HC Deb 10 March 1882 vol 267 cc628-35

rose to call attention to the Dormant Funds in Chancery, and to the unsatisfactory form in which the list of causes, to the credit of which unclaimed money belonging to the suitors is standing, is issued; and to move— That future lists be strictly alphabetically arranged, with cross-references to the subtitles, together with the names and last-known addresses of the persons originally entitled, the date of the last decree or order, and the amount unclaimed. The hon. Gentleman said, that an abuse existed which might be readily and easily removed. The magnitude of the question was apparent when it was considered that £90,000,000 passed through the hands of the Paymaster in Chancery every year; £40,000,000 last year were borrowed from the Office to enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry through his financial operations, and the New Palace of Justice had been built out of the money in the hands of the Paymaster in Chancery. Of this huge sum total an increasing proportion was yearly becoming dormant. It was to this portion his Motion referred. The suitors had some claim to consideration, not only with regard to the method in which the accounts were kept, but also with regard to the information which was afforded them. The letter and the spirit of Acts of Parliament were in favour of publicity, which, indeed, was called for by common honesty. Publicity was prescribed by an Act passed in 1725 to the end that the improper application of the suitors' money might be prevented. The year before that Act was passed Lord Chancellor Macclesfield was fined £30,000, and the Masters in Chancery £100,000, for applying to their own use the Suitors' Fund. The Government of to-day applied the Dormant Funds to their own use, and there was no one to prosecute them. In 1872 Orders having the validity of an Act of Parliament were passed to the effect that lists should be published every three years, and in alphabetical order. They had not been published every three years, nor were they in alphabetical order. The heading used was not such as to in- dicate to the general public the character of the information to be given, and the names mentioned would often fail to arrest the attention of persons interested in the absence of explanatory cross-references. The list was nothing but a misleading publication—a hindrance rather than an assistance to claimants. A list such as he asked for was published by the War Office, the India Office, and the Governments of the Colonies, some of which were replete with suggestive details, and would furnish useful models for our Chancery officials. The result of publishing insufficient lists was that encouragement was given to a system of levying black mail. Persons made it their business to ascertain who were entitled to moneys in the Paymaster's Office, and then offered the information to them on condition that they received a share of the money. He knew of a case in which a claimant had to pay 25 per cent. The usual answer to these complaints was that unfounded claims had to be guarded against; but it was equally the duty of the War Office, the India Office, and the Colonial Governments to protect themselves against unfounded claims, and they did it without making a secret of information that ought to be published. What would be thought of a Member of that House if he found in the Library a pocket-book containing bank notes, with the name of the owner written on the first page, and said nothing about it for fear an un-founded claim should be made? In respect of these funds the Government were trustees, with duties to the public, and they were bound to give all the information they could. The true owners existed, but the knowledge of their rights was withheld from them. The knowledge was kept back by the Office which held and utilized the money, and in such a case concealment of truth was an equal crime to a falsehood. A stereotyped official reply he knew would be given, whichever Party was in power; but he appealed to independent Members to unite in endeavouring to sweep away the cobwebs of officialism, which had already clung too long round a time-honoured Department of the State. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.


, in seconding the Motion, urged that the index offered to the public to examine in regard to those funds ought to be framed in a much better manner than was the case at present. Since 1872 the publication of those lists, which were to have been triennial, had been made only twice; and he asked why had no further lists been published? He highly approved of the form of index in relation to those funds which was suggested by his hon. Friend who had made that Motion, and which, if adopted, would enable persons to ascertain whether they were interested in that fund or not. The present system tended to confuse searchers. The officials whose duty it was to prepare the lists might think they now were sufficient; but the public were not satisfied, and the interests of the public ought to be first considered in the matter. Grave scandals sometimes occurred in consequence of the non-publication of that information. His attention was called early last year to a report of the case of Williams v. White, tried before the present Master of the Rolls in Ireland, from which it appeared that a clerk in the Accountant General's Office in the Court of Chancery in Ireland had communicated, it was supposed innocently, to a solicitor in Dublin the fact that a derelict fund of £8,000 was remaining unclaimed in the Court. The consequence was that that solicitor, having looked at the file of the proceedings, communicated with the parties interested, and made a bargain with them that if he told them of that particular fund, he should get one-third of the £8,000. The Master of the Rolls strongly animadverted on the matter, expressing a hope that that would be the last occasion on which, either casually or by design, such a communication would be made, and also a hope that steps would be taken to compel publication of accounts of derelict funds in the Accountant General's Office. He said that this must be done by legislation, because the Judges had no power in the matter. In Ireland, as was usual in matters of that kind, no steps had been taken for the publication of any information with regard to these funds. He believed that considerable reforms had taken place in the Accountant General's Office, but none in this respect. When such scandals as that which he pointed out occurred, something should be done to prevent the injury which occurred to persons from the non-publication, of this information.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "future lists or the Dormant Funds in Chancery be strictly alphabetically arranged, with cross-reference a to the sub-titles, together with the names and last-known addresses of the persons originally entitled, the date of the last decree or order, and the amount unclaimed,"—(Mr. Stanley Leighton,) —instead thereof.

