§ House in Committee (according to Order).
§ Clauses 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.1918
§ Clause 4 (The remuneration of attorneys and solicitors may be fixed by agreement).
§ LORD CHELMSFORD
said, he desired to call attention to the unlimited scope of the measure. He had heard of no ground stated for the introduction of the Bill, except a very restricted one—the unsatisfactory nature of the existing arrangement by which conveyancing business was remunerated—that remuneration being in proportion to the length of the deeds or other documents. This arrangement, of course, offered a premium on prolixity, and there was no inducement to employ skill in abbreviating the prolix forms which at present prevailed. In 1864 his noble and learned Friend (Lord Westbury) brought in a Bill enabling attorneys to enter into agreements as to the amount of remuneration for conveyancing business; but it was objected to as having a larger scope, and it failed to become law. For himself, he saw no objection to allow these gentlemen to enter into agreements with their clients as to their conveyancing business. This class of business was usually considered the best part of the business of the profession; and persons of the highest character being employed in it, he was sure they would not abuse the power now proposed to be given them; but he very seriously objected to the Bill being extended to business of all descriptions, including actions at law and suits in equity, on account of the overreaching and oppression which would inevitably result. In many cases business of those kinds was undertaken by persons who were not of the highest character in the profession; they knew very well what the expenses were likely to be, and could thus take care to make very good bargains for themselves; and their clients being generally ignorant were not equally able to take care of themselves, and though it was true that the agreement might be brought before a Court, and, if unreasonable, set aside, the parties in nine cases out of ten would not be aware of this mode of redress, and would not know whether the agreement was a fail one. The Bill, moreover, exempted these agreements from taxation, so that they would be eagerly entered into for the purpose of avoiding the scrutinizing eye of the taxing officer. He should have much preferred it had the Bill been 1919 confined to conveyancing business; but he feared it could not be modified in this sense without being re-drawn. He had therefore drawn an Amendment to this clause, which provided that when such an agreement related to any action or suit, the amount payable in it should not be paid until the agreement had been examined and allowed by the taxing officer of the Court, who, if he deemed it not fair and reasonable, might require it to be referred to the Court, which would be empowered to reduce the amount, or to order the agreement to be cancelled, and the costs to be taxed in the same manner as if no such agreement had been made. Without such a proviso the operation of the Bill would be most mischievous. As however his Amendment had not been printed, he would not move it on the present occasion; but would leave it for their Lordships' consideration, and would move it at a subsequent stage.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
said, that as the object of the Bill was to allow freedom of contract as far as possible, and to enable clients to get their work done at less expense, he saw no objection to the Amendment.
§ LORD ROMILLY
said, he thought the Bill as introduced by the noble Marquess a very valuable measure, believing that many persons would abstain from bringing actions if they knew the expense beforehand. At present, if they asked an attorney whether he would undertake to carry on a suit for any specified sum, the answer was, that the law did not permit him to make such a bargain, but he believed the cost would not exceed that sum. He feared that the suggested proviso would not work well, but would prove merely an expensive form of taxation; for a person could not go before the taxing officer with evidence without expense. The opponent would not be bound by the agreement, for if he lost the action he would have to pay the taxed costs irrespective of the sum agreed on.
§ LORD CAIRNS
, while generally approving the Bill, shared in the doubts of his noble and learned Friend (Lord Chelmsford), and therefore supported the proviso as a protection to the interests of ignorant clients. The Bill already provided that agreements entered into by guardians and trustees, who might not be very strict in a matter 1920 where the costs would not come upon, themselves, should be subject to the certificate of the taxing officer, and it was expedient to extend this safeguard to agreements relating to actions at law. He would remind their Lordships that what the proviso proposed to accomplish was in strict accordance with the objects of the Bill.
§ LORD WESTBURY
feared the proviso, if adopted without some qualification, would practically nullify the clause. He admitted that care was necessary; but he hoped this Bill would be more successful than the measure which he introduced some years ago.
§ LORD PENZANCE
remarked that the terms of the proviso would not apply it to the Court over which he had the honour to preside. Unless this omission was supplied, very ignorant clients in the smaller class of cases would be much imposed upon.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR
said, that the evil complained of was fully recognized, and everyone would admit that it was very desirable that some means should be found of remunerating professional services by some other standard than that of the length of the documents. He approved of this Bill, thinking it would, to some extent, wipe away the reproach by offering some inducement to brevity. The obvious reason of the present system of forbidding bargains was that, while in other agreements a man was advised by his solicitor, in an agreement with his solicitor he would have no advice or protection. The Bill would tend to the benefit of the community in the majority of cases—certainly as regarded the more respectable practitioners; and the 8th clause provided that no action should be brought on these agreements until the Court had been applied to, to see whether they were fair or not. There was also a clause protecting infants and married women, for whom protection was imperatively necessary. As to the class who, though legally capable, were incapable through ignorance, they had one kind of protection from the persons of whom his noble and learned Friend (Lord Chelmsford) was afraid, though not one much to be admired. These persons were not so few as to preclude competition among themselves, and the client would be in some degree protected by the competition as to who would transact the business most cheaply. 1921 It was not desirable so to restrict the measure as to impede the operations of the more respectable class, whose clients would benefit from it. But he doubted whether the proposed proviso would not work harm rather than good.
§ LORD CHELMSFORD
remarked that his noble and learned Friend's picture of all the attorneys in a neighbourhood assembling about the carcass like a flock of vultures proved the necessity of protecting the unfortunate persons who might fall into their clutches. In the majority of cases the money would be squeezed out of the client, the agreement never coming before the Court, and he hoped that to prevent overreaching and oppression his proviso would be agreed to.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment; and to be read 3a on Thursday the 30th instant.