HC Deb 05 April 1877 vol 233 cc664-70

in rising to call attention to the great and increasing loss inflicted on the ratepayers of counties and boroughs by the system at present practised by the Treasury of paying a part only of the costs of criminal prosecutions, and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, no part of the costs of criminal prosecutions, after taxation by proper officers, should be charged on local rates, said, he doubted whether it would be convenient for the House that a statement like that to which they had listened should lead to a long discussion, and he would, therefore, as having the first Notice on the Paper, at once intervene. When the present Government came into office they made a new arrangement with respect to the payment for criminal prosecutions in counties and boroughs, and as the experiment, which was to last for three years, would expire in June next, he thought he was justified in calling attention to the matter. He would just remind the House of the system which the plan of the Government was intended to improve. In former times the administration of justice was a local matter. In 1835 part of the costs were made a charge on the Exchequer, and in 1846 the whole. The system adopted was for the clerk of arraigns to tax the bill of costs, and then an order of the Court was made on the local treasurer for payment, and that order was afterwards sent up to the Treasury, and the amount was repaid. The local system was thought to give rise to extravagance, and two attempts, one lawful and one unlawful, were made to check that extravagance. The first was that the Secretary of State laid down rules as to the costs of witnesses, &c., to be allowed; and what he called the unlawful attempt was made by the appointment of two functionaries called Examiners of Criminal Law Accounts. These gentlemen re-taxed in London the bills of costs which had been already taxed in the country. Naturally they could not tell so well as the officials on the spot what ought or ought not to be allowed; but they struck off items here and there, and payment to the counties of the items thus struck off was refused —a process which it was not surprising gave rise to much unpleasantness and dissatisfaction. At length some of the counties went to the Courts of Law, and the Court of Queen's Bench expressed a strong opinion against the legality of these Examiners, and also that the amounts they disallowed ought to have been allowed. It was, however, decided that these officials were not amenable to the Courts of Law, and an appeal was made to the House of Commons. A Motion was made by the hon. Baronet the Member for South Devon (Sir Massey Lopes), and very strong language indeed was used. He called these disallowances acts of "petty larceny" on the part of the Executive, and he spoke of the conduct of the Treasury as "pettifogging" and "pernicious," and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) said, that it was a robbery on the ratepayers of the counties and boroughs, but correcting himself affirmed that although he had called it robbery it really seemed more like swindling. The then Home Secretary (Mr. Bruce) admitted that it was the duty of the Imperial Government to bear all the costs of prosecutions, and that no part ought to be thrown on the ratepayers. Nothing more, however, was done till the present Government came into office; they proceeded to redress the grievance, and the system they introduced was this. The costs of prosecutions at assizes, which formed about a fourth of the total amount, were to be paid in full; but as regarded the costs of the sessions a new method was adopted. The aggregate costs of the previous three years was to be taken and divided by the number of prosecutions, giving the average cost of each, and for the next three years that average price was to be paid for each prosecution. Objections were made at the time to this plan — first, that this average being struck upon years during which the costs had been unlawfully taxed it would perpetuate that injustice for three years longer; secondly, that it made a distinction between the assizes and the sessions by accepting the taxation of the clerk of the Crown and rejecting that of the clerk of the peace; thirdly, that a fixed payment for so long a period as three years would be unsatisfactory, as in the more populous counties the actual costs were continually increasing; but the worst feature of the whole was the reason given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the effect that it was the duty of the local taxpayers to provide for the administration of justice, and that the sums from the Imperial Exchequer were granted by grace and favour to relieve the local funds. He should like to know if the Chancellor of the Exchequer really held the opinion that the administration of justice was a local affair; because, if so, he must refer him to the speech of the Home Secretary in 1872 for an answer to that doctrine. He (Mr. Gorst) was in a position to tell the House what was the actual result of the new arrangement in the case of one county—Lancashire. That was a large county and greatly interested in the due administration of justice. During the five half-years preceding the new system the amount taxed off the bills for prosecutions was £120, the whole cost of prosecutions in that time being £31,000. In the next five half-years during which the Government plan was in operation the loss to the county was in each half-year respectively, £220, £292, £260, £274, and £409, or a total loss in the two and-a-half years of £1,458. The Home Secretary rejoiced in 1872 that there was going to be no attempt to charge the counties and boroughs what ought to be borne by the country; but in 1877 there was a charge in this one county which ought to be borne by the country to the extent of £1,458 in the last five half-years. If, on the other hand, there were counties which made a profit out of the administration of justice, that was quite as flagrant an abuse. No county had a right to receive money it did not expend; and although he might be told that it was carried to the general county rate, there could be no legal authority for such a step.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, no part of the costs of criminal prosecutions, after taxation by proper officers, should be charged on local rates," —(Mr. Gorst,) —instead thereof.


