HC Deb 11 May 1897 vol 49 cc245-56

(Plyhoped the House would agree that the That this House is of opinion that a portion of the expenses incurred by the Incorporated Law Society in fulfilling the duties imposed upon it by the Statute 51 and 52 Vic. c. 65. should he defrayed out of public funds. He said the Motion was in principle adopted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last year, but exception was taken on that occasion to the particular form in which the Resolution was moved. He hoped the House would agree that the grant should be made out of public funds without any interception. Solitors on being articled paid stamp duty, they paid duty on admission, and they paid a duty for the purpose of being at liberty to practise their profession; and the funds thus contributed to the public Exchequer amounted to no less than from £180,000 to £190,000 a year. If was not necessary for the professional solicitor to belong to any society, and he could not be expelled from the profession merely because the Law Society so desired. In former years the Rolls Court exercised jurisdiction, and cases of complaint were investigated by the Master of the Rolls, which resulted in great delays. In 1888 a, reform took place, and the judicial duty of investigation was imposed upon the Incorporated Law Society, whose Reports were acted upon. He believed about a thousand cases had been investigated, and large payments had been made in the performance of this statutory judicial duly. The Reports and the work which had been done had been most highly spoken of by the present Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Master of the Rolls. The Lord Chancellor had written to the President of the Society, in which he stated the functions of the Society appeared to him "both valuable and well performed:" mid he recognised that they do a public service and save time and expense in the Courts which have jurisdiction in the matters of solicitors. As this judicial work involved considerable expense it was just that it should be paid out of public funds instead of being paid out of the voluntary subscriptions of this society. He begged to move the Motion. ["Hear, hear !"]

MR. W. AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)

seconded the Motion. He was satisfied that it was founded upon justice and policy. ["Hear, hear !"] This was not an act of "trade unionism;' what they asked for was not for the benefit of solicitors, but entirely in the interest of the public, it was found that no one could do this work so well as the Law Society, and so long as they gave their services for nothing, as was the case at present, it was only just that the expense involved in these investigations, which he believed amounted to about £5,000 a year, should be provided by the State.


said he had the permission of the Lord Chancellor to say that he agreed fully with the spirit of the Motion. That was a high authority to start with. The matter should meet with the sympathy of the House, if for no other reason for this—that, instead of the old-fashioned, dilatory process of proceeding in the first instance by affidavit, then the matter being referred to a master, proceeding before the master as if he were a Judge, and considering the report of the master, the modern and excellent practice had been created by statute of a committee of the Incorporated Law Society considering each case brought before them, and, if they thought fit, making a report of it to the Court of Queen's Bench. A great saving of time and expense had been effected by the machinery provided by the Act of 1888. When the subject was last before the House the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed himself favourable to the consideration of the matter. It had been said that, if solicitors chose to consider the ways of peccant members of that branch of the legal profession, they should be glad to do it within closed doors at their own expense. But this was not true. The Statutory Committee considered whether on the facts brought before them the matter should go further or not, and they often paid the costs on one side or the other out of their own pocket. When the report of the Incorporated Law Society came before the Divisional Court of Queen's Bench the Judges had to say whether the report of the Incorporated Law Society was to be upheld or reversed. Everything showed that the present machinery for dealing with the matter was excellent. If it were so, why should the Incorporated Law Society be called upon to pay the expense out of their own pocket? If it led to a saving of public time and expense, ought not the Society to be reimbursed? He heartily supported the Motion.

*MR. MELLOR (York, W.R., Sowerby)

said this was really a matter of simple justice. Not a large sum was asked for, and it was merely to reimburse the Incorporated Law Society for the expense they went to in discharge of a public duty. This had been extremely well performed since 1888, and it was a duty of great importance to- the public. It was very much to the advantage of the public that complaints against solicitors should be inquired into by a body of gentlemen well qualified and of experience in that branch of the profession, who had command of all the necessary machinery. The Lord Chief Justice spoke not only for himself, but for the Judges of the Queen's Bench Division, in favour of the proposal, and the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chancellor also concurred. If these great authorities found the work of the committee of the Incorporated Law Society so valuable, surely the public ought not to allow them to be out of pocket, considering the hard work they undertook in the service of the public.


