HL Deb 24 November 1837 vol 39 cc185-92

The Lord Chancellor moved the first reading of a bill which had for its object the amendment of the law between debtor and creditor, the giving of more effectual remedies to creditors—and for abolishing imprisonment for debt, except under certain circumstances. He would take that opportunity of stating that great misapprehension had existed as to the several bills on this subject which had been introduced into that and the other House of Parliament. The general impression had been, that abolishing imprisonment for debt was their sole object; but if such had been the fact, those bills would not have found a supporter in him. Those bills, however, had not only the object of abolishing imprisonment for debt, but also of affording more effectual remedies to creditors; and it was with this idea that he had advocated the measure which he now presented to their Lordships' notice. He would mention the date of the several proceedings which had taken place on former bills, not with the intention of exciting discussion, but of inducing their Lordships to take a favourable view of the measure. In the month of August, 1835, the bill had been brought up to their Lordships' House from the Commons; but their Lordships then thought that they had not time to enter fully into the consideration of the subject, and for that reason postponed it. In the year 1836, the bill had been re-introduced to that House on the 30th of June; and on the 11th of July, when the second reading was moved, an amendment was carried, postponing it for three months; and it was understood that this course was taken, not because their Lordships wished to express any opinion upon the measure itself, but simply because they had not time to give it due attention; for although the House sat beyond three weeks after the measure was brought up, yet it was soon afterwards prorogued, and by this postponement he did not think it possible to show that their Lordships had given to the bill any marks of disapprobation. In the last Session the bill reached that House so late as on the 4th of July, and the dissolution took place on the 17th. Their Lordships had never, therefore, passed any opinion upon the merits of the bill, and he (the Lord Chancellor) had adopted the present course of introducing the same bill as last year at an early period into their Lordships' House, because it had received the sanction of the late House of Commons, and because, although he could not agree in all the details, it was desirable to call their Lordships' early attention to it before they had other important business submitted to them, in order that it might be discussed and passed before the Christmas recess. He hoped, therefore, that their Lordships would allow him to fix the second reading for the first Tuesday in December.

Lord Abinger

thought, that though his noble Friend said that he would not support a bill for the abolition of imprisonment for debt alone, yet that if he supported this bill he must do so on other grounds than he had stated. If the bill were a measure for moderating the system of arrest for debt on mesne process, he (Lord Abinger) would have supported it; but if he understood the provisions of the present bill rightly, they went to create, under the colour of giving compensation to creditors for the loss of their present power, so great a change in the adjustment and liability of property that he could not view it without considerable alarm. In this country, by the present law, a defendant had a right to contest a claim made against him at every step; he might go through all the courts till he reached that House, but it was proposed by the present measure to allow a judge in the first instance to declare whether a man had a defence or not, and from this decision there was no appeal; and he, for one, could not consent that so important an alteration should take place. He thought that the safest way was to proceed by steps. Some years ago, a proposition was made in the other House to limit the power of arrest by confining it to sums under 20l., the previous limit having been to sums under 10l. A bill was accordingly passed, and the alteration had a most useful effect. When he had had the honour of serving as Attorney-General, and the bill for assimilating the practice and jurisdiction of the different courts was under consideration, he had proposed some other amendments, but they had not passed. He thought that the present bill went too far; and as it had not passed the House of Commons till after repeated deliberations during three Sessions, it ought to be well considered by their Lordships before they adopted the important principle involved in it; and without opposing it, therefore, he begged of his noble and learned Friend to give the House further time than he had proposed previously to the second reading for the consideration of the details.

