HL Deb 02 August 1832 vol 14 cc1016-22
The Lord Chancellor

rose to call their Lordshipsattention to the subject of the Bills which he had given notice of his intention to introduce, on the subject of Reforms in the Court of Chancery. He had before stated to their Lordships, that he had some hopes that he should have been able to bring these Reforms before their Lordships in a Bill involving the whole in one measure; and, at that time, he did fully expect that he should have been enabled to do so. He found. however, that there were some clauses relative to the plan for the creation of an appellate jurisdiction which it would be necessary to introduce in as mature a shape as possible, but which he could not get ready in time to bring forward with any chance that they would pass both Houses within the short period of the present Session that still remained. But although he could not bring forward the whole of the measure with any chance of having it passed this Session, yet there was one part of it which he was anxious now to bring forward—namely, that part which provided for the abolition of certain sinecure offices in the Court of Chancery; and he would take this opportunity of bringing it forward as a separate bill, since he could not bring forward the whole together. That portion of the measure might perfectly well be passed as a separate bill, even within the few days of the Session that still remained; and as this was possible, he was anxious that this part of the measure at least should no longer be delayed. The offices which it was proposed to abolish were those which particularly came under the description of the patronage of the Lord Chancellor, and the abolition of these might be effected by a separate bill, which might, without difficulty, receive the assent of Parliament within the short period of the present Session. There was one point, however, connected with the extinction of these offices to which it was fitting that he should call their Lordship's attention. These offices, although they were called sinecures, and, in a great measure, were so, yet were not entirely sinecures, and, therefore, on their extinction, it would be necessary to consider how the duties which had attached to them were to be performed, by whom they should be performed, and on whom the responsibility should rest. There were six or seven of these offices, and the duties attached to them, however limited, were of great importance; and it was, therefore, of great importance that, on their abolition, care should be taken that provision should be made for the proper discharge of the duties, and to have proper persons to be responsible for the due performance of these duties. First, then, it was proposed, that from henceforth these offices should be abolished; but then, in order to give time, before the actual extinction of the offices, for making the necessary provision for the discharge of the duties, it was proposed to fix the time for their actual extinction, about the middle of the next Session—say the 15th of April, or the 1st of May—by which time it might reasonably be expected that the other parts of the measure might be passed, and the proper provisions be made for the discharge of the duties which had attached to the abolished offices. The offices to which he particularly alluded were those of the Clerk of the Hanaper, the Clerk of the Subpœna Office, the Registrar of Affidavits, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, the Clerk of the Patents, and the Clerk of the Custos. The duties of these offices were executed by deputies, and, therefore, they might be now easily abolished by a separate bill, while the duties should continue to be discharged as at present, until provision should be made, at a future period, for the performance of these duties in another manner. The object at present was, now and without delay, to make it a law of the land, that the offices should cease and be entirely abolished, except as far as might regard the vested interests of living persons, by the 15th of April or the 1st of May next. The effect of the passing of this Bill now would be, that these sinecure offices would cease to exist; and after this, or after the existing interests should have expired, the places could no longer be filled up, and no person could afterwards hold any of them. But as some or several of these offices had been granted for services performed by the grantees, or by the persons who had the patronage and the power and the right to grant them, it might not be expedient nor consistent with an enlarged view of the public interest, nor consistent with justice to the individuals, that these vested interests should be touched. It was proposed, therefore, to add to the enactment for the extinction of these offices, on or before the 15th of April, or the 1st of May next, that this should not affect the vested life interests in any of the offices granted on or before the 1st of June last. Whether afterwards Parliament should think fit to abolish these offices also, and give a suitable compensation to the persons holding them, or whether they allowed them to be held as before until these rights should become extinct in the course of nature, would be for Parliament to consider at a future period. The object at present was to have it passed into a law, that one way or other these offices should be extinguished with the lives of the present holders. But their Lordships would please to observe, that this reservation of the life interest would not apply to any of the offices to which he had been called upon to appoint. All those offices to which he had appointed would be abolished entirely on the 15th of April, or the first of May, without any reference to the life interest of the holders. Having thus stated, with sufficient distinctness, as he trusted, his view in bringing forward this Bill as a separate measure to be passed in the present Session, it did not appear to him that he need enlarge further on the subject at present. He would only again state, what he had stated on a former occasion, that these patronage offices belonged to him as Lord Chancellor, and that he had as undoubted a right to retain them as he had to the emoluments of his office arising from fees or from salary, and that he had a perfect right to do with them whatever he pleased. But that was a right and a privilege of which he never had any intention to avail himself. This was well known to his noble friend at the head of the Administration, with whom he had communicated on the subject immediately on the death of Mr. Scott; and to his noble friend the Secretary for the Home Department, and to an hon. friend of his in the other House, with whom he communicated on the subject within two days from the period of Mr. Scott's death. Such had always been his views on this subject, and such were his views now, and the melancholy event to which he alluded had no other effect on his purposes except in altering, in some degree, the mode in which he thought it most expedient to carry his object into effect. It was proposed that vested interests were to be preserved, or that compensation was to be given in case the offices should be abolished before the vested life interests should be extinguished by death, in the manner which he had stated, but without any reservation of this kind in favour of those who had been appointed, or might be appointed by him. He gave them only to those in whom he had the mose perfect confidence that they would set up no claim on account of vested interests. In the mean time, he brought in this Bill as a separate measure, merely abolishing the offices, leaving the rest of the measure to stand over till the next Session. He moved, that this Bill be read a first time.