held that when a proposal was made to tax the country to get solicitors struck off the rolls it should be made by a Minister of the Crown in Committee of the whole House. When the matter was before the House in July last the Leader of the Opposition said the Incorporated Law Society kept the rolls clean for their own sake, and had no more right to be paid for keeping them clean than an Inn of Court had to be paid for disbarring a barrister. He himself submitted that there was no ground for this demand to give £4,500 a year to a very respectable trade union. He believed the Incorporated Law Society was put to no expense at all. It had been said that until 1888 the duty of investigating complaints against solicitors was performed by the Court. If a man were to be driven out of his profession it should be by the Court. [HON. MEMBERS: "So it is."] The examination of the solicitor was no longer conducted in Court, but in private by a private society. All that came before the Court was the report of the society. The late Lord Bramwell, speaking on this subject, said the proper way to deal with a solicitor's professional conduct was in open Court, not in the secret chamber of any society, however respectable. ["Hear, hear !"] What he wanted to point out to the House was this. It was said that a duty was imposed upon the Society by the Act of 1888. He did not think that was a fair statement of the case. What was done by the Act of 1888 was to give this Society all the powers and privileges which they themselves had asked for. The only duty imposed upon them was, when they had held their inquiry, and come to their conclusion, that of presenting their report to the Court. There was nothing expensive about that. A sheet of foolscap' paper and five minutes' time would suffice to make the copy that was presented to the Court. His belief was that no expense at all had been incurred by this Act. The Bill was introduced in the Autumn Session of 1888, and became law on the 25th December of that year. In the Report of the Incorporated Law Society of the preceding July, Sir Henry Watson Parker reported that— the Council were of opinion that it would be to the interest of the profession that such powers should be sought for. The present process for punishing delinquent solicitors is complicated, involves unnecessary expense and a waste of energy, and the functions now exercised by the Court, at a considerable cost to the Society, can be well exercised by the Council alone. It was upon the ground of economy alone that the Society demanded the extension to them of the powers which were formerly exercised by the Court. In the next Report, after the Act was passed, they proceeded to say that it was the opinion of the Committee that in ordinary circumstances a fee not exceeding three guineas should be sufficient to cover all professional charges of preparing and lodging; the complaint, and providing the affidavit in support of it. The House would be gratified to learn that since the passing of the Act an average of only fourteen solicitors per annum had been struck off the roll. That would come to a matter of 42 guineas per annum, according to the estimate made in 1889 by the Incorporated Law Society themselves. They said that a fee of three guineas would suffice, therefore it was not £5,000 a year they should ask for, but £42 a year. But his belief was that it did not cost them even that. He found that the law expenses of the Incorporated Law Society in the year 1888, immediately before the passing; of the Act, were £4,046, but in 1890 their law and Parliamentary expenses, including the cost of the Committee under the Solicitors' Act, 1888, were not £4,046, but only £3,767. It seemed to him, therefore, that the expenses had been absolutely less in the last year than they were in the last year before the Solicitors' Act, was passed, and that, instead of this matter costing the Society more, it had cost them absolutely less. He did not, therefore, know upon what kind of ground this claim could be made. He admitted that when solicitors ran away with clients' money, or otherwise misbehaved themselves, it was the duty of this extremely respectable trades union to see that such delinquents were struck off the rolls, but he believed the method of examination enshrined in this Act was an unfortunate one. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton thought so at one time, because he found, on reference to the history of the Bill, that when it was introduced the right hon. Gentleman announced that he should strongly object to a good many of its clauses.

SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

And the Bill was altered.


found no verbal record of the alterations in "Hansard." At any rate, it was not, in his opinion, altered sufficiently, and he only regretted that he was not earlier a Member of that Parliament, in which case, perhaps, he might have had a voice in the matter himself. He trusted it would not be thought he was an enemy of the honourable profession of solicitors, but he did not think, in the first place, on public grounds, that any private body whatever, for any purpose whatever, should receive a permanent charge of £5,000 from the taxpayers of this country. In the second place, he asserted that it had not in the least been made out that any case existed of extra expense having been incurred by this Society in consequence of the duties (as they were called) cast upon them by this Act; and, in the third place, he denied that any duties of an onerous nature had been cast upon them by the Act. The only duty was a duty of presenting a report, and all the rest the Act did was to give the Society privileges, advantages, and powers, which, he thought, it would have been much better not to have given, and which, when the Society asked for, they said not a word about their being likely to cause extra expense. On the contrary, the Report he had quoted showed that the suggestion was that, if this power were given to the Society, no extra expense would be incurred, but the cost would be less, and that was the one great ground put forward in the Report of the Society. In these circumstances, it did not be in the mouth of the Society now to come and ask for public money on this ground. This was an academic discussion, for, whatever the result of the Resolution might be, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not going to part with £5,000 except much better reasons could be given than had been adduced in the House that night.


