HL Deb 15 February 1861 vol 161 cc463-71

rose, pursuant to notice, to draw the Attention of the House to the Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry as to the Expediency of building new Law Courts on the same Spot, and where the Money is to come from, with a view of preserving the Funds arising from the Investments of Moneys belonging to the Suitors of the Court of Chancery for their Benefit and better Security; for which Purpose the Moneys were laid out, subject to certain Charges; and for reducing the Fees payable to the Court by such Suitors, for which Object the Funds stand appropriated. The noble and learned Lord said the question was one of very great importance; for the adoption of the Report would involve an expenditure of not loss than £1,400,000 belonging to the Suitors' Fee Fund of the Court of Chancery, in order to build courts which were not required for these suitors, but which it was thought desirable to build for the advantage of all the suitors in all the law courts. In his opinion all the accommodation required by the Court of Chancery could be furnished without trenching, as was proposed, upon the capital of the suitors, and no inconsiderable part of their income. When he held the office of Lord Chancellor he had to provide accommoda- tion for the Lord Chancellor and the Lords Justices. This was effected by dividing the fine old hall in which the Lord Chancellor previously sat into two, and these courts had answered their purpose very well. The Master of the Rolls, whose court possessed every possible accommodation, had a house adjoining his court, and near it was a magnificent building for the deposit of the rolls, of which he was, as his name denoted, the Keeper. The Master of the Rolls, when before the Commission, expressed his utter disinclination to be removed from his present court and residence. He (Lord St. Leonards) considered that it would be very inconvenient and improper that the Master of the Rolls should not be near the place where the rolls of which he had the custody were deposited. Sir John Romilly said he had every convenience that could be given to him for the discharge of his official duties, and he objected to being removed from his present locality. With regard to the Vice Chancellors they were now three in number. The Vice Chancellor of England had a court built for him some time ago which had answered, and still answered the purpose that was required for the administration of justice. He, himself, practised there a long time, and was able to say that it was well adapted for the purpose for which it was built. There was, therefore, no want of accommodation for the Vice Chancellor of England. The Lords Justices were also provided for; they had very good chambers, but they ought to be in contiguity to their court. But there were two other Vice-Chancellors, and they were provided for as badly as possible. Two courts were built for them by the Society of Lincoln's Inn, upon their own land, and at their own cost; but they were cramped for size, and there certainly was a need of courts for those two equity Judges. Last Session a Bill was introduced to provide a site, and the Society of Lincoln's Inn were willing to advance the money to build the courts. They proposed to lay out £100,000 of their own money; and it was proposed that out of the income of the Suitors' Fee Fund, or the general fund belonging to the suitors of the Court of Chancery, there should be paid an annual rent to the society, which it was estimated would amount to about £4,000; that fund being already burdened with a yearly expenditure of £2,000 for chambers. The plans might be carried into execution in a twelvemonth; and thus, at an addi- tional expenditure of £2,000 a year out of the Suitors' Fee Fund, all that was required for the proper administration of justice would be supplied. The Commissioners to whom the subject had been referred had recommended that a great block of buildings situated between Carey Street and the Strand should be bought, that all the houses should be levelled, and new buildings erected thereon, for all the Courts of justice. In these houses all sorts of trades were carried on, and largo sums would no doubt be required for them. It might he desirable that these houses should be removed, but where was the vast population contained in these closely-packed courts and chambers to find a home and habitation when driven out of their present dwellings? By such a measure as the one proposed, they would create the very overcrowding which it should be the object of the Legislature now to discourage. There were 370 houses in this block of buildings. These had not been valued; there had been no kind of estimate for the new buildings; and yet the Commissioners said that £675,000 would be required to buy the old houses, and £675,000 to erect the new ones. How they arrived at this conclusion he did not know; but it was curious that the two sums said to be necessary should be exactly the same. It was said that all the courts of justice were to be brought into one central position; but justice was transacted in their Lordships' House, and, of course, there could be no change in this respect. There were some courts that would not be included in the plan, and which would remain where they were—the Central Criminal Court in the Old Bailey, and the Court of Bankruptcy. He hoped also that, whatever might be done, the Lunacy Commissioners would not be removed. It was frequented by many suitors, whose mental and physical condition deserved the greatest consideration, and, he trusted, their interests would be duly studied. Then, as to the financial part of the scheme, it was proposed that £1,400,000 should be raised by a seven years' charge upon the Suitors' Fee Fund. But seven years seemed an unreasonable time to wait for the raising of a sum of £1,400,000, when another scheme which had been proposed might be accomplished in one year. Supposing new courts to be provided for the suitors in equity in Lincoln's Inn, a few steps across Carey Street would be all that was necessary to communicate with the new law courts; thus also all exposure to the noise and turmoil of the Strand, which he could not hut believe would greatly