HL Deb 14 February 1873 vol 214 cc431-5

moved that there be laid before the House, Copies of the several proceedings under the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act, in which James Doolan, the Reverend Samuel B. Stevenson, Michael Friel were the respective Claimants v. the Earl of Leitrim, Respondent. The noble Earl said, that his object in moving for these Papers was not to bring before their Lordships the hardship of his own case, but to protect the property of others from the operation of a hard and oppressive law which would not be tolerated in any country. He had by the decision of the Court, formed under the Irish Act, been deprived, under circumstances of great injustice, of considerable property. The noble Earl proceeded to state in a very low voice the particulars of the actions of which he complained; and concluded by moving for the production of the Papers.


said, that although his experience of the Land Act had not been quite so unfortunate as that of his noble Friend, he also had been brought into Court to resist a very extortionate claim, and the decision which was given against him was, in his opinion, a singularly unreasonable one. The experience of other landlords in Ireland was similar, while the tenants, for whose benefit the Act was passed, were also complaining of it, and were forming associations to claim still further concessions. One result of the Act had been that one of the most popular and respected noblemen of Ireland (the Duke of Leinster) had found himself denounced as a tyrant because he had proposed to his tenants a form of lease which was drawn up in accordance with the very terms of the Land Act. His own experience was this—that he had been quite unable to find that the effects of the Act, in any direction, had tended to the benefit either of the landlords or the tenants of Ireland.


said, that in criticizing the administration of the law in Ireland it was not easy to do so without seeming to attack the Judges who administered it, which he certainly did not mean to do on that occasion. He thought that where the Land Act had, in its working, given cause of complaint to the landowner was not in its administration so much as in its vagueness, and in its daring departure from the ordinary principles which govern legislation. With regard to the latter, it was now too late to say anything, but he would make a few remarks on the indefiniteness of the law. Last year, in Lord Lifford's Committee, he had come to the conclusion that it would not be advisable to abolish the Chairman's Court, and he had used what influence he possessed with his noble Friend, in preparing the Report, to carry out that view. But he then held, and he still held, a strong opinion on the subject of the evils arising from the vagueness of the law. As regarded the Ulster tenant-right custom, Parliament had deliberately cast upon the Judges the duty which it ought to have performed itself of defining that custom. Sometimes the vagueness of a law arose from accident. For instance, in the Licensing Act of last year, according to an opinion of the Irish Law Officers it was provided that before a man be convicted of drunkenness the Bench must ask him if ho had goods whereupon to levy a fine. That, no doubt, was owing to a slip; but in the matter of tenant-right the indefiniteness was deliberate. He thought that although Parliament had declined this duty a very good definition had been recently arrived at by the chairman of his own county, an able Roman Catholic barrister, who laid down certain leading features—such as the tenant's right to what the law professed to give him, and the landlord's right to an increase of rent from time to time—which might form a good basis for legislation. Moreover, he found tenants complaining from their own point of view of this indefiniteness, and instanced what occurred at a recent interview between some of them and Mr. Verner, at the recent Armagh election. If the law were settled, landlords and tenants could make their own arrangements without going into court, and save the expenses which went into the lawyer's pockets. Then, as regarded the excessive amounts awarded for compensation in some instances for tenant-right, his noble Friend (Lord Leitrim) had quoted one case in which lie had to pay nearly 34 years' purchase. They all knew that the fee-simple of the land was not worth that. He looked at the result of some recent sales in his own part of the country, and he found that the lots averaged from 25½ years' purchase, the highest, to less than 20 years', the lowest. These amounts for tenant-right compensation were, no doubt, arrived at on the evidence of experts; and they all knew what that was worth. There was no appeal from the Judge to the Court for Land Cases Reserved on questions of value; and the money thus paid, instead of going to improve the country, probably would be taken out of the country altogether. Clubs were springing up in all parts of the country. Some said that the Act was a delusion and a snare, and demanded fixity of tenure, which would reduce the landlord, in a generation or two, to the position of an owner of head-rents. Others—and these were in the North—did not go so far; but they asked for a right to sell to the highest bidder in the open market, only allowing the landlord a right of pre-emption on paying what the highest bidder would give; land being limited in quantity, fancy prices would be, no doubt, offered—more, in fact, than the article was worth, and certainly more than the landlord should be called on to pay if he wished to resume possession of his property. No honest man would ask to increase his rents through the tenant's own improvement, as was sometimes alleged to be the case; but the price of articles was rising, the value of gold falling, and with the increase of mining enterprise in the Australian Colonies, would, no doubt, continue to fall, and the letting value of the land might fairly be expected to rise from that cause. He made these remarks in no party spirit. This matter should no longer be dealt with as a party question, but as a purely economic one. The question, no doubt, would settle itself in time, when capital had been driven out of the country; but as a person desirous of advancing the prosperity of the country, and of maintaining good relations between owners and occupiers, and putting a stop to the growth of a spirit of litigation and distrust between them, he did earnestly urge upon their Lordships the duty of so amending the law as would put an end to its present vagueness and uncertainty.


said, he thought their Lordships would agree with him that, as a general rule, it was not convenient that those who were unsuccessful in suits at law should move that copies of the judgments against them should be laid before Parliament; but as in this ease the Returns moved fur would illustrate the working of a law which was comparatively new, he though it the Motion of the noble Earl ought not to be resisted—especially as the cases themselves were of considerable importance. That they were difficult cases was obvious from the fact that the Judges themselves before whom they came were divided in opinion. With regard to the general question, he must admit that until from the working of the new Act the law was fully settled, there would be a difficulty in respect of the Ulster tenant-right. The usages themselves differed on different estates in that part of Ireland. His noble Friend who spoke last (the Earl of Belmore) found fault with the vagueness of the Act with respect to Ulster tenant-right. No doubt there was vagueness, but it had existed before the Act, and both the Government and Parliament deliberately abstained from giving an exact definition to Ulster tenant-right when the Bill was under discussion. Such was the complicated character of the usage that his right hon. Friend (Mr. Gladstone) had stated that, after endeavouring to find some definition for it, he gave the attempt up in despair. The safer course was then thought to be not to state more in the Act than that the Ulster usages were to be recognized, and to leave the definition for the decision of the Judges as the cases severally came before them. The vagueness was not attributable to the Act. The Ulster tenant-right had been a perpetual puzzle both to landlords and tenants, and he believed that if the Land Act had not been passed, the whole landlord right would have passed away bit by bit in the North of Ireland. That was the result of his own examination of the matter, and it disclosed a state of things with which it was difficult for Parliament to deal. The evidence taken by the Committee which had considered the working of the Land Act showed that though there were some difficulties, yet, on the whole, it was working so satisfactorily that it would be unadvisable to propose a change. If there were changes in a direction favourable to landlords, there would be at once an agitation for changes in the other direction. If, after sufficient experience, it was found that amendment was really required, of course it would be wrong not to amend; but, without some very conclusive reason, it would be very unwise to disturb such a settlement as the Irish Land Act; and therefore he could hold out no promise of a Bill to amend it. He did not blame the noble Earl (the Earl of Leitrim) for what he had said with respect to the working of the Act in question, and he had a perfect right to complain if he felt aggrieved; but, at the same time, he was confident that his noble Friend would own that his case had been fully argued, and that nothing had been spared in securing a full investigation of the subject. If the noble Earl struck out of his notice one set of papers, which were rather in the nature of a private correspondence, there would be no objection to his Motion.

Motion amended, and agreed to.