HC Deb 31 May 1880 vol 252 cc849-62

(9.) £54,469, to complete the sum for Law Charges.


said, he wished to continue the question annually raised by the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and now to ask the noble Lord the Secretary to the Treasury as to what progress the Treasury had made in reforming the Legal Department? The noble Lord had very justly called attention to the fact that, in 1873, a Select Committee entered upon an inquiry into the whole subject; and he (Sir George Balfour) should very much like to know what steps had been taken to act upon their recommendations? That Committee had strongly recommended a thorough reform in the Legal Departments of the country, and the noble Lord had all along advocated the reform as one likely to benefit the country, not only with regard to the business of the country, but also in effecting considerable economies in these Departments. He might also mention that only so far back as 1877 Class III. of the Estimates, containing the Law Charges, had advanced from under £5,000,000 to £6,000,000. No doubt, a portion of the increase could be accounted for; but he could not fail to observe that a very considerable increase had taken place in the actual outlay of Departments which could not be reconciled. He, therefore, had to ask whether any progress had been made during the present year, or during the Recess, towards carrying forward the Bill of the Lord Chancellor, which the late Secretary to the Treasury had promised should be brought in? He would suggest that the Report of the Departmental Committee, which the Treasury had assembled to inquire into the Public Legal Departments, with a view of carrying out the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1873, should be laid before the House for consideration. As regarded the general expenditure of the Departments under Class III., it was infinitely worse managed than either that of the Army or the Navy. In fact, it was prominent among all the badly managed Departments of the Public Service for wasteful, uncontrolled extravagance.


said, that if the hon. and gallant Gen- tleman would refer to Vote 5 of that Class he would find that the basis of a most valuable reform had been laid last year. Under the operation of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, all the various Legal Departments of the Government were amalgamated. He believed that no less than nine different offices were brought into one, the result of which would be seen in Vote 5. The reduction made up to the present time, of course, was not large, because the officers who were transferred to the new central Office of the Supreme Court of Judicature had to continue at the old rate of salary; and, therefore, the economies and improvements which would take place, as vested interests died out, could not at once be enforced. He thought that the question was one which had better be discussed when they came to Vote 5, when the hon. and gallant Gentleman would see that the basis of a very important improvement had been laid.


said, that he had a question, and a very simple question, to ask of the Law Officers of the Crown. He noticed that the hon. and learned Attorney General received for non-contentious business £7,000. The hon. and learned Solicitor General, in regard to business of a similar kind, received £6,000. The Law Officer who advised the Foreign Office was put down at a salary of £2,000. He wished the Committee to note that the Law Officers of the Crown were also paid by fees for contentious business according to the usual way. Now, it appeared to him that that was a new method of putting the matter. He should like to know what the non-contentious duties were, for the sum which was put down was a very large one.


said, it would take so long to tell the hon Member what the non-contentious business was, that he was afraid he should fail in the attempt to do so; but he could tell him that it was enough to keep any one individual engaged for all his time without attending to any contentious business at all. First, the Attorney General had to attend to all the charities of the country, and all the patents of the country; to the legal matters connected with all the Departments of the country; to advise the Foreign Office upon every matter of importance that came before it; and to draw up all the Orders in Council that came before the Privy Council. His hon. Friend would, perhaps, excuse him continuing the list; and he could assure him that if he would assist the Attorney General in performing the non-contentious business of the country the Attorney General would be most grateful to him for it.


said, with reference to the Attorney General's duties in connection with the Patent Office, that at one time he used to be paid by fees drawn from the receipts of the Patent Office, and he was very glad to find these fees done away with, and the whole salary fixed, irrespective of fees for contentious business. If it would take too long to explain what was the non-contentious business, they, at all events, could be informed of the amount paid to the Attorney General and the other Law Officers of the Crown for contentious business. An estimate of the probable amount to be paid to each of them should be laid before Parliament, drawn from the records of actual expenditure of former years, and they ought to have the same full information given with regard to all the small men in the Government employ connected with law affairs whose estimated receipts were more fully detailed because they had not the power of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General. In other branches of the Revenue Department they found all payments recorded, even down to £10, £20, and £30. He should like to see the same thing done with regard to the fees paid to so many persons connected with the Law Department of England, and not only England, but of Scotland and of Ireland.


