HL Deb 15 February 1858 vol 148 cc1364-7

LORD BROUGHAM, in rising to move for Returns as to the number of days the Commissioners of Bankruptcy sat last year, the number of adjudications they had given, and the distances at which they resided from their respective courts, said he hoped the House would not conceive that he intended the least disrespect towards those able and learned persons; but it was not a small matter where the Commissioners lived. Of course no one would object to their living a reasonable distance off—say three or four or even nine or ten miles out in the county; but there were cases, he believed, in which the Commissioners lived at a very great distance, He had heard that a Commissioner, who ruled over a district some 200 or 300 miles distant, persisted in living in London, and defended his practice, as others living forty or fifty miles off did, on the ground that the railway made it easy for them to go from the one place to the other; but the suitors did not think so. They found great inconvenience in the practice, and particularly in this respect, that when the time approached for the Commissioner to set off by the railroad, he would adjourn the court; and then the suitors, who probably had come twenty or thirty miles, were obliged to go home, and come back the next day. This they complained of as a great hardship. There was another objection to the conduct of the Commissioners, on which these Returns would throw some light. It was said that the Commissioners, being anxious to go away for two or three days a week, instead of one or two days a week, would crowd upon the paper, as business for three or four hours, what ought to be business for three or four days. Now, this was a great hardship to the suitors both legal and mercantile, who were kept waiting in the court for hours together, as they never knew when their case would come on, and durst not, therefore, go away. Those complaints might, perhaps, be set right by the good sense of the individuals, and, in the hope that it might be so, he had abstained from giving any names, or even affording a clue to discover those who were complained of. He took this opportunity of stating that a great mistake appeared to prevail about the purport of the Bill which he introduced to their Lordships' notice the other day, as if it were intended only as a piece of humanity for the unfortunate debtor. He stated most distinctly that it was for the benefit of the unfortunate creditor that he introduced it. The doctrine which he maintained thirty years ago, and which he maintained still, was, that the creditor was prima facie right, and the debtor was prima facie wrong; and that, whereas, in all other cases where punishment was inflicted, they were to assume that the party was not guilty till he was proved guilty, it was necessary in the administration of the bankruptcy and insolvent law to act in some degree upon the opposite principle, calling upon the debtor to exculpate himself, and to show that the creditor had no ground of complaint against him in respect of his conduct. The only question was, as to the means by which this might be effected; and he believed these consisted in the transfer of the jurisdiction that was now exercised by the Insolvency Court to the Court of Bankruptcy; because the facts proved that, out of 4,000 persons imprisoned, it used to be for an average of two months—though he believed the period was now reduced to one month—of those 4,000 persons imprisoned seven-tenths were discharged without any inquiry whatever, because their discharges were unopposed; and two-tenths more were discharged, though they were opposed; so that nine-tenths of them ought never to have been imprisoned at all. But the creditors gained nothing by this; for during the imprisonment all the insolvent's property had been secreted or made away with, because the Insolvent Court had not, like the Bankruptcy Court, any power of seizing of property. The grievance to the imprisoned debtor was obvious, but it was not merely a grievance to him; the evidence of the keepers of prisons clearly showed, the insolvents who were sent there associated with the worst characters, and were far from leaving the gaol the same persons they entered it; in fact, the keepers of the gaols did not hesitate to ascribe to this practice a considerable portion of that demoralization which had been lately complained of among the mercantile and trading classes. His belief was, that if these cases were handed over to the Bankruptcy Court, with one addition—namely, beside giving it the power of penal imprisonment which the Insolvent Court had, the presence of some one on the part of the public to increase the stringency of examination. This would be the greatest possible check to fraud which the Legislature could devise, and the law would be placed on a much more satisfactory footing.


said, the Returns asked for by his learned and noble Friend as to the number of days the Commissioners had sat, and adjudications they had made, had already been ordered on a Motion of his own, but a repetition of the order would do no harm. With regard to the residences of the Commissioners, he would abstain from making any observations till the facts were before them. He might say, however, with reference to the Commissioners who attended the Court in London, that it was a matter of no moment whatever whether they lived in suburban villas without the town or in the town itself; our social habits of late years had made that almost a necessity, and the distance of a few miles would not be unreasonable. With regard, however, to those who lived at a great distance from their Court he entirely concurred in the observations of his noble and learned Friend, that it was at least a practice calculated to give rise to great suspicions on the part of the suitors, who might be led to think that there was sometimes undue anxiety to conclude an inquiry in order to be in time for the railway. But if it was found that a Commissioner lived in London, having his family there, and had a lodging at the place where his duties were discharged, and was accustomed to remain there for the discharge of those duties during the week, coming to London, perhaps, on Saturday, and returning on Monday, he thought that was a matter with which they could have nothing to do. Everything, however, depended on the state of the facts.

Returns ordered to be laid before the House.

House adjourned at a quarter to Six o'clock, till To-morrow, Half-past Ten o'clock.