§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR IRELAND (Mr. GIBSON)
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he would only occupy the time of the House for a very brief space in explaining its provisions. Its object was to give to Ireland what had been long asked for—additional Local Bankruptcy Courts. The House was aware that English County Court Judges possessed jurisdiction in Bankruptcy cases, and that the Irish County Court Judges had no such jurisdiction. There was, in fact, in England a perfect system of local jurisdiction; while in Ireland the great centre of the Bankruptcy jurisdiction was Dublin. Under certain conditions of a somewhat difficult character, there existed powers to send Bankruptcy cases requiring adjudication to the different County Courts in Ireland; but, owing to certain difficulties, it had not been found to work very well, and it was a jurisdiction which had not been largely availed of, and there had been an urgent and pressing demand from the great mercantile cities of Cork and Belfast, urging that their County Court Judges should have Bankruptcy jurisdiction, which would enable them to do perfect justice, and give perfect satisfaction to the mercantile communities in which they were placed. Now, the Bill, which he did not think would take long to explain to the House, proposed to give to the Recorders of Cork and Belfast complete Bankruptcy jurisdiction; and, so far as expenses went, it would not cost much to carry the Bill into execution. With regard to the Recorder of Cork, he at present received £2,000, and he was under conditions of office by which he would discharge this Bankruptcy jurisdiction without receiving any additional pay; and, as regarded the Recorder of Belfast, during the continuance of his particular period of office, he would not require his salary to be increased; and the new Recorder would not be entitled to receive any extra remuneration whatever for the new duties under the Bill. But in the measure, besides providing for that new Bank- 1124 ruptcy jurisdiction for Cork and Belfast, two chief cities of commercial interest next to Dublin, there was a power given to grant similar jurisdiction to the Recorder of Derry and the Recorder of Galway, if it were thought necessary to do so. Machinery was also provided in the Bill for bringing the Act into operation with the least possible expense, by means of the usual jurisdiction, and power was given to attach jurisdiction to existing officers, or to appoint additional officers where it was thought necessary. These, however, were matters of detail, and if any suggestions could be made for improving the terms of the measure, and for carrying out more effectually the working of the new jurisdiction by other officers, they would be carefully and fairly considered in Committee. The Bill also dealt with current proceedings under certain restrictions; but that was a matter for after consideration which it was not necessary to discuss at present. In the districts to be affected by the measure there existed, as he was aware, a perfect and strongly-expressed unanimity of opinion in its favour; and, in fact, he understood, so far as his information went, that the only opposition to the measure came from the rich City of Dublin. He desired it, however, to be understood that no opposition was offered by the Bill to the Dublin Bankruptcy Court. The Judges of that Court, he believed, were most able and efficient, and administered their jurisdiction with the greatest ability. That, however, was not the question. The question really was, whether those great communities of Cork and Belfast were entitled to have the jurisdiction intrusted to them in Bankruptcy which they asked for? While every freedom would be given to hon. Members to discuss the provisions of the Bill, he hoped the House would read it a second time, and that all questions which might suggest themselves as to the details would be brought forward in Committee. The right hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Attorney General for Ireland.)
§ MR. MELDON
, in moving, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a 1125 second time that day three months, said, he must resent the insinuation that any opposition coming from him to the measure was in any way an opposition coming from the Dublin practitioners.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR IRELAND (Mr. GIBSON)
said, he had made no insinuation of the kind, and was sorry to have been so understood.
