HL Deb 02 April 1844 vol 73 cc1743-6
The Marquess of Lansdowne

moved for a return from each of the Clerks of the Peace at the several Assizes in England and Wales, of the amount of the Fees received by him during each of the last three years ending the 31st of December, 1842;—his object being to bring before their Lordships a tabular statement of those fees in continuation of those returns which had been already ordered in respect to the fees taken by the Clerks of the Magistrates. He would take that opportunity of stating, that having seen the partial returns which had been laid before the other House upon this subject, his opinion was confirmed that this was a case requiring legislative interference—and legislative interference under the authority and sanction of the Government. From all the information he had obtained he was persuaded that there existed two or three classes of poor persons on whom the system, as it prevailed in regard to these fees, pressed most severely and unjustly, and whose case called for redress. In the first place, there were those poor persons, who, though guilty of small offences, were, by the practical effect of that system, subjected to a punishment out of all proportion to the offence committed; then there were those persons who were charged with those small offences, but were acquitted; and then, though declared to be guilty of no crime, were nevertheless punished by being taxed with certain fees; then again, there were those persons, who, in the protection of their own property, found it necessary to prosecute, and then, though prosecuting justly, were yet subjected themselves to punishment in the shape of pecuniary demands made upon them, and which they were compelled to pay. In regard to the first class of persons, those who were convicted and sentenced to pay such fines, this was a matter which pressed most heavily upon them, because the costs which they were called upon to pay also amounted in many cases to twenty or thirty times the amount of the fine. For instance, in one case a man had been fined 1s., and the costs were 22s. 6d. Thus, as he had stated, there was no proportion between the crime and the punishment to which the unfortunate culprit was subjected. On the other hand, the charge to which the prosecutor was liable deterred him in many cases from prosecuting the offender. A clergyman had informed him that in one case, in which a farmer had prosecuted a party for stealing some trifling articles of garden produce, he had been mulcted in the sum of 18s. as fees; and the consequence had been, that in that parish no one would now prosecute, and a system of lawlessness, resulting from the impunity with which these crimes could be committed, prevailed. He was sure this was a question in which all their Lordships would feel a deep interest; and he thought, in addition to the Motion he made, considering the subject had been noticed both in that and the other House of Parliament, and had attracted the attention of the right hon. the Home Secretary, it was not too much to ask the noble Duke (the Duke of Wellington) now to state whether the Government had any intention to do that which no private Member of either House could do so effectually—viz., to introduce some measure of legislation to remedy the evil?

The Duke of Wellington

replied, that his attention having been called to the subject, he had consulted with his noble Friend as to the course to be adopted, and his noble Friend, admitting fully its importance, had turned his attention to it, and had now under consideration measures for remedying the grievance complained of in regard to the fees paid to the Clerks of the Peace, Clerks of Assize, and Clerks to the Magistrates at petty sessions. It was intended to submit those measures to Parliament during the present Session. He could not now state at what time, but he assured their Lordships that it should be at the earliest opportunity.

Lord Wharncliffe

was informed upon good authority that the fees which had been referred to did not go wholly to the Magistrates' Clerks, but were generally appropriated to defraying the incidental expenses of the trial, such as paying witnesses and constables, so that very often only a very small amount of the fees reached the Clerk of the Peace.

Lord Beaumont

said, it was a mistake to suppose that the whole of the fees went to the Magistrates' Clerks. They received a very small proportion of them, the rest going towards the necessary expenses.

Lord Redesdale

said, there was another erroneous impression which he was anxious to correct. It was mentioned as the gist of the complaint that a small fine, as of 1s., did carry large costs, the fact being that the Magistrates in inflicting such a small fine upon a poor man did so in consideration of the amount of costs; whereas, if the defendant had been a public company or a richer party, the fine inflicted would have been much higher.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

observed, that the Magistrates could not always tell beforehand what the costs would be.

Lord Colchester

said, that he considered it the duty of a Magistrate to inquire what the costs would be, and that such was the practice at the Sessions which he attended. Besides, in many cases the Act of Parliament provided that the fine and costs should not together exceed a certain amount.

Lord Campbell

said, that as the subject was about to be taken into consideration by Her Majesty's Government, there was one point upon which he hoped they would take care to make provision, namely, that the amount of fees should not depend upon the length of the proceedings. He knew that great extortion was practised at present by swelling out the proceedings, for the mere purpose of increasing the costs at so much per folio.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned.