HL Deb 10 April 1818 vol 37 cc1255-9
The Marquis of Lansdowne

rose to move an address to the Crown, for copies of the reports of the commissioners appointed in 1814, to inquire into the Fees paid to officers of the several Courts of Justice in the united kingdom. He could not anticipate any opposition to this application; at the same time, the discoveries which the commissioners had made with respect to the practice of taking fees, especially in one part of the united kingdom, were of so extraordinary a nature, that he apprehended he might be excused, if he called their lordships attention to them by a few observations. When the authority was given for the inquiries which had been instituted, it certainly never was supposed that any of the venerable persons at the head of the courts in the united kingdom had, in any way, sanctioned the abuses which had grown up. Accordingly, it was found upon inquiry, what, indeed, no inquiry was necessary to establish, that their character was unimpeachable, and that the more it was investigated, the more evident its purity would appear. It must, however, be obvious to their lordships, that it was perfectly impossible for the heads of courts to superintend all the details of the practice of clerks and inferior officers, in which the interests of suitors were involved. It had, indeed, been found, that in one part of the united: kingdom (Ireland), suitors had suffered most severely from the unjust and illegal exactions of officers holding situations in the courts of law. He should briefly allude to some of those iniquitous extortions,' and in doing so, he must remind their lordships, that no class of persons were placed in so defenceless a situation as poor suitors, who were destitute of all means of resisting the extortions imposed upon them; and that therefore none were more entitled to their attention and protection. It would, however, appear from the reports for which he was about to move, that there was scarcely an instance in the practice of certain courts having been enacted by the legislature, though intended for purposes unconnected with fees, which was not made an instrument of new extortions from the suitors. It would be found also, that rules expressly made by the courts for the benefit of suitors had been perverted to their injury. A remarkable instance of this kind occurred with regard to an order made by the court of chancery in Ireland, to allow the solicitors in causes to attend, instead of the six clerks. It had been contrived to evade the effect of that order; and, in one case, no less than 197 attendances were charged to a suitor, though not one of the clerks had attended. It would likewise appear, that most unjustifiable extortions had been practised with regard to offices executed by deputies. In some instances, where the emolument of the principal arose from fees, he had appointed a deputy, who increased the fees; that deputy again sometimes appointed a clerk, who made additional fees; so that the unfortunate suitors had, first, to pay the principal; secondly, the deputy; and thirdly, the clerk. Indeed, in many of the courts in the sister kingdom, the clerks had been in the habit of varying the price paid for the sheet of office copies of papers, without assigning any reason, except that they found some solicitors willing to pay more than others. When they met with solicitors who wore disposed to do their duty towards their clients, they abated in their demands; but when the solicitors were inclined to yield, the exactions of these gentlemen increased in proportion—In some of these courts, the practice followed in taxing bills of costs was often rendered a subject of great vexation to the parties. It might be expected that the party to whom that duty was referred would be one who had no direct interest in the matter. Yet, in one court, it had so happened, that the party who made the charges had been allowed to tax the costs. It thus often happened, that the charges were 50 per cent higher than they ought to be. There was an instance in one of the courts, in a case of error, where the demand for office copies of papers amounted to 400l., though the property in question did not exceed 300l. This enormous demand had induced the party to make an application to superior authorities; but he found he could obtain no relief, except by proceeding with his suit, which would have increased his expense. He was therefore induced to abandon all farther proceedings, though it was generally understood that the opinion of the court was favourable to his claim.—There was one circumstance more connected with law proceedings to which he should take the liberty of referring, and in what he should say on that subject he was fully persuaded he should be supported by the concurrent opinion of the noble and learned lord on the woolsack. He meant the state of the law with regard to the stamps on legal proceedings. The duties on stamps had been imposed during a time of war; but if the necessities of such a period could be urged as a reason for laying them on, it might reasonably be hoped that the burthen would be lightened on the restoratiun of peace. Their lordships were now called upon to consider whether these oppressive duties ought to be continued. In his opinion, the public distress had afforded no excuse for these taxes, which were levied on private distress—which were often extracted from misery itself. Disapproving of all law-taxes, which were burdens imposed on the necessitous, and obstacles to the obtaining of justice, he could not but condemn the enormous duties levied by law stamps. Great, however, as the evil was, it had been immensely aggravated by the ingenuity of clerks and officers in some of the courts to which he had already alluded; for when, by an act of the legislature, stamp-duties were required on office-copies of certain papers, these clerks had availed themselves of that circumstance to increase their fees. In Ireland the fees had on this ground been in general augmented 25 per cent. There was a case mentioned in one of the reports, where the stamp-duties came to 69l.; but the charge, including fees, was 459l: so that, when the legislature intended that parties were to be charged only 69l., about seven times that sum was extorted from them. Thus property was destroyed by the means to which it was necessary to resort in order to secure it. He was far from imputing any blame to his majesty's government on account of these nefarious transactions. He had no doubt that ministers would Visit the offenders with just severity, and believed them to be perfectly disposed to check, and even extirpate, the evil: but it would be satisfactory to the House to know what measures had already been taken towards this end; and this was certain—that it was their lordships duty to see that the object was accomplished. The noble marquis concluded with moving, "That an humble address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, praying that he would be graciously pleased to give orders that Copies of the Reports of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Fees of the Courts of Justice in England, Scotland, and Ireland, be laid upon the table of the House."