§ MR. MELDON
did not know what the right hon. and learned Gentleman meant by the allusion to the Dublin Court of Bankruptcy. The Court of Bankruptcy which existed in Dublin was the Irish Court of Bankruptcy, and not the Dublin Court. Disclaiming the slightest wish to oppose the Bill, either in the interest of centralization, or of the Dublin Court, or of the Dublin practitioners, he would say that what the Bill proposed to do was to abolish one of the finest and most successful legal institutions in the world. The Irish Bankruptcy system was, he ventured to say, one of the best systems of Bankruptcy in the United Kingdom. It was a system which was fully investigated in 1872, when the whole subject of Irish Bankruptcy was inquired into most thoroughly before the Select Committee of the House of Lords. It was admitted by the Members of the House who had for years past taken the greatest interest in Bankruptcy Law that the system in Ireland most favourably contrasted with that of England. The expense in Ireland of the administration of Bankruptcy estates was, he ventured to say, as small as in any Bankruptcy system in the world. That being so, he thought the House ought very seriously to consider whether it was prudent to interfere with a system which had been working so successfully, and as to which no complaints whatever had been made, and no necessity shown for any alteration in the law. He purposed tracing the course of legislation with respect to Irish Bankruptcy Law from 1857 down to the present time, and thought he could demonstrate, most conclusively, that the principal reason why the Irish Court of Bankruptcy had been so successful was that it was managed in Dublin with a small trained staff, and because in the Irish system there was wholly absent the mischiefs which had arisen in the administration of Bankruptcy in England in consequence of local Bankruptcy Courts. In 1857 the principal Bankruptcy Act was passed. The system of 1126 Bankruptcy which was then introduced was this. There were three systems. There was first the system of Bankruptcy where the adjudication in Bankruptcy took place, and where the Bankruptcy proceedings were conducted in the usual form down to the end. Then there was the other system, by which the insolvent might propose to his creditors a scheme of composition. Then there was the third system, which had been really productive of so much good in Ireland, and it was an arrangement under the Court of Bankruptcy, but without Bankruptcy, which arrangement might very fairly be followed in this country. That law worked very easily, until some changes were thought necessary; and, in 1872, an investigation took place with reference to Bankruptcy in Ireland, and that resulted in an Act of Parliament which was passed in 1872. Agitation followed from Belfast down to Cork. It was suggested that a great want was felt for some local tribunal to administer Bankruptcy matters in the North of Ireland. The case was also put forward that the farmers in the North of Ireland were most anxious that some system should be introduced whereby, under the control of the Court, a system of trusteeship should be introduced. Extensive evidence was taken, and every disposition was shown to meet the views of traders, and especially those coming from the North of Ireland; and, accordingly, a series of clauses called Trustee Clauses were introduced into the Bankruptcy Act of 1872, in consequence of the claims put forward by the commercial men of the North. In deference to their views also, an unlimited power of transfer was given to the local tribunals, if necessary. The only thing that was asked of the Committee which was not granted was, that the right to have initiatory proceedings in the local tribunals was not granted to them. In the English system, power was granted to initiate proceedings in the inferior Courts, and the jurisdiction might not arise before a highly-skilled and competent Judge. A case that had occurred in the Court of Appeal had shown that there was a defect in the English system, in that the initiatory proceedings took place in the inferior Courts; but it was thought, in passing the Act of 1872, that an adjudication in Bankruptcy, by a proceeding affecting a man's entire prospects in life, should not take place 1127 in an inferior Court, but in a superior, and that afterwards most unlimited powers should exist to transfer to inferior Courts. The result of the investigation was to place the Law of Bankruptcy in Ireland in the condition in which it at present was. What had occurred to alter the circumstances from 1872 downward? They had not heard from the right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland any instance of hardship. No case whatever had been made out, except a general statement that this change in the law was desired by persons in Cork and Belfast. Before he sat down, however, he would show that the change which was proposed would be most mischievous and erroneous. The law was most materially altered by the powers of transfer to the Judges; but what had been the result of the change in the law? There was no difficulty whatever in getting a transfer to the local tribunals; but the system worked so well in Dublin that, while there might have been one