he would direct attention was, the strange assumption on which it proceeded that all the disallowances made in past years were lawful and proper. Nobody who read the Minute would suppose that these disallowances had been denounced by the Members of the very Government who agreed to the Minute. He should like to give the House one or two specimens of the disallowances which the Treasury were in the habit of making in the cost of prosecutions. In January, 1874, a case occurred at the Quarter Sessions for the county of Lancaster, held in the town of Lancaster. The Chairman of Quarter Sessions expressly ordered that a witness resident in London should be summoned by a Crown Office subpoena. It was served at a cost of £1 1s. 5d. That sum was disallowed, and the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions was Richard Assheton Cross, the present Home Secretary. Since 1872 the Treasury had invariably disallowed the costs of a warder attending the trial of a previously convicted criminal unless the prisoner pleaded "Not Guilty;" but the prisoner generally pleaded "Guilty" to a previous indictment, because he saw before him the familiar face of the warder under whom he had served, and the Treasury took upon itself, contrary to law, to disallow the costs of the warder's attendance, and imposed the burden on the ratepayers of counties and boroughs. The Treasury was also in the habit of deducting small sums of 3d. and 1s. from the railway fares of witnesses, and when complaint was made the Treasury expressed surprise that gentlemen troubled themselves with items of such small amount. The fees payable when prisoners were remanded were disallowed, although it was declared by the Court of Queen's Bench that such disallowances were improper. In one case an indictment had been specialty ordered by the Judge of Assize to be prepared by counsel, and the fees were disallowed. In a case in the county of Kent the Treasury had disallowed 16s. charged for a fly to convey a Justice when snow was on the ground to take the deposition of a dying man. In another recent case which occurred at the Liverpool Assizes a man was convicted for felony. After his conviction it was found he was possessed of £33, and an order of Court was made on the testimony of a witness from Blackburn that the money should be applied to pay the costs of the prosecution. The Treasury took the £33, and disallowed the expenses of the witness by whose evidence the criminal had been convicted. Another objection he took to the Minute of January last had reference to the improper and invidious distinction which it made between clerks of Assize and clerks of the peace. The effect of the Minute was, that the Treasury accepted the taxation in the case of the former, while reviewing it in the case of the latter. The Treasury refused to accept the taxation of the clerk of the peace, because they said he was amenable to the authorities for the proper discharge of his duties; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer must have been misinformed on that point, because the clerks of the peace were officers appointed in counties by the Lords Lieutenant, who certainly did not represent the ratepayers. His next objection was that under the Minute, the Treasury proposed to strike an average of the costs for prosecutions for the last three years, and to pay at the rate allowed, which would, in fact, make perpetual the illegal transactions of the last three years. The cost of prosecutions at Quarter Sessions was an increasing amount for two reasons—first, because the smaller cases were now disposed of summarily much more than they used to be; and, secondly, because the Court of Quarter Sessions now tried heavy and important cases, which were formerly remitted to the Assizes. He held in his hands a Return received from the county of Lancaster, which might serve as a specimen. From that Return it appeared that during the three years preceding 1874 the costs of prosecutions at the Assizes were £7,582, while the costs of prosecutions at the Quarter Sessions for the same period were no less than £25,683. The average number of prosecutions was 2,726, so that the average cost of each was £9 8s. 6d. But, the number of prosecutions during the half-year, ending December 31, 1874—when the new system had come into operation—was 568, and the amount of the county claim was£5,585, showing an average of £9 16s. 8d., so that the costs of each prosecution had increased by 8s., or a little more. If the Treasury made the average deductions from the amount claimed they would reduce it by £16 10s.; but, according to the new scheme of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the claim would be reduced by £234. Therefore, the new scheme would have the effect the first half-year—he would not say, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) had said—of "robbing," but of depriving the ratepayers of the county of Lancaster of £218. In the borough of Liverpool the same process would deprive the ratepayers of nearly £200 upon the half-year, and he had no doubt it would be found that the ratepayers of every borough and county in England would be deprived of large sums in a similar manner. Another thing to be remarked was the insidious intentions which it was apparent the Treasury had for the future. The examiners of criminal law costs were not to be abolished. There was still to be an examination of bills from Assizes and Quarter Sessions, not with a view to making deductions, but with a view to a possible revision of the matter at the end of three years, at which time he had no doubt we should have a very great reduction. Now, there were two reasons why the Treasury Minute ought not