The Duke of Wellington

was perfectly willing to allow that this proceeding showed great disinterestedness on the part of the noble and learned Lord, Still he could not help thinking that it would have been better that this part of the measure had been deferred till the noble and learned Lord could bring forward the whole together. Such, it appeared, had been at one time the noble and learned Lord's original intention; and it would seem that the noble and learned Lord had altered that intention, and brought in this Bill as a separate measure, in consequence of a discussion which had taken place in the other House. That appeared to be the reason for the noble and learned Lord's bringing forward this Bill now, rather than a regard solely to the public interest. But their Lordships ought to look to the public interest only, and not to discussions in the other House, and it might have been better if the discussions there on this subject had not taken place. But, at all events, their Lordships ought to act on their own views of the public interests, and not to be guided by any discussion relative to private interests in the other House, or anywhere else. Now, in this instance, the noble and learned Lord himself admitted that it was impossible to abolish these offices at the present moment; and why, therefore, not allow this separate measure to stand over till the whole should be brought forward together? The anxiety of the noble and learned Lord seemed to be, to remove from himself the imputation, that he intended to retain these offices. But that imputation applied only to one of the offices; and, on the whole, he thought that their Lordships ought not to legislate on the ground of any such imputation, and that they ought solely to look to the public interest in their proceedings. He would, therefore, suggest to the noble and learned Lord, that it might be better to postpone the consideration of the subject of the present Bill till the whole measure should be brought before them.

The Lord Chancellor

said, if he had rested the bringing forward the present Bill as a separate measure on the ground which the noble Duke had mentioned, then there certainly would have been something in the argument of the noble Duke for postponing the consideration of the subject of the present Bill. It would have been so, certainly, if the measure had been brought forward merely from motives personal to himself. But that was not the case. It had long been his serious opinion—and that opinion he had, on various occasions, stated and most strenuously supported in this, and in the other House of Parliament—that these offices ought to be abolished. He had always laid it down as a principle—and a most important principle—that the Lord Chancellor ought not to be remunerated by means of these patronage offices, nor by fees. That was a principle which he had always laid down as one which ought to be acted on. He had always held that the Lord Chancellor ought not to be remunerated in this manner, and that these offices ought to be abolished, and his opinion on that subject was well known. As to the observation of the noble Duke, that the imputation and the discussion in the other House applied only to one or two of the offices, that was really of no consequence. It was sufficient for him that the principle applied to all; and, looking only to the public interests, his object was, that when once the offices became vacant, no man should have the power to fill them up. Suppose this Bill was allowed to stand over till next Session, and a vacancy should occur, and a Member of this House, or any other person, should be appointed, he might set up his vested interest against the abolition. To be sure he had filled up a vacancy in such a manner that no such plea of vested interest would be set up, and he might take care that no one should be appointed who would set up any such plea. But, then, suppose he should not be in office when a vacancy occurred, he could not answer for what his successor would do. That successor might fill up the office as he pleased, and without any stipulations against setting up the vested interests in opposition to the abolition. By the passing this Bill now, therefore, the public would gain this immediately—that the offices, with the reservations which he had before mentioned, should be henceforward abolished, and should cease to exist, and that no man should have the power to fill up vacancies. He did not mean to say, that the pecuniary saving to the public would be any very great matter; but the great gain to the public would be, that this species of remuneration to the Chancellor—which was a most unbecoming one—would be abolished. It was a species of remuneration to a Lord Chancellor which was utterly unsuited to the nature of the service performed, and it did, therefore, greatly concern the public that this species of remuneration should be abolished without delay. This was the ground of his proceeding, and not any personal motive. It had long been his opinion, and was well known to be so, as he had taken every proper opportunity of expressing that opinion, that these offices ought to be abolished. The present was the best opportunity for carrying that abolition into effect; and, therefore, he now proposed to their Lordships to pass this Bill without delay. He repeated that the offices were his own, and that he had a right to do with them whatever he pleased on a vacancy occurring, while he held the office of Lord Chancellor. He did not think that he would have done anything which ought injuriously to affect his public character, although he had retained them. It was not, therefore, from any personal motive that he proposed to abolish them. But he had always been of opinion that, on principle, they ought to be abolished; and therefore proposed that they should be abolished at the first convenient opportunity. He thanked the noble Duke for what he had been pleased to say about his disinterestedness, but he acted on principle, without reference to himself personally, either one way or the other.

The Marquess of Westmealh

asked the noble Lord, whether it was part of his general measure to alter the mode of taking evidence in the Court of Chancery, and to substitute oral testimony for written depositions or affidavits? Was it part of the noble and learned Lord's system to abolish the taking of evidence by affidavits, and substituting oral testimony? He understood the noble and learned Lord to have given an opinion to that effect.

The Lord Chancellor

stated, in reply, that the subject of evidence in the Court of Chancery certainly did form part of his general system, and he proposed to make some alterations in the present system; but he was not prepared to say, that the method of taking evidence by affidavits ought to be abolished altogether, and the noble Marquess was much mistaken if he thought that any opinion ever given by him (the Lord Chancellor) went to the extent of wholly abolishing evidence by affidavits, in the Court of Chancery.

Bill read a first tune.