Lord Brougham

, before his noble and learned Friend acceded to the request which had just been made, could not help suggesting that great inconvenience would arise from complying with it, and the expediency of not delaying more than was absolutely necessary the consideration of the principle or the details of this important measure. If they put off the second reading, as requested, it would seem to him unavoidable that the measure could not pass before the recess, and it would be a source of great disappointment to the friends of the measure, both in that House and out of doors, who looked to its success with great anxiety. So far was he from thinking with the noble Lord opposite that it was impossible to pass it before the recess, that he considered there was ample time for giving it full consideration. The other House had thoroughly discussed the subject in all its details. It had not merely been fully discussed during three Sessions, but, if he were not mistaken, it had been referred to the consideration of a Select Committee of the other House, who had examined and scrutinised every detail, and it was only on the report of that Committee that the bill was adopted. It only remained, therefore, for that House to discharge its duty; and unless the House meant that between this and Christmas it did not mean to discharge its duty, he had no reason to despair of the bill passing before the recess. Upon the details of the Bill there might be some difference, but he must say, that abundant opportunity would be found for discussing those details whatever day was fixed for the second reading, and it could not be said that ten days was too soon for preparing that discussion, especially as it was not a new subject. Having made these remarks, he would not further have troubled their Lordships had he not been rather anxious to remove a false impression or great misrepresentation which had been made through ignorance, and which had been spread in other places, as to the delay which had arisen on this bill. He was ready to bear witness to the fact, that their Lordships' House was not at all to blame in the present instance, whatever other sins it might have to answer for, either formerly or lately, for the postponement of this measure in 1835. It came up to this House at such a late period of the session that it was impossible for their Lordships to take it up that session. They were on the point of entering upon the important question of corporation reform—it was the end of the session, and they had arrived at the 5th of September; and he would put it to any commonly reflecting person, whether it was possible for the House at that period to proceed with a measure which, though he was friendly to its provisions, he must admit to be one effecting a larger and more sweeping change in the whole law of debtor and creditor than was ever made. Fatigued as they then were, to enter upon a fair consideration of the measure was out of the question, and their Lordships therefore, were not to blame for postponing it. But then it was said that it was not proceeded with in 1836, and the blame of that was fixed upon him (Lord Brougham) and it was from that blame that he wished to vindicate himself. He could not exactly say, however, that it was a blame for it had been most courteously stated by the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Wellington), and as courteously elsewhere, that the postponement of the bill in the session of 1836 was owing to his (Lord Brougham's) indisposition and his necessary absence from the House. But such was not the case. Much as he lamented his illness, for its effects upon himself, he should have lamented it still more if it had been the cause of postponing so salutary a change in the law. In the session of 1835, when the bill was deferred because of the late period of the session, an arrangement was made upon his suggestion, to which the noble Duke opposite assented, and to which his Majesty's Ministers also assented, and in order to avoid in the next session the errors which had been then committed, that at the earliest period of the next session, when their time was unoccupied, and the day was before them to work, such measures as were then delayed and could be brought forward in that House should be proceeded with immediately, and that sufficient time should be left for those measures which would come from the other House at a later period of the session. It was admitted on all hands that this was the proper course to be pursued, and it was arranged that this bill should be originated in the House of Lords at the opening of the next session. Then came the next session, and it was naturally expected that the bill would be introduced, but it was postponed till the 18th of July, when, if there were not reasons for laying it on one side, there was at least a plausible pretence. It was said that in consequence of his (Lord Brougham's) unfortunate absence—unfortunate in more than one respect—the measure was delayed. There was not a shadow of a foundation for such an assertion, as his noble Friend at the head of the Government well knew. Ten days before the beginning of the session of 1836 he communicated with that noble Lord, and, reminding him of the arrangement which had been come to, urged him strongly to proceed with the bill. In reply to this letter his noble Friend suggested if he were able to attend in his place he should take charge of the bill, as he had originated the measure in the other House of Parliament and in that. His answer to this communication gave his noble Friend the fairest notice that he could not attend, that the state of his health compelled him to give up all hopes of being present at the beginning of the session, that he would compound for being able to come at Easter, but that he must look out for some other person to take charge of the bill in pursuance of the compact entered into with the House at the end of the last session. His noble Friend's rejoinder was received before the meeting of Parliament, in which he courteously expressed regret at the state of his health, but added that he was taking steps to place the bill in other hands. This was the simple statement of the case, and he would appeal to their Lordships whether he could be blamed for the delay. Persons in absolute and dark ignorance of what had passed in that House, but at the same time with the greatest courtesy, had thrown the blame of the postponement on his illness, but he hoped that he had satisfied the House that he was not to blame for the postponement in 1835, and that his absence was not the cause of the subsequent delay.