to be persevered in. The first was, that, according to the Judges of the land, the practice which this Minute proposed to establish was illegal; and Parliament was not going to pass an Act which would prevent the ratepayers from being reimbursed to the full amount of the costs. The second reason was that the practical effect of the Minute on the administration of justice would be very injurious; because, under the pretence of removing a grievance, it would really aggravate it. The Minute also would have this effect—that the Justices would cease to remit all the heavier cases to be tried at Quarter Sessions, and the Assizes would be overburdened with work. Suppose the Justices had a case brought before them, the probable costs of which would be £80, while only £9 10s. would be allowed by the Treasury, they would send it to the Assizes, because then the whole of the costs would be paid by the Treasury. In conclusion, he wished to be allowed to point the moral of this matter, because though in itself trifling, it was important as involving a great question of principle. Here was an abuse condemned by the Judges, by the Attorney General or the Solicitor General of the day, in defence of which no one would lift up his voice in the House of Commons, and which the Government, three or four years ago, promised should be immediately attended to. In the month of January, however, it appeared not only that the old grievances had been retained, but that fresh ones of the very worst kind had been introduced; and that circumstance showed how very little control the House of Commons, or the Ministers of the Crown, had over the persons who regulated these matters.


said, that his hon. Friend had made grave imputations against the Treasury, and had used rather strong language, talking about illegal proceedings in a manner calculated to mislead the House and to divert its attention from the real position of the case. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) was not for a moment going to question the propriety or the authority of the expression of opinion on the part of the Judges of the land respecting this question. What he understood the Judges to have said was this—that Parliament, having appropriated a certain sum for a certain purpose, it was a wrong and not a legal proceeding on the part of the officers of the Treasury to put the construction which they did put upon the vote of Parliament, or to make any deduction from the costs when they had been taxed by the proper authorities. Upon that opinion, he could understand that it might be contended that what was done down to 1874 was illegal; that the Treasury might, strictly speaking, have been guilty of some breach of law in making the deductions. But, however that might have been before 1874, it must be borne in mind that the matter was one in which the House of Commons had it in its power to give or withhold what it thought right from year to year; and what was now in question was not whether the deductions which the Treasury had made in former years were or not strictly legal; but what was to be the principle upon which grants were to be made for the future? Would the House or his hon. Friend admit the principle that Parliament should make payments in respect of expenses of this kind without submitting them to any audit or examination at all? Usually, when Parliament made a grant for a specific purpose, it took care, through the agency of the proper officer, that the money was applied to the purpose for which it was voted and to no other. Now, although fault might be found with particular disallowances, the examinations referred to by his hon. Friend were in the nature of an audit undertaken on the part of the Government, acting in order to see that the grant was properly applied, in fulfilment of the intentions of Parliament. Now, was that a vexatious or merely unnecessary proceeding on the part of Parliament? The history of the matter was this. In former times Parliament granted, not the whole, but half the; costs of prosecutions to the local authorities; but in 1846, Sir Robert Peel thought it a reasonable boon to grant the whole instead of only a moiety. The effect was that within three or four years after, the expense of prosecutions jumped up by one-fifth. Was it not obvious, therefore, that less control was exercised than had previously been the case? When the Examiners were first appointed, and called upon to look into the expenditure, they undoubtedly found that very considerable laxity and abuse existed. The course taken, therefore, whether strictly legal or not in subjecting these payments to the examination of competent persons, was in itself not an unreasonable course, although he admitted there had been a good deal of vexation in some of the challenges. The system as it was worked had necessarily caused considerable annoyance; but was it proposed to throw the reins entirely upon the necks of the taxing officers, to let them charge what they pleased, and to permit them to double the authorized scale if they thought fit to do so? It could hardly be contended seriously that nobody ought to take any notice, but that the Treasury should pay whatever demand was made upon it. Did hon. Members believe that such a system would really be in the interest of the ratepayers, or that if commenced it could possibly endure? A suggestion had been thrown out in the Treasury Minute, which was in the hands of most hon. Members, and the Government intended to ask the House to vote the money this year in accordance with that suggestion. If the House granted the money on the conditions set forth in the Minute, there would be no illegality in the money being applied in the way