said, he did not wish to be supposed to make any promise that that information should be absolutely forthcoming, and for the reason that he did not quite see how they were to obtain it. He did not know what his hon. and learned Friends near him would have to do in the way of contentious business. The sum would depend entirely upon the amount of business done, and the rate at which the briefs were marked.


said, that he had to ask, with reference to the sum of £2,000 for Legal Advice to the Foreign Office, Whether the noble Lord was aware that there was already an Assistant Legal Under Secretary to the Foreign Office; and, if so, what were the reasons for asking for this Vote of £2.000?


said, that some years ago there was an office at the Foreign Office which was called that of the Queen's Advocate. When that office was abolished it was thought necessary that there should be a permanent legal officer attached to the Foreign Office, and the learned gentleman who had hitherto occupied that office had done so for a number of years, and, he might say, very much to the benefit of the Public Service.


said, that it appeared to him to be impossible to make a Return as to the contentious business; and, therefore, it was useless to ask for further explanation. He thought he might say that one of the best alterations which had been made in the relations of the Law Officers to the Crown was that which remunerated the Attorney General and the Solicitor General by salary instead of fees, because, whenever any great reforms were suggested in the Patent Office, the large emoluments which were payable to the Law Officers were always obstacles in the way of such reforms. He did not consider the remuneration of the Law Officers as being by any means too large.


said, that as one who was no lawyer he considered that whatever officers of the Crown were overpaid they were certainly not the Law Officers. They had a very serious work to do in watching to prevent the House of Commons from making mistakes in its Acts of Parliament; and for himself he would sooner cut down the salaries of any of the officers of the Crown than that of those who, by their legal talent and ability alone, had raised themselves to that position on whichever side of the House they sat.


asked whether they were to understand, as regarded the item of £2,000 for Counsel to the Foreign Office, that that item would cease as soon as the present holder of the office ceased to occupy it.


said, that these Estimates were prepared by the late Government; but he might say that when the gentleman who at the present filled the post in question ceased to occupy it new ar- rangements would be made in respect to it.


said, that on these occasions it was customary to make remarks upon smaller gentlemen than the Law Officers of the Crown; but he wished to point out that though the Law Officers had a great deal of responsibility, and did their work exceedingly well, the Judges said very different things about the work of the House. They said that the House did its work exceedingly badly. Now, though the present Law Officers, as well as the late Law Officers, were very able men, nevertheless £7,000 for non-contentious business was a very large sum. The Prime Minister only got £5,000, and the principal Secretaries of State only got £5,000, and yet they filled very responsible Offices, and had a great deal of work to perform. Now, the Law Officers were constantly at business from morning to night. He found they were constantly engaged in the Courts of Law, which must occupy their time very much. He thought it would be quite as well if their salary were reduced in the same way as every thing else.


said, he should like to know what were the exact functions of the Law Officers with regard to framing Acts of Parliament?


said, that his contention was that if the Secretary to the Treasury could not say exactly what sums would be paid to the Law Officers for contentious business during the course of this year, still he might be able to give an approximate estimate of the sum from the known expenditure of past years. He maintained that if they could not have these details with the Estimates, they ought to have an exact statement made in the audit of the Expenditure of the country, and taken from the vouchers signed by the Law Officers, specifying the services for which the moneys were paid. Not a fraction could be paid away without the knowledge of the Auditor General, and there would be every facility then for ascertaining this amount. He hoped that in a few years they would have all that done, and that the noble Lord the Secretary to the Treasury would be the person to initiate these great improvements.


said, he could not help thinking they were engaged in a somewhat unworthy discussion. The matter they had really to consider was how the Crown could best be served, and how the highest legal ability could be obtained. That could not be done without adequate pay. When the arrangements for obtaining these services were made the remuneration had to be considered not only with regard to the office itself, but also with regard to those who filled it; and when the commutation was made of the fees that were ordinarily paid, he believed that the Government had not only made a good bargain for themselves, but had also dealt very fairly by the officers who were concerned.


said, that it was not the duty of the Law Officers of the Crown to go into the construction of every Act of Parliament that was passed by the House. He could assure the Committee that if any more duty was cast upon the Law Officers of the Crown than existed at present it would be impossible to per for in these duties with benefit to the Public Service.

Vote agreed to.