case of transfer, certainly from 1872 down to the present time there had not been half-a-dozen such cases. The system of the Irish Court had given unqualified satisfaction to all classes. In England one of the greatest defects had been the number of officers spread all over the country, and which had led to a most fraudulent state of dealing with Bankruptcy property all over England. That was the statement made by the hon. and learned Attorney General for England as one of the greatest defects of the English system; but now the Government wanted to extend the system to Ireland. They wanted to have an expensive staff of Registrars, official assignees, and other persons, because powers were taken in the Bill that the Lord Lieutenant should at any time extend the jurisdiction of the local Courts. But what was the reason why the Irish system had been so successful? The Irish Court of Bankruptcy was presided over by two Judges, before whom all initiatory proceedings must be taken, and who, in every case, acquired complete control. Those Judges were assisted by two official assignees; and he ventured to challenge the right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland to say if the work had not been well performed by these official assignees, who were appointed for the whole of Ireland. 1128 Without the slightest hesitation, he would say that the way these gentlemen had performed their duties was above suspicion, and that the system had given the greatest satisfaction, and obtained the highest praise from those most interested. It was now, however, proposed that the number of the assignees should be increased, and one given to every local Court. The appointment of fresh officers was a most undesirable thing in the first place; but those two gentlemen, who had done the work up to the present time, and in a most satisfactory manner, ought to be allowed to continue. The staff at present employed was small and well-drilled; but it was now proposed to have different staffs all over the country; and that was the evil of the English system. Unfortunately, in England, the amount of business was great, and it was impossible to remedy this evil; but in Ireland the state of things was very different. From want of manufacturing interests in the country, the great number of creditors were English, and Dublin was the most accessible place for them in Bankruptcy proceedings. If they had to go to Dublin, to Belfast, to Derry, and to Cork, and all the other places, they would require different solicitors, and would require to be constantly travelling about, and it would seriously interfere with business. He opposed the Bill upon the ground that it would entirely change what had heretofore been a perfectly successful system; also, because it would lead to increased, expense in the appointment of officials, and it would give facilities for fraudulent dealings. There was no demand for the measure in the country by way of Petitions, neither could it be pointed out that there had been any demand for it by Chambers of Commerce. In conclusion, he begged, for the reasons he had stated, to move its rejection.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Meldon.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ MR. J. P. CORRY
, in supporting the second reading of the Bill, said, his constituents were very much interested in its passing. Small traders in Belfast and the neighbourhood were put to very 1129 great inconvenience and expense by having to go to Dublin with. Bankruptcy-cases, and a friend of his was so disgusted with the worry of frequent adjournments that he gave the matter up, and the bankrupt got his discharge, although it was believed to be a gross case of imposition. The Belfast Chamber of Commerce had had the matter under consideration for the last 10 years, and from time to time had impressed upon successive Governments the necessity of establishing these local Courts of Bankruptcy. It was only last Session they were able to get the matter put in the shape of a Bill; but it was too late to get it through then. He hoped that the Bill, having passed through the House of Lords, would pass its various stages in this House without difficulty. The hon. and learned Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) had said English creditors would rather go to Dublin; but the fact was that the large proportion of creditors were in the locality. He did not wish to go into the details of the measure, but was much surprised that the hon. and learned Member for Kildare should oppose a Bill like this, because the hon. and learned Member was so much in favour of Home Rule. The Bill proposed to give local Courts, and in doing that much of the inconvenience at present existing, arising from the central Court, would be done away with. His (Mr. Corry's) hon. Friends the Members for Cork City and Cork County were quite as anxious that the Bill should be pushed forward as were those in the North of Ireland. He suggested that if English creditors had to come over to look after Irish debtors it would be very pleasant for them to go to Cork or Belfast and see the country. He earnestly supported the second reading, and hoped the Government would see their way to press the Bill to a successful issue that Session.
