HL Deb 03 May 1858 vol 149 cc2098-104

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, whether any further steps would be taken to expedite causes in the Court of Chancery? The noble Lord said, that nearly at the close of last Session he asked the noble and learned Lord then on the woolsack a similar question, who then stated, as he now stated, that the business in the Chief Clerk's chamber did not proceed much more satisfac- torily than formerly in the Master's office; that the causes were not then heard de die in diem, until they were finished; but that if upon one day they were only partially heard, they were then placed at the bottom of the list; and therefore it was in the power of the solicitor, if it suited his interest, to make a cause last as long in the Chief Clerk's chamber as in the Master's office. The answer of the noble and learned Lord on that occasion was given with his usual frankness, but not with his usual courtesy, for the answer was, that the statement was false. He had, before putting the question, ascertained that the general feeling of the legal profession was, that the proceedings of the Chief Clerk's chamber did not give satisfaction; and before he left the House on the occasion to which he referred his information on that head was confirmed by a noble and learned Lord, who was at least as good a judge of the feelings of the profession as the noble and learned Lord then on the woolsack. He would now state the case of an Irish property under the English Court of Chancery. In 1849 a minor, not quite two years old, and possessing an Irish estate of £3,000 a year, was made a ward of the English Court of Chancery. and from that day to this no guardian had been appointed. From the time of the death of the minor's father in August, 1848, up to December, 1852, no account whatever was rendered of the proceeds of the property, and it was only after considerable expense and great exertions being made for the purpose that accounts were rendered. In one account, up to May, 1853, the receipts returned were £310 9s. 2d. out of a rental of £3,000; and in the previous return, up to May, 1852, the receipts returned were £1,844 11s. 10d., or somewhat more than half the rental. It might be said, that the badness of the times in Ireland was the cause of this deficiency; but that was not the case, the estate not being affected by the badness of the times, except in a trifling degree. At the same time legal expenses were accumulating, and in one case of replevin for a holding of £60 a year—for the tenants had taken it into their heads to become freeholders — the expenses amounted to £591. In 1854, happily for the minor, application was made to the Irish Court of Chancery, and within three years every farthing of arrears was paid up; thus proving that it was the neglect of the agent, and not the condition of the te- nantry, that had caused the arrears. He had letters from many unfortunate persons setting forth similar grievances. Such was the state of the law in the English Court of Chancery, that he believed a minor might be left in a state of destitution, as the only person who could bring his case before the court was his solicitor, and he might have an interest in the matter adverse to the minor. He thought there ought to be a power to dismiss the receiver in every case in which the accounts were not produced by a certain day. There was much hope in the country, from the character of the noble and learned Lord who had lately taken his scat in the Court of Chancery, amid, he might almost say, universal acclamation, that these evils would be remedied, and he begged to put to him the question of which he had given notice—namely, Whether any further steps will be taken to expedite causes in the Court of Chancery?


, after expressing his gratification that such hopes should be entertained of him, said, that the question of the noble Viscount was expressed in such general terms that he was quite unable to fix upon the particular quarter from which to obtain the information desired of him. It assumed that certain stops had already been taken to expedite causes in the Court of Chancery, and the noble Viscount thought that further steps in the same direction were necessary. For his own part, however, he had not the slightest notion to what course of legislation the question of the noble Viscount referred. His idea on first reading the question was, that the objection applied to delays generally in the Court of Chancery. Upon that point he was happy to say that no real ground of complaint existed. The Courts of Chancery were proceeding with the greatest possible expedition; they were presided over by the highest judicial talent, and the manner in which they disposed of their business was as satisfactory as anything could be. It appeared, however, that the complaint of the noble Viscount was mainly directed to proceedings in chambers before the Chief Clerks. Now, he had made some little inquiry into that subject, and, though he had not been able to obtain much information, he was in a position to say that the statements of the noble Viscount were not altogether correct. There was not a general impression that the business in chambers was conducted in an unsatisfactory manner. That business was very considerable; there was a great pressure upon all the officers, more especially since the passing of the Joint-stock Companies Winding up Act; but they pursued their labours with the greatest possible expedition, and, as far as he could understand, with satisfaction to the parties coming before them. It was very difficult, without knowing all the circumstances, to meet any particular case of hardship or delay. With respect to the case of the minor mentioned by the noble Viscount, he could not help thinking that if inquiry were made it would be found that the fault lay, not with the Court of Chancery, but with the parties themselves. The Court of Chancery could not proceed voluntarily, and without being put in motion by others, to appoint a guardian. So in the other cases cited by the noble Viscount, he had no doubt that the parties, and not the Court, were to blame for any delay that had taken place. The noble Viscount had stated that causes were delayed before the Chief Clerks in consequence of long speeches from counsel and frivolous objections. But what were the Chief Clerks to do in such circumstances? They could not interrupt the speeches of counsel, nor could they prevent frivolous objections being made. He believed, moreover, that legislation could not meet cases of that kind; and therefore the noble Viscount must forgive him for saying that he was unable to return a satisfactory answer to the question as to whether any further steps could be taken for the purpose of expediting causes in the Court of Chancery. If the noble Viscount would bring to his attention any particular case of unwarrantable delay or hardship, he should be glad to inquire into the facts, or into the state of business in the Chief Clerks' offices; and if he found that further legislation was necessary and practicable, he would lose no time in entitling himself to the approbation the noble Viscount had been kind enough to express concerning him.