inconvenience the sittings of those Courts that were placed in a line with the street, would be avoided. He did not find fault with any general scheme for the concentration of the courts; but into the general question he would not now enter. All he would say was, that those persons who believed that concentration would be all gain were mistaken. There was a debtor side of the account, and in some respects a great loss would be incurred by bringing all the courts together. Great stress was laid upon the argument that, if the courts were concentrated, the Judges would be able frequently to communicate with each other. But in the course of the five years during which he presided as Chancellor in Ireland, where the Courts were all assembled together, and there was but one legal society, he never remembered to have had the slightest communication with any other Court, nor did any other Judge consult with him. With regard to the evidence in favour of the scheme, he believed that its principal promoters were the Incorporated Society of Solicitors in Chancery Lane, and he believed it was a matter of the greatest importance to them, being, as they were, great houses of agency for country solicitors. It was proposed, however, that £1,400,000 should be taken from the Suitors' Fee Fund. He thought he should be able to show their Lordships that without doubt the fund in question belonged wholly to the suitors in the Court of Chancery. He could also show to their Lordships that it had always been dealt with as a fund which belonged to them, and that the proceeds of the whole fund had, with a small exception, been already appropriated by Parliament; so that the charge would eventually fall on the public, for the suitors would have to appeal to the Treasury to make good the fund, which already was barely more than enough to answer the charges that had been fixed upon it by Parliament. Sow the promoters did not venture to ask for this large sum by direct taxation; so they proposed to take it from the Suitors' Fee Fund, and if any loss was incurred to throw such loss upon the Consolidated Fund. So that indirectly a system of public taxation was adopted. They proposed, first of all, to take the money from a particular source, and then to apply to the Consolidated Fund for its recoupment. With regard to the Suitors' Fee Fund, he must beg to remind their Lordships that the origin of this fund dated from the year 1726. Before that time the funds of the Court of Chancery had been paid to the Masters of the Court. Subsequently it was found that these officers, having been entrusted with the money of others, had misappropriated and wasted the funds of the suitors. Lord Macclesfield, as their Lordships would remember, was fined £30,000. This sum, with accumulations of interest, reached £51,000; and that sum, together with duties imposed by Parliament, made up the deficiency. Subsequently an officer was appointed in lieu of the Masters, called the Accountant General of the Court of Chancery, and all moneys paid in by the suitors were directed to be placed to his account. It seemed that the gentlemen who advocated this change were scarcely aware of the extreme complication of that account. The office was a most extensive one, with a numerous staff of clerks. At the Bank of England also the Accountant General had a very complex account where the funds of all the suitors were entered. If that account were disturbed, one of the best systems ever constructed for the benefit of the suitor would be destroyed. At that moment the funds of the Court of Chancery amounted to £49,000,000 of money. He recollected upon one occasion, when he first sat in the House of Commons, hearing a very amiable and animated conversation between the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Baring, in which it was proposed to take these £40,000,000 of money, invest in the funds, and give the suitors 3 per cent for their money. It would amount to confiscation, and the confidence of every suitor in the Court would be shaken at once. Since that time, though various Chancellors of the Exchequer had made inquiries about the fund, there had been no attempt to interfere with it. The first time any portion of the money was appropriated was by an Act of the 12th of George II., when a portion of the fund was invested to pay the salary of the Accountant General, who was appointed in order to prevent defalcations and misdealings with the funds in the hands of the Court. The title of the Act stated that the fund "belonged to the suitors in the said court," and that the proceeds of the money invested should be applied in the said court for "the case of the suitors for answering the charges of the office of the Accountant General." The same principle had been acted upon up to the present time, and the money arising from the investments of the fund had always been applied to purposes useful and beneficial to the suitors; and so far from regarding the suitors' fund as applicable to any purpose to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer might desire to devote it, the salaries of the Chancery Judges had actually been transferred from it to the Consolidated Fund. Power was given to the Lord Chancellor by orders from time to time to abolish or reduce existing fees, and to substitute others for them, and in 1854 he (Lord St. Leonards) made changes which would now be equivalent to reducing the fees payable by the suitors by £40,000 a year —a relief which, if capitalized, would represent no less than £551,000. At the present time the fee fund had only a margin of £2,000 a year over the expenditure chargeable upon it. The Commissioners in their Report said that, in time past the Suitors' Fee Fund was exclusively applied for the benefit of the suitors, but that new and varied exigencies had arisen. What were these new and varied exigencies? Why, that seven acres of compact buildings were to be taken down, the space thrown open, and new courts to be erected thereon. The fund, however, belonged exclusively to the suitors. The Lord Chancellor was a great public officer, holding sacredly these funds for the benefit of the suitors; and it would be highly improper that they should be applied to any other purpose.