§ MR. O'SHAUGHNESSY
said, it was quite a mistake to say the Bill was not supported by Petitions. There had been Petitions from the Limerick Corporation, Chamber of Commerce, and Board of Guardians. He cordially supported the principle of the Bill, for the simple reason that if they had local Bankruptcy Courts local creditors would have a much more powerful supervision over the proceedings than they could have in Dublin. He ventured to think that under such a local system as was proposed in the Bill 1130 the amount in the pound paid by debtors would be considerably raised. Without imputing fraud, there was no doubt that country creditors were deterred by the uncertainty of the present proceedings and the frequent postponements. He could quote many cases in which 7s. and 8s. in the pound had been accepted, and in which something much nearer 20s. in the pound would have been realized if the examination of the bankrupt had taken place before the eyes of his neighbours and fellow-townsmen, who knew what he had been doing, and what he ought to be able to pay. Having said so much in favour of the principle of the Bill, he regretted to find there was no mention of Limerick in the Bill. Cork and Belfast were, no doubt, larger towns; but the people of Limerick, and other parts of Ireland also, were subjected to very much inconvenience in consequence of the present law, as they had to take long journeys. Limerick was a place with a large population, and there were many small towns in the county that could be brought within the jurisdiction of a Court established in the city, while such a Court would serve the wants of a large agricultural population. The commercial prosperity of Limerick had for a long time been increasing, and where that was the case with regard to any district there was a great necessity for a complete Bankruptcy system. He thought the importance of Limerick as a commercial and agricultural centre fully entitled it to be placed in the same position as Cork and Belfast; and he appealed to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland to give it the same position, without any recourse to the Lord Lieutenant. The system of giving the Lord Lieutenant and his Privy Council powers to confer jurisdiction had not been a satisfactory one, as was proved by the experience of Belfast in the matter of a local Admiralty jurisdiction. He trusted the facts contained in a recent Return would now operate successfully in that matter. However, if the name of Limerick were not introduced into the Bill in some way on the footing of Galway and Londonderry, if not on the footing of Cork and Galway, he would reluctantly feel it his duty to oppose the further progress of the measure.
§ MR. MURPHY
said, he should give the Bill his most cordial support. The 1131 matter had for a very long time engaged the attention of the commercial community of Cork. The inconvenience which had occurred in relation to these Bankruptcy matters, particularly in reference to small traders, was almost inconceivable. One might almost say that the present arrangements held out a premium and incentive to the dishonest trader to put his creditors absolutely at defiance. It was notorious that a very great number of creditors abandoned the possibility of getting anything from their bankrupt debtors, because the expense of the process would probably be more than the dividend they would receive. The very railway fare from Cork to Dublin, and the cost of staying in Dublin a day or two, were often sufficient to swamp the dividend. He recollected when there was a Bankruptcy Court in Cork Commissioners in Bankruptcy sat there, and often administered large estates with great advantage. These Commissioners' Courts were abolished by over-centralization, and the late Lord Plunket said the reason was to insure greater uniformity of practice. The course which was afterwards taken in England with regard to Bankruptcy Procedure ought to have been followed in Ireland; but it took a long time to get English improvements in law to Ireland, in proof of which he would instance the Common Law Procedure and Admiralty Jurisdiction. Reverting to the Bill before the House, he said it was one that was required by the localities. It would do an enormous amount of good; and he was rather surprised that a patriotic Irish Member, who was an advocate for the largest possible extension of local jurisdiction, should raise any objection to this measure, which was wanted by the people of Cork, and which nobody could, after consideration, reasonably oppose.
§ MR. MITCHELL HENRY
also warmly supported the Bill, but thought it was not necessary to take up the time of the House with further reasons than those which had been already given. He could not help, however, expressing the hope that the principle of the Bill would be extended to other matters than Bankruptcy in Ireland.
§ MR. SHAW
said, his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) had seemed to consider that the measure implied an attack on the 1132 Irish Court of Bankruptcy. He (Mr. Shaw) was sure nothing was further from the minds of its promoters. They believed the Bankruptcy Court of Dublin was administered with great ability and impartiality; but they held that great inconvenience arose from carrying out the law as it stood. It was said that a large proportion of the creditors were English and Scotch merchants. Well, he knew that was not the case in the South of Ireland. It might be so in Dublin; but he knew that such a statement would not apply in the South. Referring to the inconvenience of carrying out the law as it stood at present, he would instance a case in which a trifling objection to the books caused their removal to and back from Dublin on three different occasions.
