HL Deb 07 August 1854 vol 135 cc1361-9

presented a petition, to which he begged the attention of their Lordships, praying their Lordships to take up the consideration of the Bills of Exchange Bill in the early part of next Session. It was from the London Committee of the Merchants associated for the Assimilation and Improvement of the Mercantile Law of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It comprised many of the most eminent houses in the City—men of great ability, varied experience, high honour, and—what they themselves would not place in front of their claims to respect, but which, he must add, of ample wealth. They had attended the great Conference held in November, 1852, of delegates from all the trading towns of the three kingdoms. He had the honour of presiding on the first day; his noble Friend (the Earl of Harrowby) took the chair the day after; and a Commission was afterwards issued, at the desire of the Conference, by his noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Aberdeen), his predecessor (the Earl of Derby) having, at the time of the meeting, expressed his approval of that course.

The first object of the great assemblage referred to, had been the assimilation of the bankrupt and insolvent law; but he believed he might state that there was a general opinion in favour of adopting, from the Scotch law and practice, the process of summary diligence on bills of exchange and promissory notes, the measure for which the present petitioners were so anxious. As their organ, he had presented to their Lordships a Bill to give summary execution on protested bills, and their Lordships had received it most favourably. It passed through all its stages, without a dissentient voice, including that of the Select Committee on the Common Law Procedure Bill, to which it was referred. It had the warm support of his noble and learned Friends the law lords; and, having been introduced before Easter, it was finally passed, and sent down to the other House on the 2nd June; it was read a second time on the 9th, but being delayed from time to time until last Friday, it was then most unfortunately withdrawn, in consequence of sonic opposition which it encountered. The withdrawing it, he regarded as a great mistake; for, from all he had heard on the subject, he felt confident that the opposition to it would have entirely failed, as it had a few days before, when a great majority voted for this important measure.

The ground on which the opposition first rested was this. Their Lordships were told, "You have adopted a rule that no Bill shall be read after July 25; here is a Bill of ours—of the Commons—which we cannot send up before the 4th of August, and which, therefore, falls within the scope of the prohibitory order. Our Bill cannot pass this year; and, therefore, we will not pass your Bill. That is to say, because the Lords will not pass an important Bill sent up on the 4th of August, and which there is no time whatever given for considering, therefore the Commons will not pass a Bill sent down two months ago, and for considering which ample time had been given. He was very sorry the Commons Bill had come up so late, because he believed it contained a vcry beneficial change in the criminal law. This he said from a regard to its own merits; but he also greatly respected the authority by which it was sanctioned—his learned and much-esteemed Friend Mr. Baron Alderson was understood to have suggested it. Nevertheless, to pass it without any the least consideration was out of the question; and the print had only been delivered that morning, insomuch that his noble and learned Friend the Chief Justice was not aware, he believed, of its existence till he told him of it half an hour ago, and certainly had not even seen it. To pass suddenly, and without the least deliberation, a Bill creating some half-dozen new misdemeanors—he might say, felonies, for the punishment was imprisonment with hard labour—was manifestly impossible. Yet, because we refused to do this, the Commons, influenced by sticklers for their privileges, refused to pass a Bill which they had been discussing for two months and more.

It was further opposed by another class of persons, who had found champions in that House—persons who, having signed their names as acceptors, or drawers, or indorsers, having thus made themselves debtors under their own hands, and received value in consequence, had rather not pay the debt contracted—preferred escaping from the liability which they had incurred. On behalf of this very honest and respectable class it was said, "How cruel to compel them to pay. When a man has signed a promise to pay in three months, and has received the value of his promise, how hard that he should be obliged to pay at the day. Why should not the poor man be allowed three or four months longer, with all the chances of the law? Why not let him, instead of paying his creditor, defy him in a court of law, and delay payment till the suit is ended? "This is the law which the advocates of these worthy persons conceive to be just. It is neither the law of justice, nor of common honesty; and it is the law of England alone.

In all other trading countries the law of honesty prevails—the law which compels men to pay at the day they have voluntarily, and under their own bands bound themselves to pay, and not at some uncertain time which may suit their own convenience. That law of common honesty has been established in Scotland for one hundred and seventy years, during which period the growth of its commercial towns, of Glasgow especially, has been rapid beyond all example.

