HL Deb 22 May 1843 vol 69 cc682-6

House in committee on the Queen's Bench Offices Bill.

Lord Lang dale:

My Lords: Before the House is put into committee on his bill, I take the liberty of observing that it involves a principle to which I have on a former occasion stated my objections. The Government has no more important duty, nor has the country any more important interest, than to provide the means of administering justice; and it has long appeared to me, that in order to the due discharge of this duty, the Government ought to pay not only the salaries of the judges, but also the salaries of all the ministers of justice and all official expences; or in other words that no fees for the support of the judicial establishment and of the law offices ought to be levied on the suitors in particular causes. It was on this account that when the Act 7 William 4th, and 1 Vict, c. 30, was under the consideration of your Lordships, I objected to the enactment which provided that certain salaries, compensations, and expenses, were to be paid by means of fees, and that the surplus fees were to be paid into the Exchequer. I confess that the opinion which I then stated, met with no favour from your Lordships, and that it was emphatically opposed by two of my noble and learned Friends who are not now present. Amongst other things it was stated that I was under a great mistake in supposing that any revenue was to be raised from the fees received in the courts of justice. The act passed, and the bill now before your Lordships provides in a similar manner that fees shall be received, that there out certain salaries and expenses shall be paid, and that the surplus shall be paid into the exchequer. It has therefore seemed to me proper, on this occasion, to consider the operation and effect of the former act, on the model of which the present bill is in this particular framed. And from an account which in the course of the last year was laid upon your Lordships' Table and printed, if I have correctly collected the results, it appears that in the four years ending on the first of January, 1842, the receipts in the three Courts of Common Law under the Act 1 Vict. c. 30, amounted in the whole, to the sum of 279,427l.; that there were surpluses after paying the salaries, compensations, and expenses, which were payable under the act; and that in the same four years such surpluses amounted in the whole to the sum of 120,714l., which was accordingly paid into the exchequer. Thinking myself, that the whole official expense of administering justice ought to be paid by the country, it appears to me that the whole sum of 279,427l. was in these four years raised by fees, for the payment of charges which ought to have been paid out of the public revenue; those who do not entirely agree with me will probably not deny, that to the extent of the 120,714l. paid into the Exchequer, the public revenue has profited at the expense of the suitors of the three superior courts of common law in the four years to which I have referred. But it is necessary to make a further observation, because in addition to the compensations which the act makes payable out of the fees, there are other compensations to a considerable amount which are yearly paid out of the consolidated fund to persons who were deprived of their offices under the act; and I am aware that there are, unfortunately, many persons who think that fees may be properly levied on the suitors for the purpose of paying such compensations; and, that notwithstanding the charge upon the consolidated fund, it may be just to set off these Treasury compensations against the surplus fees paid into the Exchequer. This appears to me to be wholly unwarranted; but it may be important to ascertain whether the surplus fees do or do not exceed those compensations. The account to which I have referred contains a statement of the compensations paid out of the consolidated fund for one year only, the year 1841. They amount in the whole to 57,553l.—and, if I have computed correctly, part of them amounting to 26,670l. was payable under other acts of Parliament, and the remainder, consisting of the compensations payable under the act 7th Will. 4th and 1st Vict. c. 30, amounted to 30,883l.; and deducting this sum from the sum of 38,068l., which was the amount of surplus fees paid into the Exchequer, in the same year, 1841, from the three courts, it appears that the public revenue in that year profited even after! payment of these Treasury compensations J to the amount of 7,184l. The surpluses paid into the Exchequer, from the two Courts of Queen's Bench and Common Pleas, appear, indeed, to have been insufficient to satisfy the Treasury compensations payable to the persons who held offices in those courts, but the surplus paid into the Queen's Exchequer by the Court of Exchequer was so much larger than the Treasury compensations which were paid to the persons who held offices in that court, as to leave on the whole a balance of 7,184l. of profit to the revenue. I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying, that under the act of 7th Will. 4th and 1st Vict. c. 30, the fees levied in the courts of common law have become a source of public revenue; and I cannot help thinking it incumbent upon those who declared that this was not intended, to take such steps as are in their power to correct the admitted grievance. The questions relating to the expense of administering justice and the proper mode of defraying it, are too large and important to be discussed incidentally upon an occasion like the present; but they appear to me to deserve the most serious attention of your Lordships and of Government. I do not mean to offer any opposition to this bill, I think that it is likely to be useful: it is in one respect better than the former bill, as it enables the judges to establish, and afterwards to modify and vary the fees which are to be raised—but as it involves the same objectionable principle, I thought it my duty to restate my opinion, strengthened as it is by subsequent reflection and experience. My Lords, before I sit down, I request your Lordships to permit me to say a few words which have reference to the Court of Chancery. Holding the opinions which I have this day expressed, it may reasonably be asked, how it is that I have not only acquiesced in, but approved of the measures which have been recently adopted in that court? The answer is short. The reforms to be made were very important, and they could not be effected without providing a revenue, not only to pay the office expenses and the salaries of the officers, by whom the work was to be done, but also to pay compensations to officers who lost their offices. I was given to understand that. Government would contribute nothing for these purposes; and the necessary consequence was either that the suitors must be taxed for the purpose of raising the sum required, or else that the reforms must be altogether abandoned. And after painful consideration of the subject, I came to the conclusion, and am now of opinion, that on the whole it was better to make the reform and continue the charge on the suitors for the limited time during which the compensations may be payable, than to perpetuate the charge together with all the inconveniences and evils which it had become so desirable to remedy. And some fees being abolished by the reform which was made, I agreed in the necessity of substituting a new but temporary burthen in lieu of the old one which but for the reform would have been perpetual. As the compensations fall in, the charges will be diminished; and at length the salaries and official expenses will alone have to be provided, and by the reform those salaries and expenses are between 50 and 60 per cent less than they were under the old system. I have said that the Government refused to contribute to the expense. I say it with regret, but without the least thought of accusation or blame. The revenue was embarrassed, the subject has been but little discussed, it is not now well understood, and there are many per- sons who still think that it is good to make litigation more expensive than it need be. I must add that I think no other administration would at this time have done otherwise than refuse to contribute to their necessary expenses. Saying this, I must at the same time declare that in my opinion the refusal of the Government to contribute to the expense of reforming the Court of Chancery is the only defence or excuse which is open to me and those with whom I have had the honor to act, for continuing the burthensome fees which now oppress the suitors of that court. There is this consolation, that complete and effectual relief can at any time be afforded by a simple vote of Parliament for money. The complication and perplexities which rendered the reform of the Six Clerks' office so difficult, are removed.

The Lord Chancellor

entirely agreed with the noble and learned Lord in principle. He did not go so far as to say that the Government should bear the burthen of all these changes, but he thought that when the amount of fees received by the Exchequer exceeded the charges, the surplus should be applied to reduce the amount of the fees payable by the suitors, and he had no doubt that this course would be pursued whenever there was a surplus, which was not the case at present. He must, however, observe that the charges had not been increased to the suitors on account of the reforms in the Court of Chancery, and there was a favourable prospect, as far as the suitors were concerned, that the fees would be reduced as the payments for compensation ceased.

Bill passed through committee.

The House adjourned, at a quarter to eight o'clock.