§ MR. SYNAN
believed the hon. and learned Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) had merely made an objection as a pro formâ Motion from his love of abstract justice, and his knowledge of the superiority of the administration of justice in Dublin. He, therefore, seconded the appeal to the hon. and learned Member not to put the House to the trouble of dividing on a question on which Irish Members were unanimous. He would also second the appeal to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland on behalf of the City of Limerick. He did not exactly know why Limerick had been left out of the Bill. It ought to be in the 4th clause, and unless it were introduced into either the 4th or the 5th he would join the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) in opposing the Bill at a subsequent stage. He had no doubt, however, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland would give them an assurance on the point.
§ MR. BRUEN
supported the Bill. He, too, would add his voice on behalf of Limerick, and thought it would be right to extend the scope of the Bill so as to include that town and county. Acknowledging the authority of the hon. and learned Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) on the question, he could not help thinking that hon. and learned Gentleman's love for Dublin institutions had induced him to attach too great an importance to the maintenance in Dublin of the sole administration of the Bankruptcy Law.
§ MR. M. BROOKS
opposed the measure. It appeared to him that the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) and the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Shaw) desired to promote the interests of those towns at the expense of the general interests of the community. He believed that the administration of the Bankruptcy Law in Dublin, which was not only the geographical, but the commercial, centre of Ireland, was of the greatest possible advantage. There was in Dublin a small and efficient staff, fully competent to administer the Bankruptcy Laws for the whole of the country. He believed that to have to go to Cork or Belfast would often be detrimental to the interests of the traders for whom his hon. Friends were so solicitous. The real question was, where was the line to be drawn? If they were to have a Bankruptcy Court in Limerick, and another in Cork, and another in Belfast, why should Gal way, Kilkenny, Wicklow, and Wexford be deprived of the advantages of a local Court? He disbelieved in the necessity for these local Courts altogether. Certain facilities existed in Dublin, to which people could come in three or four hours from any part of the country, and except it might be to a few professional men in the districts named, he could not see that any good would be derived from the Bill, which would at all counterbalance the great disadvantages that would arise from it. There had been no complaint from traders, and from no one, except a few professional men; and a representation lately emanated from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce as to the disadvantages which would result from the passing of the Bill. He thought that on every ground, except the convenience of the professional men he had alluded to, the argument was entirely in favour of continuing the present very efficient and satisfactory system.
§ MR. CALLAN
, who also opposed the Bill, said, that he had inquired in Dublin as to the opinion upon it, and he had found there was a universal concurrence of opinion amongst the barristers there, and amongst those, too, of the greatest experience, against it. An eminent Judge, to whom he had spoken, had told him that the Bill, if passed, would cause much dissatisfaction. He would also refer to the evidence given at some length by Judge Harrison against the 1134 principle of the Bill. The constitution of the Irish County Courts, said that eminent Judge, differed very materially from that of the English Courts in many salient points, a fact which he (Mr. Callan) mentioned for the benefit of English Members, who fancied that a system which worked well in England would work just as well in Ireland. Unless the constitution of the Irish Courts was radically altered, Judge Harrison was of opinion that it would not be well to localize the administration of the Bankruptcy Laws. That being the opinion of Judge Harrison, and there being no demand for the Bill in any quarter of Ireland, except from one or two parties in Belfast and Cork, he would proceed to state other reasons why it should not be passed. It would not be possible to create the necessary staff of officers in Belfast and Cork under an expenditure of £1,500 a-year in each town, in addition to which they must increase the Recorders' salaries, probably making a total increase of expenditure of £5,000. He wished it to be understood that he had no interest in Dublin whatever—in fact, he had a very great dislike to Dublin. His only objection to Home Rule was, that if they got it they would have to have a Parliament in Dublin, and not in Cork, or Belfast, or Galway. The history of the Bill was peculiar, because the matter remained in abeyance until one of the Law Officers of the Crown was looking for a seat in Parliament. He turned his