HC Deb 26 March 1888 vol 324 cc373-7

, in rising to move for leave to bring in a Bill to make provision for the better disposal of the business under the Land Law (Ireland) Acts, and for other purposes relating thereto, said: There are two pressing questions with regard to the constitution and circumstances of the Land Courts in Ireland which must necessarily be dealt with by the Government during the present Session. The one arises from the accumulation of the arrears of business in the Land Courts, and the other arises from the circumstances that under the Act of 1881 the Land Commission would naturally come to an end in this year. Therefore, if the present system of land tenure is to continue—and without an enormous scheme of laud purchase it must continue—it is absolutely necessary that the Government should bring in some Bill by which the existence of that Commission may be further prolonged. Now, the most pressing question, of course, is that with regard to arrears of business in the Land Courts; but it seems to the Government that it may be convenient to deal with two questions at once, not in a very ambitious fashion, but in a manner that will introduce certain improvements that are needed both in the method of dealing with business in the Sub-Commission Courts, and also with reference to the block of business in the Land Commission Courts. This is the object of the Bill which I am about to introduce. Hon. Members who have been present during the last fortnight must be aware that Members from Ireland have, from time to time, expressed their dissatisfaction with the course which the Government have taken with regard to the arrears of business. But I should first like to show the House that the Government is not really to blame in the matter of arrears of business in the Land Courts. Those who are conversant with what occurred in 1882 are aware that the result of that Act threw an immense mass of business upon the Land Courts, which they were not able to get through for a considerable period. I notice in this connection that hon. Members have been under some misapprehension. They have supposed, as I gather from their speeches, that the Government have been greatly to blame in that they have not earlier taken a step to deal with the accumulated arrears; but an observation of what we have done in the way of appointing Sub-Commissioners will, I think, dissipate that particular prejudice. If the House will compare what happened in 1882 with what is happening at the present moment, they will see that the difficulties which we have undergone were not unknown to our Predecessors. I find that in February, 1882, there were 69,000 cases awaiting hearing. In March and April there were 70,000 cases, and in April the Government increased the number of Sub-Commissioners from 36 to 48. In May and June the number of cases was 66,000, and in August the number was still 60,000. The number of Sub-Commissioners remained at 48 until the beginning of September, when it was raised to 51, and there it remained during four months. Nevertheless, the number of cases awaiting hearing kept up to 60,000 or more right up to the month of December, when the Government increased the number of Sub-Commissioners to 85. Even under that new régime, the number of cases awaiting hearing remained above 60,000 until the end of February, 1883. For 1887–8 the following are the figures which are comparable with those that I have just quoted to the House. In August, 1887, there were 13,000 cases awaiting hearing, and the number of Sub-Commissioners was 20. The cases rose to 30,000 in September, and we immediately appointed 10 additional Sub-Commissioners, making a total of 30. In October and November, the cases rose to 62,000, and in the beginning of December we appointed 20 more Sub-Commissioners, making a total of 50, which was practically the same number as existed in 1882, when the number of cases was about the same. Therefore, the House will see that we have shown ourselves sensible of the gravity of the situation, and that we have endeavoured to meet it. At the same time we feel that there are great difficulties in simply trying to meet the accumulation of arrears merely by piling Commission on Commission and multiplying the number of Sub-Commissioners. That course involves several difficulties. It involves, among other things, the difficulties of constituting a new Court. It is an expensive process, not very convenient, and not very fast. It is costly to the Treasury, and not satisfactory politically. It is not at all easy, moreover, to find an efficient Legal Commissioner. As the House is aware, there is attached to every Sub-Commission one Legal Member who, as a rule, only sits with his Colleagues in Court, and does not attend them in their investigations into the actual circumstances of farms. He is paid a large salary by the Treasury, and he is very frequently a lawyer of not very considerable standing at the Irish Bar. You cannot get lawyers of first-class or high rank to take, even at a salary of £1,000 a-year, a Sub-Commissionership, which, from the necessity of the case, is probably a temporary employment, and which will deprive him of his connection with his clientèle, if such connection he is fortunate enough to have. But the House will recollect that the Sub-Commissions are not the only machinery by which cases are to be heard in the first instance. Litigants may also carry their cases before the County Court Judge, and it appears to the Government that much good would be done if we could strengthen the powers of the County Court Judge for hearing these cases. The County Court Judge is invariably a lawyer of high standing. He holds his appointment permanently, and therefore all those Gentlemen who are anxious to see judicial cases tried by Judges who hold their appointments not at the pleasure of the Executive, as the County Court Judges do, will be glad to see the work thrown upon them rather than upon any different tribunal, as when these cases come before a County Court Judge, who is usually a competent lawyer, it is extremely improbable that there will be an appeal to the higher Court on points of law. The reason why the County Court fails at this moment as a Court of First Instance is because the County Court Judge has to work, not with two Sub-Commissioners as an ordinary Sub-Commission Court has to work, but with one valuer. It appears to us that if we can make the Court of the County Court Judge as strong in dealing with questions of fact as the existing Sub-Commissioners' Courts are, and could utilize his very superior capacity of dealing with questions of law, we should constitute a very much better tribunal than any which now exists. In the Bill, therefore, which I am introducing to-night we propose, among other things, to strengthen the Court of the County Court Judge by substituting for the single valuer paid by the day, with whom he has to work, two gentlemen of the status of Sub-Commissioners. They will be obliged, as Sub-Commissioners are now, to go upon the farms they have to investigate in couples, and will give their advice to the County Court Judge, after their examination of the farm, carried on with the same care and the same efficiency as we may hope the investigations by the lay Sub Commissioners are as a rule carried on at the present moment. So far, therefore, what we propose to do is merely to strengthen and make more efficient the Court of the County Court Judge. But there is another evil attendant upon the present system which we desire to remedy. At present there are two Courts dealing with these cases in competition—the Sub-Commissioners' Court and the County Court. They are, of course, dealing with exactly the same cases, competitively so to speak. We propose, therefore, that a distribution of business shall be made between the Sub-Commissioners' Courts and the County Court Judges Courts, which shall take place at any rate as long as the arrears exist as they at present stand, and the County Court Judges shall be assisted by the Land Commissioners. That, I think, is the most controversial part of the Bill. I believe that by the Rules of the House I am not allowed to explain the remaining part of the Bill which deals with the Head Commission; but I may say briefly that while we propose to continue in office the Head Commissioners for another seven years, we propose also to introduce certain provisions which will make that Court more flexible, and, as we think, more competent to deal with the business with which it has to deal.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the better disposal of the business under the Land Law (Ireland) Acts; and for other purposes relating thereto."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)


said, so far as he had been able to gather the right hon. Gentleman (the Chief Secretary for Ireland) proposed to meet the difficulty in reference to the block of cases in the Land Court by appointing assessors to the County Court Judges to perform the same duties that lay Sub-Commissioners at present performed on the Sub-Commissions, and that he also proposed as it were to drive the litigants, or the persons applying for fair rents being fixed, into the County Courts whether they wished to go there or not. Under the Act of 1881 persons applying to have fair rents fixed could at their option apply to the County Court or to the Land Commission, and while the vast majority of applications up to the present time had been made on one side, the tenants, the vast majority of such applications had been made not to the County Court Judges but to the Court of Land Commissioners whence they had been remitted to the Sub-Commissions. It was evident, therefore, and might be taken as granted, that in the opinion of the tenants who constituted the vast majority of persons applying, the County Court Judges were not a favourable or a fair tribunal. Therefore it appeared to him at first sight that the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman was disadvantageous from the point of view of the tenant.

It being Midnight, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow, at Two of the clock.