The same law of summary execution prevails in France, in the Netherlands, in Holland, where, indeed, it is more stringent still—in all trading countries except those subject to English law—and even in this country it was the law of old. The process, six centuries ago, under statutes merchant and statutes staple, was exactly the summary diligence now desired, by which the debtor's person, land, and goods were answerable, without any action; and this, in all cases of debt acknowledged. Had bills of exchange, therefore, existed in Edward the First's time, to them this summary execution would of course have been applied.

Another class of objectors had also joined these advocates of the dishonest debtors—he meant those worthy but somewhat speculative reasoners who laboured under what might be termed a delusion on the subject of currency. He referred to what was termed the "Birmingham school," whose doctrines were, that what ever tends to restrict the amount of the currency, is an unmixed evil. Those doctors hold that the greater the bulk of the currency, so much the better; and, so the quantity be unrestricted, the quality is not material. Hence, as the summary execution—the making all paper really payable at the day—might lessen the amount in circulation, though it would greatly increase its value—these doctors abhor the proposed assimilation of our mercantile law. "What signifies," say they, "these bills being only made payable by means of an action at law, and being, therefore, of so much the less value? That is nothing; their number—the mass of them—is the great object; and so that this be large, their inferior value signifies little."

These currency men, however, have found out a new and somewhat unexpected objection to the measure. It did not originate, we are told, in any desire to improve our jurisprudence—any wish to assimilate the law of England to that of all other countries. No such thing. It is all a mere job. One of them, a most excellent person, wholly incapable of deceit, but practised upon by some dishonest party quite capable of such things, has not scrupled to denounce the whole as originating in corrupt design—"There can be but one reason for bringing it forward; somebody or other wanted to appoint a registrar. Who wants the Bill? Who asked for it?"

I have shown your Lordships (said Lord Brougham) who it is that asks for the Bill. These petitioners representing the 309 leading firms in the City, of perhaps 1,000 partners, whose petition for the Bill was a few days ago presented to the other House by my noble Friend and kinsman their representative—they ask for the Bill—they anxiously pray that this important measure may be sanctioned by Parliament. But, say the currency doctors, "it is one of the grossest jobs ever attempted to be palmed upon the public." That is, the Bill was contrived and presented, and carried through this House, with the design and for the purpose not of amending the mercantile law, and giving honest creditors an effectual remedy against dishonest debtors, but merely to create the office of registrar, that some favoured person might be appointed to hold it.

What if all this ingenious notion is a mere fancy? What if it is as unreal as it is far-fetched? What if it has not even the shadow of foundation? What if it be a pure fiction, a mere imagination? What if it is utterly, and from beginning to end, false! What if it be not only untrue, but utterly and absolutely impossible—to have not only no foundation, not the shadow of foundation, but to be perfectly impossible to have any? The Bill was presented without one single word about a registrar in it, from beginning to end, or of any office whatever to be created. The registration of protests was given to the masters of the three Courts—Queen's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer, to be named by the Judges of these Courts. In this shape it was presented to your Lordships, in this shape it was proposed by me, with a statement that the masters and no other officer were to register the protests. In this shape, you gave it a second reading, and referred it to the Select Committee; and it was only there that the registrar was ever thought of, and was inserted on the suggestion which had been made by mercantile men in the City, and approved by the society of notaries, and accorded with the practice in Scotland—a most fit, and, indeed, absolutely necessary suggestion, because it was found that the masters of the courts never could do the business, a separate office being required which should be open at all hours, from early in the day to late in the evening, and under the direction of some one wholly devoted to the duty. It was, moreover, essential that this office should be in the City; and the experience of Scotland, which was cited to us, amply proved that nothing could be more erroneous than the plan orignally adopted of the masters, the only plan that ever had entered into the head of those who framed the Bill. Those considerations were decisive with the Select Committee, which at once struck out the provision giving the registration to the officers of the courts, and substituted the appointment of a registrar.

It has been my fortune at different times to propound various measures for the improvement of our jurisprudence: I grieve to say that I have had to encounter opposition in many powerful quarters—to conflict with adversaries, and sustain attacks of very different kinds, in common with my able and learned colleagues in the labour of law amendment. Sometimes we have been charged with doing too little, and proceeding too slowly—sometimes with moving too rapidly, and attempting too much. Now we are complained of, as wanting in zeal, or in firmness, or in boldness—we are termed moderate, and temporising, and even mock reformers. Now we are held up as objects rather of alarm than of contempt—as rash innovators—as holding no existing institution sacred—as carrying devastation over the established law, like some eruption sweeping and laying waste its whole domain—or the volcano may at times be imagined to slumber, and only give out noise and smoke. To all such obloquy we have long been accustomed and inured; and we can only meet it by gratefully avowing that having, through the Divine blessing, been permitted to render such service as we could—given such furtherance as we might to the great cause of improvement—we shall persevere in the same course while the same Providence shall allow us, steadily refusing either to slacken or to quicken our pace, and firmly resolved neither to leave untried what is safe and right, nor to attempt what is in doubt and exposed to hazard.