(10.) £3,050, to complete the sum for the Public Prosecutor's Office.


inquired where the Public Prosecutor was now lodged; because, unless he was incorrectly informed, that official had been lodged in such an unhealthy office that he had been laid up with typhoid fever, as well as one of his assistants?


said, he did not think the case was quite so bad as it had been represented by the hon. Baronet; but still there were sanitary defects in the Office, and another more suitable place had been provided.

Vote agreed to.

(11.) £150,187, to complete the sum for Criminal Prosecutions, Sheriff's Expenses, &c.


said, that the increase in this Estimate was chiefly caused by the repayments to Sheriffs of Sheriffs' expenses, in consequence of four Assizes being held every year in the Assize counties. He should like to know whether it was the intention of the Government to continue the practice of holding four Assizes instead of three, as for- merly? He held that the experiment had not been very successful, and certainly in many of the counties the burden thrown upon jurors who had to attend the Assize town four times a-year for the sake of a single prisoner, who otherwise would have had to stay a month longer in prison, was very great indeed. He should be glad to know if there was any intention to re-consider the question of reducing the number of Assizes?


said, that the change was made by the late Secretary of State for the Home Department; and, so far as the present intentions of the Government went, they did not propose to interfere with the arrangement. In course of time it might be found not to work well, and the Government might then possibly be willing to re-consider the question.


said, he was very sorry to hear the answer given by his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. In some cases these small Assizes were wholly unnecessary. In the county which he had the honour to represent, the Judges and the juries concurred in the representation to that effect to the authorities; but they had not heard any result of it. Anyone who would take the trouble to look into the matter would find by the Returns that at some Assizes on the Midland Circuit there were too few Judges, while there were hardly any to per for in the judicial duties in London. All this judicial strength was sent away to the country, for the purpose of trying two or three cases which might have been tried at the Sessions, and he thought the matter demanded the very serious attention of the Government. He was very disappointed to hear the answer given by the Government, and he hoped that it would be re-considered. He wished also to call attention to the ridiculous custom of putting so much expense upon the Sheriffs. It seemed to him to be questionable whether Sheriffs in these clays were required at all, or whether they were not an anomaly and a mere relic of past times. The duty of the Sheriff was now reduced almost entirely to putting on a Court dress, and driving to a railway station, and there waiting about to receive the Judges. It was by no means a right thing to compel country gentlemen to make themselves ridiculous in this manner, and also to put them to the expense attendant upon it. In consequence of the number of these Assizes having been increased, the office of Sheriff could not now be performed without an expense very often of over £700. He did not think it was right to call upon gentlemen to perform duties which involved such an unreasonable expense as this. By the last Prisons Act the duties of sheriffs in prisons were abolished with one exception, and that was, that the superintendence of executions was still in their hands. He thought that that one duty of the Sheriff might now very well be left to the Chief Constable of the county, or the head gaoler, or some other officer of the Government. He trusted that the Government would take this matter into consideration, for the office of Sheriff was now extremely unpopular, and it was a very undignified thing to see a respectable country gentleman in thin silk stockings standing about for hours at a railway station wailing for Judges who very frequently treated him with but scant courtesy. He sincerely hoped that the Government would see their way to the abolition of this obsolete office.


said, that there were very great inconveniences arising under the present system; and if the office of Sheriff was to be preserved some modification of the duties which he had to perform should be made. He rose for the purpose of stating that his light hon. Friend the late Secretary of State for the Home Department, who first initiated the system of four Assizes in the year, did so at the almost unanimous request of the House of Commons. The attention of the House was called, in several cases, to the system by which prisoners were frequently kept in prison waiting for trial for long periods, and it was the general and unanimous wish of the House that such a thing should not be allowed to occur again, and for that reason four Assizes were instituted. No doubt, many inconveniences had been caused by these four Assizes in the strain placed upon the juries in counties and by the demand upon judicial time. But he thought that further consideration on the subject might lead to the institution of some method by which prisoners should be tried without the present in- conveniences—perhaps the Judges might sit at the Quarter Sessions occasionally to hear Assize cases. At all events, this matter might be considered, and he would wish to remind the Committee that the Winter Assize Act was passed at the nearly unanimous desire of the House for the purpose of preventing prisoners remaining in prison for a long period.