said so far as he was concerned as a Member of the Bar, it was a matter of absolute indifference whether the Motion was carried or not. His only interest was in seeing the discharge by a competent body of a serious and important public duty, and that was an interest common to all. But having had opportunities of judging of the value of this work, he would not be deterred by the sarcasm of the hon. Member for King's Lynn from saying a word about the matter. By the Act of 1888 an important public duty was transferred to the Committee of the Incorporated Law Society. Before that date it was necessary, in order that there should be an investigation into the conduct of a solicitor, that there should be a formal application to a, court of law; and a great many persons who thought they had ground of complaint were unwilling to take what seemed to them the dangerous and expensive course of making such an application. For that procedure had been substituted simply the necessity of a communication, almost an informal communication, to the Incorporated Law Society. Directly that communication was received a committee consisting of some of the most experienced and most trustworthy solicitors in this country, investigated the complaint. If they found that there was no prima facie reason for instituting proceedings against the solicitor they dismissed the case; if they found that there was a prima facie case, they thereupon proceeded to procure a full investigation. Before 1888 the expenses of these proceedings were in great measure borne by the State. Now, instead of being conducted by a Master of the Queen's Bench paid out of the public funds, it was conducted by a committee of solicitors belonging to the Incorporated Law Society, who received no payment whatever for discharging duties which involved great sacrifices of their own time. Surely it was unreasonable, when Parliament had agreed to the scheme which set up this tribunal, and when, after nine years' experience, that tribunal was found to be far more effective and useful than the tribunal which existed before, to say to the solicitors: "You shall, in, your certificate, duly pay to the State a sum of £180,000 a year. We have put upon you the discharge of an important public duty. That, public duty being properly discharged by you, costs you a good deal of money, and we will not even make a rebate from the contribution, which you make to the State in order to pay the expenses of your investigations." The Law Society stated deliberately that the expenses of the investigations amounted to an average of nearly £5,000 a year. That being so it seemed to him a matter of elementary justice that they should be allowed such an abatement for the contribution that they made to the public funds as might compensate them for the expense they incurred in the discharge of a public duty. [Cheers.] He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be able to give an assurance upon the matter. If he did he would secure the permanent, the effective, and the satisfactory discharge of these public duties, and would be discharging a debt and not in any way conferring a boon or a gift on a trade union. [Cheers.]