eyes upon the town of Belfast, and to recommend himself he recommended the Irish Executive to confer upon the town local powers in Bankruptcy. He hoped that was the explanation of the Bill, because he did not like to see Cork and Belfast proclaiming that their condition was such as to require local Bankruptcy Courts. There had been an unprecedented number of bankruptcies in Cork during the last 18 months, and he found three-fourths of the creditors belonged to England, Scotland, and Dublin. English creditors, who did business in a large way, generally had agents in Dublin to prove for them, and he believed the present arrangements had given the greatest satisfaction. If the Bill passed, his belief was that it would work very injuriously in the interests of the persons affected, and he intended to offer it all the opposition in his power. 1135 He should like to repeat the opinion of Lord Westbury on the subject. Lord Westbury was the most eminent authority on the subject in England or Ireland. Lord Westbury had said to Judge Harrison—I must tell you most distinctly that, so far as I am concerned, I think it would most effectually checkmate your cause, because I feel that we are not in a position to teach you in Ireland. We have been ourselves for the last 10 years muddling this affair of Bankruptcy and making it worse with every Bill. We have brought it to this—that an expense of 30 or 40 per cent is not to be wondered at; and if you have done your corresponding part of the business at an expense of 14 or 15 per cent, I think you have nothing to learn from England.He (Mr. Callan) contended that no authenticated case of complaint ever rose under the system; but that simply to comply with the pressure of certain Members who sat behind the Government the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland was introducing a Bill to interfere with a Court which was carrying on its business at an expense of 14 or 15 per cent. He was about to follow the example of England, and to meddle and muddle in the matter of Bankruptcy, making it worse every year until he increased the 14 or 15 per cent to 30, or 40, or 50 per cent. He (Mr. Callan) contended, moreover, that the Bill had come upon him and the House by surprise, neither he nor the hon. and learned Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) having been aware that the Government intended to proceed with it on that day.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR IRELAND (Mr. GIBSON)
Sir, there are only, so far as I know, three, or, perhaps, four, hon. Members from Ireland who are opposed to this Bill. Two others appear to have been sent to us providentially; but they all attempt to suggest an entirely false inference. The introduction of this Bill is, by no means, an attack upon the Irish Courts of Bankruptcy. Much has been said with regard to the Courts of Bankruptcy now existing in Ireland, and I may say that no one can think more highly of them than I do. The Judges and the officials of those Courts are most capable men, and I know of no body of public servants who are entitled to be spoken of with more praise than the officials of the Irish Bankruptcy Courts. But that is not the question. 1136 The question is, whether the large mercantile communities of Belfast and Cork are entitled to have a local Bankruptcy jurisdiction? The principal merchants and traders of those cities have unanimously asked for it, and have pointed out that it would be an immense benefit to them and their local affairs. If they are entitled to have it, having also pointed out that in England there is a similar jurisdiction to that which we propose in this Bill shall be given to Ireland, I do not see that they should be denied. We have not proposed to give this local jurisdiction recklessly everywhere; but we have picked out two of the largest and most important places for the purpose of establishing the new system there; and with respect to other districts, if the Lord Lieutenant should signify that a fair and a reasonable case has been made out, I have no doubt that justice shall be done. Now, I have been pressed, and reasonably pressed, by hon. Members from Ireland as to the necessity of including Limerick in the Bill; and I have been asked whether, in Committee, I will make provision for that city? It is most natural that hon. Gentlemen should consider the interests of Limerick; but I will say at once that I do not see my way clear to granting that which has been asked upon the 4th clause. At the same time, I will take care, in considering the 5th clause, that the Lord Lieutenant shall have, if necessary, an opportunity of considering whether the local Bankruptcy jurisdiction shall be given to Limerick, which is certainly a city of the greatest importance. I do not think it would be reasonable for me to go into the details of the Bill and the many criticisms that have been made, as they will, no doubt, be brought forward again in Committee, where, I am sure, they will receive consideration; and I will now ask the House to give the Bill a second reading.
§ MR. MELDON
said, that, after the expression of opinion that the Bill would work in the interests of the country, he would withdraw his Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.