HL Deb 03 July 1837 vol 38 cc1751-7
The Earl of Wicklow

rose to move, in conformity with the notice he had given on a former evening, for certain documents connected with the administration of justice in the courts of quarter sessions in Ireland, It was very well known, that there were few institutions in Ireland which had been productive of more good, and subject to less evil, than the courts of quarter session. They had been conducted upon a system which had given universal satisfaction; in fact, amongst all the complaints that had been made against various institutions in Ireland, he had not heard one against the court of petty sessions. Notwithstanding this, her Majesty's present Ministers had thought it necessary, so great was their passion for reform, to interfere with the manner of conducting business in these courts; and accordingly, in the course of the year before last, had introduced a new system, to which was appended a considerable share of fresh patronage. Under the pretence of assimilating these courts to the courts of assize, they created a new class of officers, in number altogether thirty-four, called quarter session Crown solicitors, for the purpose of conducting the criminal business in these courts. He should not now consider whether that was an improvement or not. In his opinion it was not; and to be so would mainly depend on the qualification of the persons appointed to the office. He had no hesitation in saying that those who had been appointed by her Majesty's Ministers were not persons that ought to have been appointed. He did not say that, on the ground that they were all, or nearly all, of the Roman Catholic persuasion, because he was one of those who considered it the duty of Government to follow up the act of emancipation by carefully avoiding to make religion a cause of exclusion. Neither did he say so on the ground that they entertained the same political opinions as the present Ministers, who had every right to choose persons of their own principles; but he did object to them as being notoriously opposed to the institutions of this country, as well-known public agitators in their respective counties, and members of that party in Ireland whose object was the separation of the two countries, and who were the instigators of a great portion of the crime committed in that part of the kingdom. The paper for which he was about to move was a copy of a circular addressed from the Attorney-General for Ireland to the Crown solicitors in each county, requiring them to forward to him all the informations taken by the magistrates, which were to be brought before the quarter sessions, in order that he might judge if they were fit cases for trial. He believed it had been found that the system did not work efficiently, and it therefore became necessary to establish this check. Another question upon which he wished to be informed was, in what manner was the Attorney-General to be remunerated for this new duty imposed on him. During the assizes the Attorney-General was paid a fee of fifteen guineas, being thirty guineas a-year for the whole batch of cases in each county. If that were to be the scale of payment, their Lordships would see that it would give an immense revenue to that officer; inasmuch as the assizes were held but twice, while the quarter sessions were held eight times a-year. There were four quarter sessions, and two places at which they were held in each county, so that the Attorney-General would be furnished with eight batches of cases. If he were not to be paid the same sum for these, he should like to know why; for, on looking at the Parliamentary Returns, he found the number of cases tried at the assizes in 1835, to be 6,000, while those at the quarter sessions amounted to 21,000. Last year the number tried at the assizes was upwards of 6,000, and at the quarter sessions 24,000. The Government had taken great credit to itself for having created so much tranquillity during that year, and for having established order and regularity under the benign reign of the noble Earl, and for having cleared all the gaols, as the noble Earl was well aware of, notwithstanding that the number of cases tried at the quarter sessions exceeded that of the preceding year by nearly 4,000. If, then, the same scale of payment to the Attorney-General was not adopted in reference to the business of the quarter sessions, he should he glad to be informed why? If it were not to cost the nation any thing, he protested against such a course, for no Government had aright to expect its officers to perform very onerous duties without being fairly remunerated. The fees which were paid to those thirty-four Crown solicitors came out of the Consolidated Fund; so that in proportion as this country contributed to the Consolidated Fund, in the same proportion did it contribute towards the expenses of this Irish job. Thus jobs of the kind were matters of no difficulty in that country, and if it were the object of the Government to increase the fees of the Attorney-General or any other public officer, nothing was more easy, because no application was necessary to Parliament on the subject. It might be said that they appeared in the miscellaneous estimates, but it was well known that many of them, from the late period of the Session at which they were brought forward, and the smallness of their amount, often escaped the vigilance of Parliament. The noble Earl concluded by moving for a copy of the letter addressed by the Attorney-General, dated the 5th of May last, to the several Crown solicitors in Ireland.