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


said, that the hon. Member who had brought forward that subject was not quite correct as to the amount of the funds dealt with by that Motion. He had spoken of very large funds in Chancery, standing to the credit of suits now in existence. That was correct; but the Dormant Fund was only about a hundredth part of the amount referred to by the hon. Member. Still, it was sufficiently substantial to deserve the consideration of the House. The fact was that these dormant funds were remanets of sums which were dealt with by the suits. There were nearly 3,000 very small amounts for the most part, and after a lapse of time they were not thought sufficiently important for persons to make out a claim to them because they were so small. By the regulations of the Office, information was granted to anyone if an application was made by a solicitor; and as soon as the solicitor communicated to the Paymaster that any person thought he had grounds for making a claim to the fund, every information was afforded. The names in the list were not alphabetical, except with respect to the initial letter; but this was a mere matter of directions to the printer, and it was well worthy of consideration whether an alteration should not be made. As to the periods of publication and the allegation that there had not been a publication for three years, that was a matter which ought to be attended to, and the attention of the Paymaster should be called to the necessity of a more regular publication. The hon. Member asked that the names and addresses of the last- known owners of the funds should be published; but that was an impossibility. It would involve a degree of labour and trouble as to small amounts which the Paymaster could not undertake; and, moreover, if done, it would produce but slight practical result. He was quite sure that in this country, however poor a man might be, he would find a solicitor to make application for him. In all the claims paid since 1852, one-half had been paid to three firms of solicitors, and, of course, everyone knew what that meant. As the list at present stood, it was impossible for the inquiring gentleman who traded on these funds to take up the list and ascertain the amount standing in the name of any person. The only desire on the part of the officials of the Paymaster's Office was to protect the property of the public; and they believed that, while the information given was sufficient for anyone who had a just claim on these funds, it prevented the reprehensible traffic to which he had referred. At present the Government saw no reason why the present system should not in the main be maintained.


said, it was desirable that these matters should be occasionally brought before public notice, as discussion would probably lead to some improvements in regard to them. It was not easy to hit off exactly the right point between giving too much and too little publicity and information. But he did not think the public had much to complain of if it was made perfectly clear that, upon the application of any respectable solicitor, all the information needful would be given. He thought it would be well if the lists were published annually instead of triennially, and also that the Rules and Orders made under the Chancery Funds Act of 1872 should be placed before the House. He thought that the thanks of the House were due to his hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire for bringing the subject forward; but he hoped that he would be content with the assurance and promises given by the Attorney General, and that he would not find it necessary to go to a division.


said, he hoped his hon. Friend would proceed to a division. The Attorney General had endeavoured to minimize the question by stating that the funds were about a hundredth part of what the hon. Member for North Shropshire supposed. But whether the funds were £100,000,000, £10,000,000, or £10,000, the public ought to have information about them. The funds did not always consist, as had been stated by the Attorney General, of mere remanets. He knew a case in which, owing to some difficulty in taking out probate, upwards of £10,000 had been paid into the Suitors' Fund, where it totally escaped notice for nearly 20 years, without earning any interest whatever for those entitled to the money. The interest, which amounted to a considerable sum, was applied to the building of the Law Courts. When a private person applied all information was refused, except when he applied through a solicitor. It was rather hard that those who had only small sums in the funds should be refused all information unless they employed a solicitor. The result was that some of those interested in the fund never received their money. The fund, instead of decreasing, as it ought to do, was increasing; and, therefore, steps should be taken to secure a quicker distribution than could take place under the present system.


regarded it as satisfactory that it was the intention of the authorities to reduce this list to alphabetical order; but there was another part of it not so satisfactory in which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General seemed to recognize the absolute necessity that the public required the intervention of a solicitor. That would be imposing a difficulty and adding an expense on the members of the public who might have, or supposed they had, claims to be satisfied on inquiry. He thought it would be quite possible, with due protection of the interests of the fund, to arrange a plan by which some officer should be specially told off, who, on payment of a moderate fee, should give information to all members of the public applying in regard to these funds. Many of the claimants were in very indigent circumstances, but bonâ fide claimants would be willing to pay a small fee by which the expenses of maintaining such an officer would be provided for. This small fee would have the effect of excluding curious inquirers. It would also be sufficient to pay for the services of one officer, who in time would be able to discriminate between the curious and the honest inquirer. This system existed in several Public Offices in England, and it existed with great advantage to the public in many Offices in Ireland. In the year 1850 the amount of this unclaimed fund was £562,039, and it now amounted to considerably more. There was another matter somewhat allied to this, which he desired to notice, and that was the unclaimed dividends and stocks in the Government Funds, concerning which no notice was ever given to the public. Some interest was felt on the subject in Ireland. It would be unfair to expect an answer from the Attorney General on the subject now; but he hoped the hon. and learned Gentleman would give the subject some consideration.


said, the speech of the Attorney General had convinced him of the necessity that really existed for the reforms advocated by the hon. Member for North Shropshire. No doubt, those connected with the present system, which was of very little advantage in assisting persons to discover derelict funds to which they might be entitled, were interested in its maintenance. That was only human nature, because their emoluments were derived from the obscurity that surrounded the present system. Publicity would interfere with the monopoly enjoyed by the three officials who at present endeavoured to trace out the persons entitled to those derelict funds. He supported the suggestion that the Government should cause the list to be published in dictionary form with a cross under. In the present form of the list no one could obtain any information who had not consulted it with a precise knowledge of the nature of his claim. The interest on the funds, which amounted to over £500,000, would pay the cost of indexing and of publication. He could not understand how it was that the hon. and learned Gentleman was not willing to agree with the Motion of the hon. Member. For his own part, believing that if carried it would be attended with beneficial results, he should support the hon. Member if he proceeded to a division.


said, it appeared to him to be no objection to the Motion that, by giving greater publicity, they would encourage a large number of applications. The effect would be that the persons interested would be able to decide at once whether it was worth their while to proceed with the inquiry or not. He hoped the hon. Member would proceed to a division; and, if he did so, he should certainly vote with him.


said, that the hon. and learned Attorney General stated that he (Mr. Leighton) had brought a charge of concealment against the Government. He had not done so; but he certainly did bring such a charge against the particular Office which was under the control of the noble Lord the Secretary to the Treasury.


The hon. Member is not in Order in again addressing the House.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 47; Noes 28: Majority 19.—(Div. List, No. 44.)

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."