HC Deb 15 April 1890 vol 343 cc602-4
(8.3.) MR. M. J. STEWART (Kirkcudbright)

I beg to move— That it is desirable that the constitution and proceedings of Fiars Courts in Scotland should be reformed so as to obtain a better and more uniform system of striking corn and other averages than at present prevails; and that other agricultural produce should be included in the prices struck by the Fiars juries, especially meat and dairy produce, with a view to annually collect and publish the same in an efficient form. It is of great importance that there should be a just, intelligible, and fixed procedure for ascertaining the money to be paid by commutation. The modes of striking fiars are different, inconsistent, and contradictory, and their process is loose, inefficient, and incorrect. I may explain to the House that under the old Act of Parliament fiars were struck on nine articles, namely, wheat, barley, here, oats, peas, beans, rye, oatmeal, and malt. Some of these are obsolete, and I should like to substitute for hero and rye, for instance, meat, cheese, wool, and potatoes. Let me very briefly put the House in possession of the origin of this question, because there can be no doubt that many hon. Members are unacquainted with either the origin or the practice of liars. The word "fiars" is derived from the French word feurs. The old definition of striking the fiars is— The ascertaining and fixing by judicial authority the average prices of the different kinds of grain in each county, of a specific crop and year, and the prices thus held to be legally ascertained and determined become the rule and rate of payment in all transactions where money is substituted for grain at fiars prices. It was deemed important several hundred years ago to ascertain in a legal manner the value of victuals, rents, and fen duties, payable to the Crown. At one time the value was ascertainable by the Sheriff of the Court of Exchequer, and at another period—in Reformation times—it was ascertainable in the Commissary and Consistorial Courts. One old statut3 bearing on the subject was one relating to the stipend of the clergy. It was passed in 1584. But there was even a statute passed in 1564. In those early days no jury had to be summoned, but the Sheriff was the sole arbiter on the evidence given by the witnesses, and many are inclined to resort to that tribunal at the present day. The Act of Sederunt, which regulated the procedure of Fiars Courts, was passed in 1723. Some may object to that Act as not being a regular Act of Parliament. Mr. Erskine says of such Acts that they Are not law in the strict sense of the word, because they are not created by the supreme power, but the obligatory force is as strong as if they had the express sanction of Parliament. Under the Act of Sederunt 15 men serve on the jury, by whom the prices are struck. Eight of these are heritors or proprietors, and they have to meet between the 4thand the 20th of February. One objection to this system is that the time of year at which the prices are taken is most inopportune, because between the 1st of November and the 20th of February it is difficult to say that any good grain will find its way into the market. In that period farmers only rush bad grain, or grain that will not keep well, into the market. Then, again, it is very near Candlemas rent time, and that operates in the getting rid of the grain which the farmer may be compelled to sell in order to pay his rent. In that way, therefore, the clergy, who depend on this system for their stipends, get the worst average. The evil might be avoided by the period being made as late as April or May, and then the greater part of the grain will be sold, and in consequence a fairer average taken. I may say, in passing, that the two parties whose interests are most at stake in this matter are, first of all, the tenant farmer, and next the clergy. The system operates very harshly on the stipends of parish ministers. It is impossible that they can feel satisfied, because in many counties only one fiar is struck, and they are entitled by the 48th of George III. to have the stipend paid on the highest fiar. When only one fiar is struck in the county it is impossible to say that that is the highest average of the price of corn in the county. Again, in some counties it is practically impossible to get together as many as eight heritors to form a jury. Many proprietors at that period of the year have left their Northern homes and come South. It would be better, in my opinion, to have a new arrangement respecting the jury, and one which would not give the proprietors an overwhelming majority on the jury. There is a great grievance felt as to the mode in which witnesses are summoned. They are brought from all parts of the country, and very often have very little to say. They stand about, practically, all the day idle. The producer gives an account of the grain on his farm. The dealer is called, and his evidence is welcomed because he can speak of many transactions, and very often gives his views of the same class of grain as the producer has just given evidence of.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at a quarter after Eight o'clock till To-morrow.