observed that the appeal recently made by the Secretary of the Treasury in favour of economy had been met by the hon. and learned Member who had just spoken, and who was an earnest and an efficient supporter of the Conservative Party, making a proposal to throw on the Imperial Exchequer a large increase to a charge now sustained by the Exchequer, but which would have been left to be borne by the various localities, where, instead of grants in aid from the Treasury, it would have been far preferable to have assigned taxes such as the dog and gun tax, which were so difficult for the Board of Inland Revenue to collect. The course adopted by the Treasury with respect to the costs of criminal prosecutions had, he believed, caused a great reduction of expense. This was effected by the Treasury enforcing an independent examination of all charges claimed for criminal prosecutions, amongst which were the payments to lawyers, which were not easily checked; the claim of the hon. Member would, if complied with, free these charges from even the trifling control now exercised, and thereby allow of these fees being largely swelled up. But he hoped that the Secretary of the Treasury would persevere in the good efforts he had made in that check. The hon. and gallant Baronet was proceeding to urge that the useful information which the Secretary of the Treasury had given them that night ought to be printed, together with the Estimates, for the use of hon. Members, when—


pointed out to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that his remarks were not relevant to the Amendment then before the House.


said, he was afraid that, notwithstanding what had fallen from his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Gorst), he could not recede from that position he had taken up when that matter was discussed some time ago. He thought his hon. and learned Friend had somewhat exaggerated the obligation of the State in this matter. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had always understood that the old Common Law principle was that the expenses referred to were paid out of local funds, and that it was by what he ventured to call an act of grace and favour that some 30 years ago the State undertook to defray the whole of these charges. He did not quite understand, if that was a burden which always belonged to the State, how his hon. and learned Friend explained the Act of 1846, brought in by Sir Robert Peel, placing, for the first time, on the State a duty which his hon. and learned Friend said was always incumbent upon it. For himself, he still thought it was a fair and proper thing that the State should, upon a general statement of the amount of the cost of criminal prosecutions, recoup to the local authorities the amount which had been so expended by them. But, if it was to do that, surely the State must protect itself by seeing that it was not improperly charged. That, however, was really all that the State had been trying to do in that matter. Before 1846 he thought the State bore one-half of that charge and the localities bore the other half; and then there was a certain protection, because the local officers, being anxious to save for the sake of the localities, would seek to keep that expenditure down. But when the State took the whole of that expense upon itself, the cost of prosecutions ran up in a most remarkable way, and a much heavier burden was imposed upon the Imperial Exchequer than was contemplated at the time it was assumed. Well, what was then done? His hon. and learned Friend had called it an unlawful action, and he would not dispute with him about the word "unlawful;" but, at all events, it was a measure of self-defence adopted by the Treasury of that day to provide for the taxing of these costs, in order to see that they were not asked to pay more than they ought to pay. The effect of that taxation was greatly to reduce charges which appeared to be exorbitant. Then a complaint was made by the local authorities that the operation of the taxing officer was an operation of an annoying, unfair, and vexatious character. His hon. and learned Friend had referred, as an instance, to the case of Lancaster, from which some of the most serious complaints came years ago; and he thought his hon. and learned Friend told the House that out of £30,000 or £31,000 only £120 was disallowed under the old system. Well, if only 120 were disallowed out of £30,000 or £31,000, clearly it was not a very great pecuniary grievance. It was the annoyance of officers in London looking into and disallowing charges which had been passed by local officers. Well, the Government endeavoured to meet that by providing that, as regarded sessions cases, they would pay according to the average cost of three years' prosecutions. But, said his hon. and learned Friend, the effect had been to make counties pay greater expenses than before. He supposed his hon. and learned Friend's figures were correct; but he understood that, as regarded assize cases, taking the whole country together, the effect had been greatly to reduce the disallowances. It was quite possible that when they came to review the system as a whole they might find it desirable to revise to some extent the working of it; but his hon. and learned Friend asked them to cast aside this experimental system and adopt a general principle that the whole of the costs of criminal prosecutions, after taxation by proper officers, should be defrayed by Parliament. Whom did his hon. and learned Friend mean by "proper officers? "Did he mean that the costs were to be taxed by officers appointed by those who were expected to pay the costs? That would be a system which his hon. and learned Friend condemned. If, on the other hand, neither that system nor the average was to be adopted, he was asking the Treasury to pay without examination whatever might be demanded by the officers of the local jurisdictions. That was a demand which ought not to be made. It lay on Parliament to vote this money under such conditions as it was pleased to impose. He desired that those conditions should be as little onerous as possible on the counties; but ho hoped the House would not be induced to give a blank order to be filled up by the officers who had incurred these costs. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir George Balfour) said, they paid too much attention to the claims of local taxpayers. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not think they did. He thought they ought to pay attention to them, knowing what they had done as to local finance. He had no fault to find with his hon. and learned Friend for having brought forward his Motion, or with the language he had used; but this, after all, was an experimental system, and the time for considering the proper averages of payment would shortly arrive; and he hoped his hon. and learned Friend would not ask the House to set aside that system unless he was prepared to put before the House a better alternative than one couched in rather ambiguous language.

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