The Duke of Wellington

was understood to say, that he willingly admitted his anxiety to postpone the measure in 1835, and that an understanding certainly existed, that the Bill should be again brought forward at the beginning of the next Session. He thought, that till the month of July, sufficient time was not given for discussion, but he wished to postpone its consideration in such a manner that the country might fully understand that the House of Lords had not pronounced any opinion upon the merits of the Bill, that no objection had been taken to its principle. The measure sent to the House in the last Session, however, was not the same as had been postponed in 1836; it was of a totally different nature, and he thought it desirable that full opportunity should be given to their Lordships for discussion.

Lord Brougham

hoped that it would not be supposed that he had the least design of complaining of anything which had fallen from the noble Duke, or of the course pursued by that House; he complained of a misrepresentation, or rather a mis-statement, which had been made elsewhere. A learned Friend of his, having been asked the reason of the delay, had stated that it arose from his indisposition. This was stated, in utter ignorance of all that had passed on the subject.

Lord Lyndhurst

One principal objection which the House entertained in 1835 was, that the House of Commons, after allowing the Bill to linger there during the greater part of the Session, had sent it up to their Lordships at the last moment, and a reasonable objection it was.

The Lord Chancellor

had not made his original statement with the view of throwing blame anywhere, but merely to draw their Lordships' attention to the fact, that the House had never expressed an opinion on the merits of this Bill. As to the noble and learned Lord's observations on the late period of the introduction of the Bill in 1836, as he (the Lord Chancellor) then took charge of it, he alone was responsible for it, and if there were any blame he was ready to take it, and to state his reasons for the course he had pursued. To say that his noble and learned Friend was to blame, was absurd, for he was absent in the country. Not only was he not to blame for the delay, but he was not the knowing cause of it, though he was undoubtedly the innocent cause, inasmuch, as he (the Lord Chancellor) thought that so long as there was a chance of procuring the attendance of the noble and learned Lord he was taking the most beneficial course to delay bringing the Bill forward till he could obtain the assistance of his noble and learned Friend, and he thus delayed it to the utmost limit of time which he thought it could be prudently done, consistently with the view of passing it that Session. So valuable did he deem the assistance of his noble and learned Friend that he had caused this delay to obtain it. The noble Lord knew nothing of that, he imputed no blame to him, but undoubtedly the delay was with a view to obtaining his assistance. He had no objection to give the House the fullest time for the consideration of the principle and details of the Bill and was ready to name any other day more convenient than the one first proposed, to the noble and learned Lord (Abinger).

Lord Brougham

did not mean to say that the noble and learned Lord had blamed him, but he did blame the noble and learned Lord exceedingly, now that he had stated that the cause of the postponement of the Bill in 1836 was his absence. With all the kindness and courtesy which he might have intended, there was mixed up with his statement so great a mistake as to dates, such an utter forget-fulness as to facts, and such ignorance of every occurrence during the first four months of the year 1836 as completely surprised him. The noble and learned Lord had quite forgotten the particulars, or he had been misinformed or uninformed as to them. There was not the shadow of a foundation for the statement, and though the Attorney General might not have communicated with the head of the Government as to this Bill, yet he should have thought that the Keeper of the Privy Seal would have done so; and had any inquiry been made, it would have been known that he was not to be in his place till after Easter. No one knew this fact better than his noble Friend at the head of the Government, and the Bill' therefore, must have been postponed for some other reason which his noble and learned Friend had, in the multiplicity of his business, forgotten, and not on account of his (Lord Brougham's) absence.

Viscount Melbourne

wished to know what reason there could be for delay—what was there in the Bill to require postponement? Was it not unnecessary procrastination? Was there not plenty of time to consider the general principle of the measure previously to the time proposed by his noble and learned Friend for the second reading? He had no particular interest in pressing this Bill, beyond his natural anxiety that so beneficial an object should be carried into effect; but he was extremely desirous for the regularity of the proceedings of that House. Not only was he (Lord Melbourne) anxious that no delay should take place in the measure itself, not only was he anxious that the House should be without the reproach of procrastination, but that the Government should not be subject to the reproach of allowing this measure to sleep throughout the Session. He, therefore, thought it would be better that the second reading of the Bill should stand for the day on which his noble and learned Friend had fixed it.

The Bill read a first time, and to be read a second time on the first Tuesday in December.

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