proposed. What was illegal was that money which had been voted by Parliament without condition was subsequently made subject to a condition. If that were so, then any question of illegality should be set aside, because it only confused the matter. The point raised was one touching the whole system upon which grants were to be made in aid of local taxation. In that matter the Government were not proceeding upon niggardly principles, for it was the intention of the Government and the practice they were introducing, to assist local taxation by subventions, and liberal subventions, from the Treasury. There might be some diminution in this particular case; but, if so, it would be as a drop in the ocean, compared with the new subventions which the Government were giving and intended to continue. If the House, however, refused to allow any system of control or to accept the principle of a gross payment, leaving a margin to be dealt with by the local authorities, the hands of the Government would be weakened in pursuing the course proposed. In the case of the police, the Treasury gave a certain portion of the money, and must necessarily see that it was properly applied. In the case of lunatics, the Government also gave a lump sum, and it was a subvention which might or might not meet the whole cost; but a margin of it had to be defrayed by the local authority, and the Government saw that the money was applied to the purpose for which it was intended. He hoped that the time might come when they would look more fully into this question, and others connected with the administration of justice; indeed, the present was only one portion of a great subject. But in all these matters they desired to take the House with them, and to proceed upon liberal principles, whilst, at the same time, they excluded waste and extravagance. He failed to gather from what his hon. Friend had told them what it was that he wished them to do, unless it was to abstain altogether from any audit. The Government wished to see whether in process of time the costs of prosecutions would increase, and, also, whether it would not be possible to revise the different tables of fees so as to bring about an approach to uniformity throughout the country. At present there were great variations in the scale of fees between one part of the country and another, and to produce anything like uniformity would require great consideration, and would be no easy matter to effect. He had no wish to say anything in defence of, or in mitigation of, those disallowances of the examiners, on which his hon. Friend had made such severe remarks. He knew that they had given rise to constant complaints, but he must do the examiners the justice to say that many of the disallowances had to be made over and over again, because the local authorities would continually send up their accounts with the same errors in them, and out of £5,000, about £3,000 had to be disallowed, including items which the local authorities had no justification for making on the plea of ignorance. To some extent it was true that the charges were made at Assizes by persons over whom the local authorities had no control, and it was partially so with regard to session cases, and it was on that ground that what his hon. Friend called an invidious distinction was made between Assize and session prosecutions. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) could not admit that clerks of the peace stood on the same footing as clerks of Assize, and he was under the impression that until now, that greater powers of dismissal existed in the local authorities with regard to clerks of the peace than appeared to be the case; but any person who knew the relations that existed between clerks of the peace and magistrates must know that, as a rule, they had more influence over them than they had over clerks of Assize, and that they would not like to be exposing their counties time after time to losses in consequence of returns so made by them. It was a choice of difficulties. The charge had not been made for the purpose of saving a few hundred pounds, but upon a principle, and in giving a lump sum, it was done in the belief that it was equivalent to what had hitherto been paid, and given so as to avoid all those questions of dispute and get rid of that vexation and annoyance that arose between the Treasury and the local authorities, without at the same time the counties being losers by the change. If, however, it should appear to be otherwise—if the scale was fixed at too low a rate, there would always exist the power of revising it and of doing justice. He earnestly hoped that the new arrangement would be found to work satisfactorily, but if not, probably some compromise might be come to that would be satisfactory to both parties.


said, he did not think, when they looked to the great wealth of England and the importance of criminal prosecutions, that the expenses of those prosecutions were at all out of proportion to what they might be reasonably expected to be. He was anxious that justice might be done without extravagance, but thought that the principle of averages was as unlike a sound principle as anything that could be devised, because it was giving to one more than he ought to have, and giving to another nothing. A strong feeling was entertained in the counties that, in consequence of the miserable economy on the part of the Treasury in the matter of the costs of prosecutions, justice was continually being defeated. He believed the allowance to scientific witnesses was miserably inadequate; and, in conclusion, he endorsed every statement which had been made by the hon. Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst).