said, he had not the most distant recollection of the candid but not very courteous answer which he was represented as having given in the last Session, nor had he the slightest knowledge of any one circumstance connected with the case in question. It appeared that a suit had been instituted in the English Court of Chancery with reference to the property of a minor, who, though domiciled in England, was the owner of estates in Ireland. A suit, being so instituted, the minor would become a ward of the Court; but it must have been at the instance of one or more of his friends—who, according to the noble Viscount, were all honourable persons—that directions were given by the Court as to his custody and education, and an agent appointed to take care of the property in Ireland. It might have happened, also, that the powers of the English Court, not being thought sufficient, a suit was instituted in the Irish Court of Chancery for the purpose of having the property managed in Ireland; and he was glad to hear that, by the instrumentality of the Court in Dublin, the matter had been speedily brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Why the same result was not obtained through the instrumentality of the Court of Chancery in England he could not even conjecture, knowing nothing of the property, how it was situated, or what was the nature of the procedure. With respect to the general subject of delays in the chambers of the Vice Chancellors, he could confirm all that had fallen from his noble and learned Friend on the woolsack. These alleged delays were, if not altogether without foundation, immensely exaggerated. They amounted merely to this, that whereas parties might wish to have their causes heard on a Saturday they could not be taken till the following Wednesday. It was impossible that any tribunal could be so constituted as to enable persons to ring a bell and demand to have their causes gone into on the instant. There must be time allowed for making the necessary arrangements, and his information justified him in saying that no unreasonable delay had taken place in chambers before the Chief Clerks.


thought, that if the practice was adopted in the Clerks' offices of hearing a case only for a limited time, and then putting it at the bottom of the paper, it was a very objectionable one: all the old evils of the Masters' offices would be revived. It used to be the practice to put down several cases each for an hour, and when the hour expired the parties were dismissed and a new case taken. In six months the case was, perhaps, again brought on for an hour, the first three-quarters of which were occupied in reviving the recollection of the Court as to the former hearing, and then at the end of another quarter of an hour the parties were bundled out of Court. Under such a system of procedure a case which might have been decided in twenty-four hours would last seven years.


thought the Chief Clerks ought to be under the authority of the Judges. When the measure was before the House he had recommended that such a system should be established as would place these Clerks in direct communication with the Judges. At present the judicial power of the Court of Chancery was such as had never before existed) and they ought to take care not to do anything which would destroy its efficiency. The Chief Clerks were never intended to take the place of the Masters— they were intended to be subordinate officers of the Judges, in order that the latter might do by their agency what had formerly been done by the Masters. He thought that contentious matter ought not to be taken in chambers, but that when it required considerable argument it ought to be heard before the Court. It must be remembered that the system now established was a new one, and every new system required constant supervision. To make it work well it was necessary that the Judges should be confined to their province, and the Clerks to theirs; and that could never be done unless there was a steady supervision on the part of* the higher powers of the Court. That the Chief Clerks should be the first to hear and to examine causes requiring great nicety and attention, and then put them in the list for the examination of the Judges, he could not at all conceive. There was only one way in the world to transact judicial business, and that was, when the Judge took up a particular business never to leave it off till he had brought it to a conclusion. But having said so much it was but just to add that from what he had seen of the Chief Clerks and their way of transacting business, he had conceived a very high opinion of their knowledge and capacity. With regard to the question of receiverships in Ireland, he had endeavoured when he was in that country to correct various abuses which had crept into the system. For instance, he found that it was a general practice for receivers in Ireland to give tenants receipts for rent on account, without stating up to what time the money was paid; so that neither the tenant nor the landlord could ever know how much was due. He had struck at that abuse by intimating that he would dismiss every receiver, no matter how respectable he might be, who continued that system. With regard to the management of estates in Ireland, where there were also estates in England, ha thought the best way was to allow the Irish Courts to appoint receivers, and for each Court to see that the officers performed their duty.


said, if it could be shown that the statement upon which his complaint was founded was untrue he would at once admit that he was wrong in the position he had taken up; but in the absence of any direct proof to that effect he should retain the opinions he had already expressed in this matter.