said the hon. Member for Lynn Regis had an encyclopædic knowledge of matters which came before the House. But there wore subjects outside his range, and one on which he was profoundly ignorant was that branch of the legal profession to which he (Sir H. Fowler) had the honour to belong, and the working of the Incorporated Law Society. The hon. Member had referred to the part which he (the speaker) took in connection with the Act of 1888. The hon. Member was misinformed. He objected to the form of the Act as it was originally introduced, and he strove successfully to secure that this body, as it was to have judicial functions conferred upon it by the State, should be appointed, not by what the hon. Member, not happily, called a trade union, but by a public functionary. A clause was inserted providing that the power of appointment should rest exclusively with the Master of the Rolls, and that their procedure should be regulated by rules to be drawn up and approved of by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England, and the Master of the Rolls. His view was that, if this Committee was to have judicial duties intrusted to it, the Committee ought to be appointed by an independent body of the highest ability and competence. He did not suppose that the Law Society had any idea at the time of what ultimately the quantum of this procedure would be; but the work had been very well done. Only the other day, in a case that came before the Court of Appeal, the Master of the Rolls alluded in the strongest terms to the great assistance rendered to him and the Court by the careful and judicial investigation into the facts of the case by this Committee. Since 1888 nearly 1,000 cases had been investigated by it. The members of the Committee, whose time was emphatically their money, sat day by day during a long period of the year; they received no remuneration whatever, and the expenses which they asked the State to defray were payments to third persons. The amount of these payments averaged about to£5,000 a year. A poor man robbed by a defaulting solicitor often had no means with which to institute a prosecution in Chancery proceedings, and, of course, anyone who was appointed to act for him had to be paid. The costs winch the Incorporated Law Society paid to other people were solicitors' and counsel's fees. The Law Society were quite willing to discharge the duties intrusted to them, but they were not willing to tax themselves pecuniarily to the amount of £4,000 or £5,000 annually. That they should be expected to do so was not fair, for they were protecting the interests of the public and the State. The Judges, by the way in which they had treated the Committee's reports, had shown that they were perfectly satisfied. The statement that the Committee's proceedings were costing £4,000 or £5,000 a year was not made haphazard. The figures had been verified before the Treasury officials and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was a very careful guardian of the public purse, and not a man at all likely to listen to a sentimental or imaginary grievance. For his part, he was quite willing as a Member of that House to leave it to the right hon. Gentleman to determine what was the proper sum to pay to the Incorporated Law Society. The facts were very simple. Here was a body appointed by Parliament to discharge judicial duties entailing very heavy expenditure. Those duties had been performed to the satisfaction of the authorities and the public, and surely it was not reasonable that men who devoted their time, ability, and attention to these matters should also be called upon to defray the cost of investigations and proceedings out of their own pockets. ["Hear, hear !"]


said that he was not prepared to agree expenditure simply because it was recommended by even such great personages as the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Master of the Rolls. Those legal luminaries did not always agree, and although they did agree on this subject, it was not on account of such agreement that he would be disposed to sanction this expenditure. Nor did he think that any society regulating any profession or trade for the advantage of its members, and also for the advantage of the public, was necessarily entitled to claim a grant from that House. But the Incorporated Law Society was in a peculiar position, because the profession of a solicitor was one in which it was necessary for laymen like himself to have implicit confidence, and if that confidence was misplaced and fraud was committed, it often happened that the client was too poor to obtain tiny remedy himself or to take action to protect the public against similar frauds in the future. ["Hear, hear !"] Therefore, to a certain extent the Incorporated Law Society and the solicitors' profession did stand in a different position from that of most other professions or trades. This subject was brought before him last year, and he investigated it very carefully, and the result was that he felt himself justified in making a proposal to Parliament in the sense of the Motion now before the House. That proposal, however, was not accepted. It was opposed mainly on the ground that there would be an interception of a tax before the tax reached the Exchequer. He was not, however, acting without precedent, for under an Act passed not long ago the King's Inns in Dublin had received similar assistance for certain necessary work done with regard to the profession of the Bar in Ireland, and in making his proposal he had but imitated what Parliament had done in their behalf. He, however, felt the force of the objection, and did not press his proposal. The hon. Member for Plymouth had brought the matter forward again that evening with the object of obtaining from the House an acceptance of the view that at some way or other the assistance which was desired by the Incorporated Law Society should be given by Parliament. That was a matter which he would like to leave to the House. There was one point which appeared to him to differentiate this case from almost any other that could arise, and that was, that there was a special tax on the profession of solicitors—["hear, hear !"]—and that, as the profession was specially taxed, undoubted there might be a claim from it which could hardly arise from any other profession, that a portion, and not a large portion, of that tax should be allowed, so to speak, by Parliament to the Incorporated Law Society for performing statutory duties which every one admitted were well performed, not only to the advantage of the profession itself, but also of the public. ["Hear, hear !"] He could only say that if it should be the pleasure of the House to affirm this Resolution, he should think it his duty to act upon it by submitting to the House a Vote for such a sum as, on investigation, might seem to him to be right. ["Hear, hear !"] He owned that he felt that it was placing this society perhaps in a somewhat invidious position; but at the same time it would unquestionably be a payment, not for any work they did for themselves, but for the necessary expenses they incurred in the performance of a public duty; and he did not think it would be a precedent which would be injurious to the Exchequer as forming grounds for similar claims on the part of anyone else, and therefore he was willing to leave the matter in the hands of the House. ["Hear, hear!"]

The House divided:—Ayes, 111; Noes, 16.—(Division List, No. 204.)