said, he had had some experience of the subject under consideration, having to officiate as Chairman of Quarter Sessions in the county of Somerset. Their proceedings were governed by an Order made by Sir George Grey in 1858, which was exceedingly unjust; and when they applied to the Treasury to have a more satisfactory rule instituted, the reply was, that if the Justices of Somersetshire made a special application on the subject, it would be considered, but the Order itself could not be departed from. He gave the Government credit for a desire to keep down expenditure, but the principle on which disallowances were made was wrong, and must be wrong; for how could Examiners sitting at Westminster have any knowledge of the circumstances connected with the various charges which they investigated? He contended that the whole system of audit could never prove satisfactory, unless it was an audit conducted on the spot by a properly appointed taxing officer. He gave the Chancellor of the Exchequer credit for the best intentions, but no average scale would get rid of the irritation that prevailed, or meet the views of the ratepayers, who believed that they had a legal and moral right to the return of the expenses paid by them for criminal prosecutions.


thought it was hardly necessary to add anything to the illustrations which had been given by his hon. Friend who had introduced the subject (Mr. Gorst), but there were circumstances which irritated not only the ratepayers of the county he had the honour to represent, but also the magistrates and officers who served under them, to which he felt it his duty to refer. In the county of Shropshire the sum allowed to attorneys by the Court of Quarter Sessions was £3 3s. The officials of the county of Leicester communicated with the Treasury on the subject, remarking that it was rather hard that £3 3s. should be allowed in Shropshire, whilst, when £2 2s. was asked for in the county of Leicester, the amount was reduced to £1 1s. In answer to that communication the Lords of the Treasury said the sum paid by the Court in Shropshire was unusually high, but that it had been fixed many years ago, and their Lordships had no power to alter that which had been the custom so long. The same principle, however, had not been observed with regard to Leicestershire, where the charge of £2 2s. had for a long period of time been customary, and he wanted to know by what authority the allowance had been reduced. He thought the Government had not made out a case for treating the costs incurred at Courts of Quarter Sessions in a different manner from those incurred at Courts of Assize. He believed that the clerks of the peace in counties were as scrupulous and as careful about the amounts they allowed for costs as they could well be, and he could not see why their work should be dealt with differently from that of the clerks of Assize. The Chancellor of the Exchequer having asked how the case was to be met, he would venture to suggest that the right course would be for the Government to take the whole cost of criminal prosecutions into their own hands, to deal with all criminal prosecutions through their own officers, and meet the expenses with respect to them, and not inflict on the ratepayers vexatious, and often heavy charges, which they had no power whatever to control. He hoped at least that the Government would re-consider the part of the Treasury Minute relating to the costs of prosecutions at Quarter Sessions.


said, the only difficulty he felt about the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposal was that the right hon. Gentleman had taken his data on too limited a scale, and that some counties were so small that the adoption of an average of three years would operate unfairly in their case. He would prefer if the Treasury would take those charges altogether into its own hands from the first—an arrangement which he thought would conduce to economy, and relieve Justices of the Peace from the necessity of making disallowances.


said, these grants from the Consolidated Fund for criminal prosecutions commenced in 1836, and they had ever since gone on increasing in amount—a result which they might expect from all Imperial grants for local objects. The grant was largely extended in 1846 by the late Sir Robert Peel, on condition of the charge being subjected to audit, and this check the Chancellor of the Exchequer was right in strictly enforcing. But seeing how troublesome this duty must be, and how difficult it was for a Government to enforce this right over persons who were not in the direct service of the State, he could not refrain from expressing an earnest hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would see his way yet to put an end to these payments by some transfer of taxes now collected for the Imperial Exchequer, but which more properly belonged to the localities, so that they might manage their own affairs, and, amongst other payments, provide for those of criminal prosecutions.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.