But among all the charges we have had to meet, among all the imputations that have been launched against us, till now we never had conceived that any adversaries could be so misguided as to question the purity of our motives—so wild as to suspect the great mercantile community of London, as well as the lawyers their coadjutors, of being engaged in a conspiracy to perpetrate a disgraceful job. It seems hardly possible to believe that such a foul calumny could he uttered in a place where, less than a week before, the prayer had been preferred by all the first merchants and bankers of the country in behalf of this great measure, this true amendment of the law, grounded on the most approved principles, and recommended by the universal experience of the commercial world. For such base imputations we cannot possibly feel anything but the most sovereign contempt. Nor will they either cause us to abate our speed or to quicken it, or make us deviate by a hair's breadth front our course—our course appointed and selected—selected under Providence for our labours. Why should we be for an instant affected by such charges? Why, above all, should those whom on tins occasion I represent, care for the calumnies vented against them? Falsus honor juvat—I crave pardon for addressing its authors in unknown tongues; let them hear it in literal though less poetical words— False honour charms, and lying slander scares Whom but the false and faulty? These petitioners belong to neither class, end may well afford to disregard it.


said, he should content himself with deploring the fate of the measure in question, and considered it hardly necessary for the noble and learned Lord to have referred to the charges he had mentioned, wherever they were made, for, in his opinion, they might have been treated very safely with silent contempt. The fate of this Bill, however, was very disheartening to Members of their Lordships' House, who were continually striving to improve the law in a rational manner. He would not allude to the class which had been termed "currency doctors," or to any other class of the community who stood in the way of improvement; but experience had taught them that the obstacles thrown in the way were really appalling. There could be no doubt that it was of immense importance that the commercial law of the three portions of the United Kingdom should be assimilated, and such an assimilation would introduce reforms which might lead to the most important commercial advantages. He was, perhaps, as competent to speak on this point as any of their Lordships, as he had the honour of presiding in Her Majesty's Court of Queen's Bench, where a great many causes were tried, and he assured the House that in very many the money of the creditor was wasted by the fraudulent debtor in litigation. Frequently the acceptor of a bill of exchange, who, having had value received, and having failed to pay at the end of the period, had an action brought against him, set up a number of fraudulent and unfounded defences, and when the day of trial came no real justification was attempted. At one single sitting of his court, at Guildhall, within the last four weeks, there were no less than sixteen actions on hills of exchange, in which the defendants did not attempt to set up the shadow of a shade of defence. He saw no reason, therefore, why they should not do as they did in Scotland, and in every other commercial country, and, indeed, in the time of Edward I. in this country, and give a power of execution on every overdue Bill. He trusted that another Session of Parliament would be more auspicious than the present, which, however, he trusted would witness the passing of that very important measure of legal reform—the Common Law Procedure Bill, although he could not think it safe until he saw it back again in their Lordships' House.


entirely concurred with his noble and leagued Friend in deploring the fate of this Bill. He could assure the noble and learned Lord who introduced it that Her Majesty's Government had given it all the support in their power, and he hoped it would be reintroduced and become law in the early part of next Session. With respect to the Common Law Procedure Bill, he trusted it would come up from the other House to-morrow, after the third reading, so that it might become law this present year.


said, that nothing could give greater comfort, both to himself and the petitioners whom he represented, than what had fallen from both his noble and learned Friends. He should now present the Bill with such amendments as lied been suggested and approved by the authors of it since it left their Lordships' House, that it might be circulated during the recess. It had been said elsewhere that the measure was not sufficiently known in the country. This assertion was extremely incorrect. It had been the subject of great discussion in all the trading towns, in several of which meetings had been held and resolutions adopted in its favour. But it would be advisable to have it circulated again with the changes which had been introduced both in this House and since it went to the Commons. And he moved to have it read a first time.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.


then presented a Bill to permit the Registration of dishonoured Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes in England, and to allow Execution thereon.

Bill real 1a.

Back to