said, that in the last Parliament he had moved for a Return showing the number of prisoners tried at the Autumn and Winter Assizes in 1879–80. That Return had only recently been placed in their hands, and they had not yet had time to consider it fully. He might say, however, that it included not only the two Winter Assizes, but also the Quarter Sessions in the winter. There were 1.G00 prisoners to be tried at Quarter Sessions, and they required the presence of 2,000 jurymen to try them. Out of that number, 700 prisoners came from five divisions. That left 53divisions in which there were only 900 prisoners, who thus required as many as 1,600 or 1,700 jurymen to try them. He hoped that the Committee would agree with him that it was a great hardship that jurymen should be brought at an inclement season of the year to try prisoners when their presence was really not necessary. The fact was produced by holding the present large number of Assizes. It appeared that at the Autumn Assizes there were 28 counties in England, not taking Wales into the calculation, in which there were less than 10 prisoners to be tried. The natural conclusion was that it was a serious waste of the time of the Judges, and of all connected with the administration of justice, that in so many cases special Assizes should be held for the purposes of trying 2, 3, 4, 5, or 9 prisoners. There was also an injustice on the jury, and especially on the Grand Jurymen. The Grand Jury of the county of Cambridge made a presentment to the Judges, in which was set forth the great hardship they were put to, and the waste of time that took place in consequence of their being called together to try cases, many of which might have been taken at the Quarter Sessions.


said, that he fully agreed with the observation that it was at the almost unanimous wish of the House that the late Government provided for the holding of four Assizes, and he considered they were perfectly justified in what they did. It was felt to be a hardship that some prisoners should be kept in prison for a length of time without an opportunity of trial; while, in many cases, the persons who were so detained in prison were after trial discharged. That was a state of things which led to a desire on the part of Parliament to find a remedy. In finding a remedy, however, they had, perhaps, gone a little too far. They had tried to meet what was a hardship, and they might possibly have given rise to inconveniences and expenses and other disadvantages which it was desirable to avoid; but they could hardly form a correct opinion until experience had been gained of the working of the additional Assizes. He hoped Her Majesty's present Advisers would promise to take these matters into consideration, and to strike out some means whereby prisoners should not be detained an undue length of time without trial, and, at the same time, that too many Assizes should not be held. He agreed in hoping most sincerely that Her Majesty's Government would take into its consideration the question of the High Sheriff. He entertained a strong opinion that it was extremely undesirable to have an office which from the progress of time had become ridiculous, and was inconsistent with the present state of society. It was well known that Gentlemen were extremely anxious to avoid taking this office, for they knew that it was a mere farce, and an expensive one to them. In some cases it led to their being insulted by the Judges, who imposed penalties upon respectable country gentlemen because they did not act towards them as they wished. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would prevent gentlemen from being treated by irascible Judges in the way which now frequently happened. In his opinion, the time had come to seriously consider this question.


said, that the question of these frequent Assizes seemed to have been overlooked by the Law Officers of the Crown, although very decided opinions were expressed about them in different parts of the Committee. He did not intend to discuss the question how far Parliament was justified in going the length that it did in ordering four Assizes for the purpose of trying a few hundred prisoners. They knew very well that the chances of acquittal of the prisoner were not more than two in five, and it was considered that of those acquitted hardly one in nine was really innocent. But, however that might be, there was a wave of sentiment which came over the country and took everything before it. Everyone, even the Government, yielded to that wave of sentiment, and everyone—Judges, juries, and all concerned in the administration of justice—were sacrificed to that wave of sentiment. Now they had to deal with the result. The condition of the Sheriff was bad enough; but it was not merely the inconveniences of the Judges — though their sufferings were bad enough—but it was that the state of business should be so impeded in London as it was at the present time. The combined effect of this wave of sentiment and of the action of the Judicature Acts had been such that at the last Sitting in January 625 cases were waiting for trial, and the Judges were dispersed about the country with only 65 cases to try. Now the state of things was found to be worse, for Her Majesty's Judges were being withdrawn from their ordinary work for the purpose of trying Election Petitions. He thought it was a matter for serious consideration whether the Judges, when most required in London, ought to be sent off for about six weeks to try a very small number of cases in the country.