The Earl of Liverpool

did not rise for the purpose of opposing the motion, which, on the contrary, had his most cordial support, but to make a few observations, suggested by what had fallen from the noble marquis. Their lordships must have beard with satisfaction what had been stated by the noble marquis respecting the heads of the different courts, whose conduct, as might have been expected, had been found liable to no kind of imputation whatever. He must also take the liberty of remarking, that nothing in the statement which their lordships had heard, and the matters of complaint in the reports, in scarcely any respect applied to the courts of England or Scotland, but were confined almost exclusively to Ireland. The investigations had been carried on with the greatest impartiality, and with all practicable diligence; and he believed he spoke the opinion of every man who had seen the reports, when he said that the conduct of the commissioners had been most exemplary. Indeed, every circumstance mentioned by the noble marquis tended to prove the honourable and upright manner in which their inquiries had been prosecuted. Four reports had already been made, and there were two more in a very forward state. The report on the court of chancery had been referred, after it was drawn up, to the lord chancellor of Ireland and the master of the rolls, by whom the labours of the commissioners were approved. With regard to the court of exchequer, in which the right of appointment to the office of the clerk of the pleas had become a question of legal dispute, the report was equally approved. A decision had been given in favour of the Crown by the court of King's-bench in Ireland as to the appointment of the clerk of the pleas; but an appeal had been made to their lordships House, where the final judgment must now be given. The report respecting the courts of error was important, and he could assure the noble marquis that his majesty's government would be happy to carry the recommendations of the commissioners into effect. He had thought it necessary to make the few explanations with which he had troubled the House. It would be for their lordships, when the reports should be before them, to consider whether it would be requisite to apply farther remedies to the evils complained of, which had arisen from no neglect in his majesty's government, and the existence of which could scarcely have been suspected before the investigation of the commissioners disclosed them. In the mean time, it could not escape observation, that this inquiry was one of the advantageous results of that measure by which the two countries had been united, and the proceedings which might be instituted on the reports would afford a farther proof of the attention of the united parliament to the interests of the people of Ireland.

The Earl of Lauderdale

had great satisfaction in hearing that none of the extortions which his noble friend had recited were chargeable on the courts in Scotland. He could not help, however, reminding the noble lords opposite, that an inquiry of the same kind which was now acknowledged to be so salutary, had formerly received their disapprobation. The commissioners who had been appointed to inquire into the state of the courts in Scotland, had not only reported what they considered as abuses, or unnecessary burdens, but had pointed out the means of redress. He hoped, however, that the report which he had heard would not prove true, namely, that appointments had lately been made to some of the offices in Scotland, the abolition of which had been recommended by the commissioners. He was exceedingly glad that these reports were to be laid on the table, which would give their lordships the opportunity of judging whether it was proper that the commissioners should continue their labours. It would be proper to take care that these commissions were not maintained longer than was necessary; for they were attended with no little expense. If maintained too long, they would justly deserve the name of jobs, and parliament ought to be as careful in guarding gainst the evils which might arise from their undue continuance, as in abolishing the abuses they had been the means of disclosing.

The motion was then put and agreed to.