HL Deb 21 July 1856 vol 143 cc1084-90

THE LORD CHANCELLOR rose, pursuant to notice, to call the attention of the House to the Second Report of the Commissioners for Consolidating the Statute Law. The subject, he said, was one of rather a dull and uninviting character, but he trusted that, considering its great importance, their Lordships would allow him for a few moments to occupy their attention. It would be in the recollection of some of their Lordships that, immediately after the Session of 1854, Her Majesty was advised by the Government to issue Her Commission to a number of distinguished legal functionaries and persons who filled high stations in the law, authorising them to Consolidate the Statute Law, as far as they should consider it advisable, with power to introduce into that consolidation any portion of the common law of the land which they might think necessary to make it work smoothly and well. In accordance with a suggestion from a noble and learned Lord not now present (Lord Lyndhurst), it was made an instruction to the Commissioners not merely to consolidate the existing law but to offer any recommendation which occurred to them as to an improved method of future legislation. He need hardly say that the whole task was one of almost overwhelming difficulty. The Statutes of this realm were contained in about forty quarto volumes, printed, as their Lordships were aware, in very small type and presenting the most uninviting aspect. They numbered altogether about 15,000. At the outset, he might observe that the appointment of this Commission partook in no respect of a party character. The first point to which the attention of the Commissioners (among whom were Lords Lynd-hurst and Brougham, Lord Campbell, Sir J. Jervis, Sir Frederick Pollock, Sir James Parke, Vice Chancellor Page Wood) was directed was as to the mode in which they should proceed. It was suggested that there ought to be a sort of general sketch of the whole of those Statutes, ranged under different heads, each of which should be consolidated into one or more Statutes; and this was to a certain extent set on foot, but was found to be almost impracticable. The Commissioners formed themselves into sub-committees, and it was an instruction to one of them to endeavour to improve and simplify the language of the existing Statutes. In the endeavour, however, to improve and simplify the language in which these Statutes were couched, and to introduce any portion of the unwritten law which seemed necessary, such extreme difficulty was soon experienced that the course determined upon was to make a general and improved classification, and then to proceed to consolidate under these different heads the different Statutes. The subject was divided into criminal law—law relating to property, and the law relating to mercantile matters. That did not exhaust the subject, but it went a long way to do so. The Commissioners made a Report at the end of the last Session of Parliament, and stated what they had done; the Bills, however, upon which they were employed were not in a state to be introduced to Parliament. They found that their work would be useless unless an improved method of legislation were adopted for the future, for otherwise, very soon after consolidation was effected, the work would have to be recommenced and done over again. In their Report laid before Parliament last Session they, therefore, made the following suggestion— We, therefore, beg leave to submit to your Majesty that in our opinion the most effectual method for insuring simplicity and uniformity in, or otherwise improving, the form and style of future Statutes, would be the appointment of an officer or board, with a sufficient staff of assistants, whose duty it should be—To advise on the legal effect of every Bill which either House of Parliament should think fit to refer to them, and, in particular, on the existing state of the law affected by the proposed Bill, its language, and structure, and its operation on the existing law; and also to point out what Statutes it repeals, alters, or modifies; and whether any Statutes, or clause of Statutes, on the same subject-matter are left unrepealed or conflicting; so that the House may have at its command the materials which will enable it to deal properly with the Bill. This subject was fully considered during the recess, and early in the present Session of Parliament the Commissioners came to the unanimous conclusion that the step here recommended was absolutely necessary, in order to put legislation upon a creditable footing for the future. And this is a course which the Government intend to recommend. It was necessary, however, that such a course, if taken, should be taken at the beginning of the Session of Parliament. The Commissioners had suggested, and the Government intended to propose, the appointment of an officer who should perform with regard to public Bills duties in a great measure analogous to those which were performed for private Bills by the Examiner of Private Bills, with this difference, however, that he was to be appointed by both Houses of Parliament. There was a precedent for that in the Examiner of Standing Orders, who was the same individual for both Houses, and was appointed by both Houses. Of course it would not be his duty to interfere in any way with the policy of Bills, which necessarily rested with the Legislature. It often happened, both in Bills introduced by private Members and by the Government—there being no person whose immediate duty it was to look into the public Bills to see how far they harmonised with existing laws, how far they clashed with current legislation, and how far their language was such as ought to be adopted—that blunders crept in which caused the greatest confusion, and often necessitated the repeal of the Bills themselves in the course of the next Session. Scarcely a Session elapsed without an instance of this. The appointment of such an officer would have the beneficial effect in stopping the grosser part of this evil. He had said that the Statute-book contained 15,000 Acts; but many of them would not be called laws in any other country; for they were mere matters of regulation. It had always been the policy of this country to refer to the Legislature matters which in other countries were ordinarily mere matters of administration, such as the regulation of the army and navy, financial matters, local legislation, and the like. The moment these Acts had done their duty, there was no longer any necessity that they should retain a place on the Statute-book; they were merely temporary enactments, they laid down no general rule of conduct, and they were not laws in the proper meaning of the word. At the beginning of this year the Statute Law Commission—one of whom was Mr. Coulson, whose experience in these matters was of great value—had taken the trouble to analyze the Acts passed last Session. They were 134 in number, and sixty-eight of them were merely temporary enactments, into which nobody would ever need to look when they had served the particular purpose for which they were passed. Less than one-half were laws