said, that on two or three occasions during the last Parliament cases had occurred in which Englishmen had been kept in foreign countries waiting for trial for long periods. When remonstrances were addressed to the foreign authorities the answers invariably were that it was the consequence of the peculiar arrangement of the municipal law of those countries, which would not admit of a more speedy trial. But when attention was thus called to the hardship of keeping men waiting a long time in prison without trial, our own municipal law came under consideration. It was found that in this country a man might lie in gaol many weeks and even months without trial. There was something in that which spoke to the conscience; and the right hon. Gentleman the late Secretary of State for the Home Department, to whom all honour was due, instituted the four Assizes. It seemed to him (Mr. Hopwood) that some plan might be devised by which prisoners might be brought to a speedy trial, and inconvenience be avoided. It was possible to enlarge the jurisdiction of Quarter Sessions; but there was no confidence on the part of the public in those Courts, by reason of their not being presided over by trained lawyers. That had been a matter that had always been resisted, and until it was agreed upon he could not see how the House could ever extend the jurisdiction of the Sessions. And yet until it was done it would be almost impossible to reduce the number of prisoners which would remain to be tried by the Judges at the Assizes. Probably, some day or other, the House would have to settle this question; but if they ever did extend the jurisdiction of the Sessions, it would be absolutely necessary to place upon the Sessions responsible officers. It was impossible to trust Sessions with greater cases than at present, until their duties were carried out by trained lawyers. He hoped that the present short discussion might draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to this subject, as well as to the general question of Sheriffs. Some hon. Members had called attention to the present state of the duties of the office, and had suggested its abolition. In his opinion, the Sheriff was undoubtedly a necessary officer, and he should not agree with the observations which had been made with regard to the office having become obsolete. Doubtless, some inconvenience was entailed upon gentlemen by having to accept this office; but, as it was an office which was necessary to the well-being of the State, he thought that some sacrifice might fairly be asked on its account.


said, he hoped that the Government might see their way to abolish the office of Sheriff. At present, having to take the office was a great hardship to country gentlemen, and very heavy expenses were entailed upon them, and those expenses had become heavier in proportion to their income. The only duty now left to the Sheriff was that, in the last resource, if they could get no one else to hang the prisoners, they were obliged to do it themselves. If the office of Sheriff were to be abolished, it would be necessary to find some other person to charge with that duty. He should have thought that there would be no difficulty in finding some person to charge with that duty; and he should suggest, in default of anyone better, that it should devolve on the Secretary of State for the Home Department.


said, that, in his opinion, Her Majesty's Government should hesitate long before it abolished the office of Sheriff. It was a very old office, for it took its rise in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. He had been Sheriff himself. If he had had to pay only £500 or £600, as the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Magniac) had stated, he should have considered that very cheap for the honour that he derived from the office. In London he found that there was great competition for this office, for it was a dignified thing to represent Her Majesty in a Court of Law. He did not think that when they had so much business to do in town Her Majesty's Judges ought to be sent to the country to try two or three prisoners. It seemed to him that judicial power could be very much more economized than it was at present; prisoners might be gathered together, and things might be done in a very much better way. He hoped there would be no interference with the office of Sheriff after things had been allowed to go on as they did at present for the last 500 years—in fact, from the time of Nebuchad nezzar.


said, that he wished to urge upon Her Majesty's Government, as worthy of consideration the question whether the two offices of the Circuit Court of Assize, and Clerk of the Crown, could not be assimilated.


said, that there had been a proposal to combine those offices as much as possible, by sending down to the Assize assistance from the Associates Office in London. There was, however, some difficulty in carrying out the matter, because it was usual that there should bo two Courts sitting together, the Criminal and the Civil, and a responsible officer was required in each.

Vote agreed to.

Resolutions to be reported.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £122,916, be granted to Her Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1881, for such of the Salaries and Expenses of the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice, of the Court of Appeal, and of the Supreme Court of Judicature (exclusive of the Central Office), as are not charged on the Consolidated Fund.


said, that he hoped the noble Lord the Secretary to the Treasury would now report Progress. There was a point upon this Vote to which he wished to call the attention of the Committee, and it might lead to a considerable discussion. Under those circumstances, he thought that Progress should be reported.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."— (Mr. Rylands.)


said, that, under those circumstances, he had no objection to Progress being reported.

Question put, and agreed to.

House resumed.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow;

Committee also report Progress, to sit again upon Wednesday.

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