HL Deb 30 May 1854 vol 133 cc1141-5

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


said, that the more he considered the provisions of this Bill the more he was convinced that, if it became law in its present form, it would be productive of serious inconvenience to the Navy. He knew that in the present state of the House and of public feeling it was in vain to attempt to prevent its passing; but he nevertheless felt convinced that the functions of prize agents could not be properly performed by the machinery which was to be established by this Bill. A circumstance, indeed, had just occurred which strongly corroborated the views he entertained on this point. A prize having been taken in the Baltic by the James Watt had been brought into the river for condemnation. The prize agent then found that certain charges to the amount of about 15l. had been incurred for the wages and provisions of the prize crew, and on applying to the Admiralty to know whence he was to procure funds to satisfy the demand, he was informed through Admiral Berkeley that the charges and expenses incidental to the prize would be paid out of the proceeds when it was condemned. But the fact was, that as the ship was not yet brought up for condemnation, no one could presume to say whether she would be condemned or not. Now, under the old system the prize agent appointed by the ship's crew took upon himself the whole charge of the prize, defrayed all the incidental expenses, and took the risk of being repaid if the vessel was condemned. He had on a former occasion stated his objections to giving this Bill a retrospective action, and he hoped that his noble Friend (the Duke of Newcastle) would now assent to the introduction of an Amendment to guard against this. Another point on which he wished to insert an Amendment was the following. The noble Duke had stated that little or no injury would accrue to the Navy agents from this measure, because other Acts give them a great interest in the distribution of the value of prizes taken, to the amount of 2½ per cent upon the proceeds. Now, in this statement there was a confusion between the Navy agents and the prize agents—the former, who were the parties referred to in the former Acts of Parliaments, being the agents of the individual officers, and not of the crews. He wished, therefore, to secure to these persons what was given them by former Acts, and which the noble Duke said that he did not seek to deprive them of; and he would therefore move the insertion in Clause 26 of words declaring that this Bill was not intended to deprive a ship's crew or officers of the right of appointing agents, under a power of attorney, who should be authorised to receive the prize money from the Paymaster General, and to distribute it. He should also propose to insert another Amendment with the view of preventing the Act from having any retrospective operation.


said, that it was not the fact that any loss would accrue to the captains and crews of the vessels which took prizes in consequence of the cessation of the practice of allowing Navy agents to transact the whole business connected with a prize previous to its condemnation. It was true that, in a case to which the noble Earl referred, the prize agent had been informed by the Admiralty that the captain's agent would be liable for the expenses attendant upon bringing the prize over for condemnation. But the fact was that the captain of the vessel taking the prize was at the present moment liable for any loss that might accrue if she were not condemned. The vessel was brought over for condemnation at his risk, and he was the ultimate loser if it was not condemned, although, no doubt, the prize agent paid the expenses in the first instance. He could not accede to either of the Amendments which his noble Friend had suggested. He objected to that which related to the proposed retrospective operation of the Bill, because there was no ground for saying that the measure would have any such operation. On the contrary, its whole scope and bearing were entirely prospective; and it was the intention of the Admiralty that the prize agents should settle all matters now before them under the existing law. The other Amendment was equally unnecessary, because the existing law, which this Bill did not affect, secured to the Navy agents the commission of 2½ per cent on the prize money distributed through their agency. He doubted whether such a provision as that which had been proposed by his noble and learned Friend could be correctly introduced in that House of Parliament. He was not quite clear upon the subject; but he rather doubted whether the House of Commons, according to the very stringent construction they put upon their rules, would not consider that provision of his noble Friend would be a violation of them. He saw no necessity for dwelling upon the subject, and thought the Amendment totally unnecessary, and only calculated to raise doubts where they had never previously existed.


said, he did not think the reasons assigned by the noble Duke were sufficient to persuade their Lordships not to accept the Amendments. The noble Duke had said he was quite confident no doubt could be raised on the question involved in the first and most material of the Amendments, namely, whether or not this Act would have a retrospective effect; but if his noble Friend had been as long acquainted with prize courts and courts of law as he had been, he would find it much better to add a few words to the length of a Statute than to leave it to the astuteness of counsel or even to the decision of learned Judges, whether Judges at common law or in the prize courts, to determine whether a provision was retrospective or not. The same observation applied to the other Amendment; and in both cases it would be better, by the insertion of a few words, to guard against the possibility of doubt. He (Lord Brougham) would take leave to bear his testimony to the great merits and invaluable services of the prize agents, and would remind their Lordships of the panegyrics that had been pronounced upon them by the highest judicial authorities in such matters and by the highest personal authorities, including amongst them his late and illustrious Friend Lord St. Vincent. The inestimable services rendered to the Navy by those parties were such that Lord St. Vincent had said that were it not for their help he knew a number of cases in which gallant officers would not have been able to join their ships and engage in the service of their country. From his own experience in the courts of prize, he could state that, in one case, upwards of 50,000l. had been obtained by captors through the exertions of the prize agents, not one farthing of which would have been obtained if the provisions of this new plan were then in existence, and if the Crown-appointed officers had had the management of the proceedings. In that case, the law officers of the Crown had given a decision against the parties; it was a question of prize and head money under the Slave Trade Act in the Eastern Seas, and the opinion of the law officers of the Crown was clear that the captors had no right whatever, and if their case had been left to Crown-appointed officers it must needs hive followed that their case would not have been prosecuted, and not one farthing of that large sum which was decreed to them by the court below, in spite of the opinion of the law officers of the Crown—the court of appeal confirming the judgment—would have been held to belong to those very meritorious parties. There was another case of 70,000l. head money and bounty money; that was a case of capture, and the King's Advocate gave an opinion against the captors, and if it were left to a Crown-appointed officer, as a matter of course he would have followed the opinion of the King's Advocate, and of that 70,000l. not a farthing would have reached the meritorious parties, the captors, who, by the exertions of the prize agent, obliged the payment of that sum. He need not remind their Lordships of the other arguments that could be used, with regard to the services of these agents, the large capital they employed, the great skill and experience they brought to bear on the interests of the parties employing them; and he could not help feeling considerable apprehension as to what may be the result of the change. Bill read 3a.


moved, as an Amendment, that the Bill should not apply to any captures, &c., made by any of the officers and crews of Her Majesty's ships or vessels prior to the 1st of June, 1854.

On Question, their Lordships divided:—Content 34; Not Content 47: Majority 13.

Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.