said, that while his noble and learned Friend had been delivering his very able and interesting address, the House had gradually disappeared, with the exception of Her Majesty's Ministers who had remained to hear his suggestion on this subject. Although his noble and learned Friend's opinion on the matter was entitled to the greatest consideration, yet, he thought he had made a mistake in bringing the subject prematurely before the House. It had for years been notorious that the courts for the administration of justice in this country were inadequate in their accommodation; and so strongly did the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) feel this when he was in office that he issued a Commission to inquire into the subject. That Commission, in which the different interests were ably represented, consisted of Sir John Coleridge, Vice Chancellor Page Wood, Sir George Lewis, Dr. Phillimore, and Mr. Young considered the subject with great care, and they unanimously concurred in the opinion that it was necessary there should be new courts, that they should be concentrated on the site which had been so severely criticised by the noble and learned Lord, and that the suitors fund might be legitimately applied towards the expense of their construction. If the Report of the Commission had been made before the noble Earl left office, without the smallest doubt, he would have directed a Bill to be brought into Parliament for the purpose of carrying its recommendations into effect. He (the Lord Chancellor) had to announce on the part of the Government to which he belonged, that, though the measure was originated by Lord Derby's Government, they were most anxious to follow in his footsteps in this respect, and they had prepared a Bill on the subject which would be immediately brought into the House of Commons. His noble and learned Friend was quite wrong in supposing that no plans or estimates had been prepared. All those bad been prepared, the usual notices had been served, and all the other preliminary steps taken; and in the course of a few days the Bill would, with the permission of the House of Commons, be introduced, unless the threatened injunction with regard to the Suitors' Fee Fund prevailed. His noble and learned Friend need not be under any misapprehension that he would not have ample opportunities for discussing the measure. On the present occasion he (the Lord Chancellor) would abstain from entering into details in regard to the proposed plan. He would only now say that he regretted leaving Westminster Hall, to which he had the warmest attachment; but their departure had become absolutely necessary. Westminster Hall answered the purpose of a palace of justice most admirably when, as in the time of the Plantagenets, they had only four Courts sitting; but now, from the increase of population and wealth in the country, they had no less than 24 other Courts all sitting together, all of which must be accommodated. He agreed entirely with the Commissioners that it was most desirable that the Courts of Equity and Common Law should be concentrated upon one spot. At present they were dissevered by great distances, and the Judges and counsel practising in them seldom had any opportunity of coming in contact with each other. There would, by such an arrangement, be a clear saving of time and expense to all concerned in the administration of justice. The Commissioners had selected the area to which the noble and learned Lord had referred, and he believed that if the plan were completed it would be most conducive to the health and ornament of the Metropolis, Such a concentration, however, could not be carried out without the application to it of the suitors' fund, a fund which the Commissioners had said might be applied to this purpose without interfering with the rights of property, and without any injustice to the suitors. That fund now amounted to about two millions and a half, and it might properly be applied by the Legislature to any purpose which was connected with the administration of justice. He was unable to see what solid objection could exist to the plan that was proposed. Here was a large sum of money which had been brought into the Court of Chancery, to be retained in the custody of the Court; and was there any harm in applying any profit that might be derived from so retaining it to erect a building for the Court to sit in? He believed that next to having honesty, intelligence, and learned Judges it was essential to the administration of justice that there should be proper offices for the Court. As for lowering the fees, they had already been lowered, and were very moderate now; but, as for the proposal to abolish them altogether, he must say, however unpopular might be the declaration, that he thought it would be unjust to the taxpayer to call on the State to defray all the cost of litigation. He could not sec, then, who was injured, or who had a right to complain of the intended arrangement; but be would reserve anything more to be said about it till the Bill should come regularly before their Lordships' House.


said, he could not agree with his noble and learned Friend opposite (Lord St. Leonards) that the suitors' fund was one with which the State had not a perfect right to deal. Putting the extreme case that every suitor entitled to claim anything at the hands of the Court of Chancery did so at the same moment, and that all the stock was sold for the purpose of paying off these demands, in the present condition of the funds a very large surplus would remain; and to whom but the State would this belong? The suitors were not a corporation; the funds only belonged to them individually in their respective portions, and were to a large extent the result of accumulations extend- ing over a century and a half. In 1725, when, through the misconduct of a Master, £100,000 of the suitors' money was withdrawn, the State, without the least hesitation, made good the deficiency by taxation. On the other hand, he felt it right to say that he did not see what good the State would derive from resorting to the suitors' fund. Nearly the whole of the interest was appropriated by different Acts of Parliament, and a surplus was only to be looked for when in some particular year a larger amount than usual of fees had been received. If therefore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appropriated the fund for the purpose of building the new courts, he would be obliged by a concomitant measure to charge on the Consolidated Fund the amounts now chargeable on the interest arising from the suitors' fund. There could be no doubt as to the desirability of the contemplated measure; the only question was whether its advantages sufficed to countervail the cost. As to concentrating the courts in the same locality, he thought that it would certainly be productive of great convenience; but it was on the State, not on the suitors, that the expense should fall.

House adjourned at Quarter before Eight o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.