properly so called. In bulk the difference was greater. The whole legislation of the Session occupied 1,005 pages, and of these only 226 pages were occupied by laws properly so called. There was now in existence one classification of Bills—namely, their separation into public and private Bills. It had occurred to the Commissioners that this classification might be carried much farther, by separating the annual and temporary Acts from the others. That would reduce the bulk of legislation to one-third of what it would otherwise be; and of that third one-third related only to India and the Colonies. By means of this classification the actual statute law would be reduced to the smallest space. With that view he proposed to call attention to the recommendations of the Commissioners, and the Government early next Session proposed to establish such an officer as he had already described, and he hoped both Houses would acquiesce in the appointment of some Committee, such as that which existed with regard to Private Bills, who should be in communication with this officer. During the past Session a great number of Bills had been prepared by the Statute Law Commission, some of which might have been laid before Parliament, but that he himself had not had time enough to look through them with sufficient care to be able so introduce them on his official responsibility. Others had not yet been revised by the public departments to which they related. For instance, a Bill had been prepared for the consolidation of the whole law relating to stamps, which had been laid before the Board of Stamps, but which could not, of course, be laid before Parliament until it had received the alterations which that Board might suggest. The consolidation of the criminal law had been undertaken by Lord Wensleydale, the Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, and Mr. Greaves, who had been formed into a Committee for that purpose. They found that there were some offences as to which consolidation would be inconvenient, and even impracticable in a great measure. There were a great many offences arising out of certain Acts done in respect to the Customs, and it was thought that the consolidation of the Customs Acts would be imperfect if it did not contain the criminal part as well as the civil part. Again, the same remark applied to the bankrupt laws:—if a bankrupt did not surrender he was liable to serious penal consequences, but to introduce that class of offences into a general measure relating to crimes and punishments would have induced the necessity of explaining the laws with respect to bankruptcy. Therefore, these two classes of offences were omitted in the Bills in question. Another class of offences which would not be found in the Bills were offences relating to religion. There was a number of old statutes on that subject, which, on consideration, the Commissioners thought it best at once to ask Parliament to repeal, because they related to the habits and usages of a bygone day. In some instances these Acts would now almost excite a smile, and, as much time would be required to consolidate all the statutes on this subject, that part of the business stood over, and was not embraced by the Bills he was now speaking of. With these exceptions, the Statute Law Commissioners had comprehended in six statutes all the law relating to indictable offences, classed under the heads of offences of high treason, of offences against public justice, against the person, of larceny and theft, of malicious injury to property, and of forgery, which he now laid upon their Lordships' table. Besides these, there was embodied in another short Bill all the Acts relating to the law with regard to principal and accessory in criminal cases, and in an eighth Bill was consolidated all the Acts relating to criminal procedure on indictments, juries, &c. These measures, the Commissioners believed, embodied all the enactments of forty Acts of Parliament, and portions of 150 others, and from his own inspection of them, he believed that they did all that they professed to do. It was necessary for him to add that, after all, unless these Bills were taken, he would not say absolutely on trust, but much more so than was done with respect to an ordinary Bill introduced for the first time, consolidation would be-come impossible. He did not mean to say that oversights might not have been committed, but they might afterwards be remedied. It would be for Parliament to decide whether, on looking over some portion of the measures, it was satisfied with the diligence bestowed on them, and would not, therefore, subject them to that strict investigation which an entirely new enactment would require. In order to justify such a demand on the confidence of Parliament, a short report would accompany each Bill, pointing out any slight alteration in the existing law whenever it was found absolutely necessary to make such alteration. The rule which the Commissioners laid down for their guidance in framing these Bills was to make no change in the law, but in some few cases it had been found that that rule could not be adhered to. It had also been an object with the Commissioners to maintain, as nearly as possible, the language of the Acts they consolidated; but inasmuch as they found that the same offences were described sometimes in one set of words, and at others in another, they had adopted that set of words which they thought the best, and adhered to it throughout. At present the written laws of the country extended over forty volumes, and embraced some 15,000 Acts of Parliament. The Commissioners thought that the whole might be reduced to about 300 (some were sanguine enough to say 250) statutes, which might all be brought within the compass of three or four moderate-sized volumes. He would now lay the Bills on their Lordships' table; but he proposed to go no further with them than the first reading in the present Session, and to leave them to be considered during the recess.

The noble and learned Lord then presented the following Bills— A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Criminal Procedure by Indictment [Criminal Procedure Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Accessories to and Abettors to Indictable Offences [Accessories, &c. Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Indictable Offences of a Public Nature [Offences of a Public Nature Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Indictable Offences against Her Majesty the Queen and Her Government [Treason and Offences against the State Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Indictable Offences by Forgery [Forgery Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Indictable Offences against Property by malicious Injuries [Malicious Injuries to Property Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to Indictable Offences against Property by Larceny and other Offences connected therewith [Offences against Property Bill]. A Bill for consolidating the Statute Law of England relating to indictable Offences against the Person [Offences against the Person Bill].

Which were severally read 1a: —