The Earl of Mulgrave

agreed with the noble Earl that it was more convenient that he should have sought for information on this subject by making a motion, than by putting a question; and he was the more convinced of it since the noble Earl, by having done so, enabled him to bring before their Lordships, proofs of how completely mistaken the noble Earl was in his remarks and inferences upon the subject. The noble Earl had moved for a letter of the Attorney-General's, and in reference to it, stated, that the management of the quarter sessions had either answered or failed. If it had answered, he said, what was the necessity for this circular letter? Now, perhaps their Lordships would be surprised to hear, that there was no novelty whatever in this document. It was precisely and technically the common form of a circular which had been addressed to those counties in which public prosecutions had taken place, to the clerks of the assizes, and clerks of the peace, ever since the alteration had been made. It was, in fact, coeval with the alteration. That he thought met at once the question of the noble Earl. The letter to which the noble Earl alluded, might appear more stringent in its terms to some clerks of the peace than others. The general form was this:—The first Crown solicitor wrote for those informations to the clerk of the peace, and if he did not receive them, a small cogent letter was despatched, in which the Attorney-General's name was brought in. Indeed, he believed the name of the Lord-lieutenant was sometimes mentioned, when the informations were not forwarded on the first application. The Attorney-General had thought with him, that by establishing a more efficient mode of prosecuting at the quarter sessions, they would be enabled to put down those brutal and ferocious crimes which arose principally from faction fights, and which tended so much to demoralise the lower classes of that country. He was happy to have by him a letter of the assistant-barrister of Tipperary, where these faction fights existed perhaps to the greatest extent, which he thought would show at once what had been the result of this alteration, and more efficient mode of prosecution. The noble Earl read the letter, which was dated April, 1837, and stated, that within the last twelve months, crime had undergone great diminution in that county; and after enumerating several offences, such as faction fights at fairs and markets, taking forcible possession of lands, &c., added, that not a single occurrence of that kind had taken place in the county during the previous year, although before that there was scarcely a fair or market held at which some of them were not perpetrated. On coming down to the House, he had met a noble Lord, not a Member of that House (Lord Bloomfield), who said that he could never sufficiently thank him for the boon he had conferred upon the county of Tipperary, in having appointed Mr. Hanley as assistant-barrister, so that the House might safely rely upon any statement that gentleman put forward. With regard to what the noble Earl had said about patronage, he had only to observe, that before the appointments had been regularly made, the fee to the solicitor was two guineas; it had since been reduced to one; and he could further state, that the utmost extent of fees received by any of these officers in the year, was 50l., which went down to so low a sum as 10l. He was perfectly ready to take upon himself the full and undivided responsibility of the general distribution of patronage in Ireland. It had been made a matter of complaint against the Irish Government, that they had appointed to the office of Crown solicitor, none but attornies of inferior practice. To this charge, the obvious answer was, that from the very necessity of the case, they were compelled to choose from amongst professional gentlemen practising in the court; that what were called bar attornies were the class of lawyers who chiefly attended at the sessions courts, and if they did not form the most eminent members of the profession, he was unable to see how the Government could be held responsible for a circumstance of that nature. It had also been made a matter of accusation against his learned Friend, who then was Attorney-General for Ireland, that he had recommended for Crown solicitors, hardly any, except Roman Catholics. To that the reply was equally simple and conclusive, as in the preceding case—namely, that in a great number of places, none but Roman Catholics were to be found. A third subject of complaint was, that these appointments were bestowed upon persons who had rendered themselves remarkable as political agents and agitators. Now, that was a grave and serious charge, which, if made at all, ought to be seriously preferred at a time and under circumstances when it could be fully and fairly met. It should not be incidentally introduced amongst a variety of other matters. He begged to know, why it had not been brought forward that time last year. If there had been any real unfitness in the persons appointed, any substantial abuse of the powers of the Crown, why had not the subject been separately and substantively brought under the notice of Parliament? He was in London at that period of the year, and so was his learned Friend by whom those appointments had principally been advised; then would have been the fitting time to have brought them openly and manfully forward, and not thus in an indirect way use them, as it were, for the purpose of hinting away men's characters. In the course of the observations made at different times upon the state of Ireland, there had been frequent reference to the state of the county of Tipperary; but from the communications which he had received from the assistant-barrister of that county, as well as from various returns to which it was not possible for him on so short a notice to have access, he was enabled to say, that there was a great deal of exaggeration upon that subject, that the condition of the county was very much improved, and that it enjoyed, not only comparative, but a great deal of positive tranquillity. He conceived that there existed the most conclusive and satisfactory evidence, that the system now in use at the quarter sessions was one which had worked well, and which if continued would produce the best effects—such as all persons interested in Irish affairs could not but admit to be beneficial. As to the emolument derivable from it to the Attorney-General, he had only to observe that he had declined to accept any remuneration, and even if he had agreed to accept it the amount would be very little. On the authority of the Crown solicitor for the Munster circuit, he could state that the fees to the Attorney-General from that division of the island, would not amount to more than from 30l. to 40l. Some allusion had been made to an act of clemency exercised in the case of prisoners who had been discharged from confinement in Ireland. He had since then obtained some returns on that subject, and he was therefore in a condition to state, that not above two or three of those prisoners had been recommitted under any serious charge. It might be said, that that had happened fortuitously, but he might be allowed to reply, that it was a very remarkable coincidence. It was, he conceived, a most extraordinary circumstance, that out of the number discharged only nineteen in all should have been recommitted, every one of whom, with the exception of two or three, was for offences of the most trifling description. From the time that he had been concerned in the government of Ireland to the present moment, he had endeavoured to discharge the duties of his office with strict fairness, and in the spirit of the Emancipation Act, which was intended to put an end to all religious distinctions.

The motion was withdrawn.