HL Deb 11 June 1896 vol 41 cc814-23

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said it was meant to remedy some of the grievances and hardships of which those who were appointed Sheriffs at present complained. Briefly summarised, those grievances were as follows: In the first place, the Sheriff, when appointed, received no information whatever with regard to his duties, and had no means of obtaining that information except from reports he might receive from his Under Sheriff, who had not, necessarily, any experience in the matter. In the second place, some of the duties of the Sheriff, owing to their legal nature, were such that he was incapable of performing them. Things were done in his name and on his responsibility of which he knew nothing. The third grievance was that the Sheriff alone, of all Her Majesty's subjects, was required to expend out of his own private means considerable sums on account of his public duties in connection with the administration of justice within his county, expenses which ought to be defrayed by the community to which they relate. The Bill, therefore, provided in the first place that regulations should be made by the County Council, with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor, to inform the Sheriff as to the manner in which he should receive the Judges of Assize. In the second place it was proposed to transfer the legal and certain other duties of the Sheriff to the County Council, which as a permanent body, had the means of obtaining and controlling such matters; and, in the third place, it was proposed to enable the County Council, if it saw fit, to pay the expenses incurred by the Sheriff under the regulations made by the County Council. This Bill was a considerably bigger Bill than that which their Lordships were good enough to pass in 1890. It not only dealt with the expenses of the High Sheriff, as did that Bill, but it also provided that the Under Sheriff should in future be appointed by the County Council, instead of by the High Sheriff. On further inquiry since 1890, he found that if any real economies were to be effected, it was absolutly necessary that the office of Under Sheriff should be dealt with, and on the advice of Lord Herschell, he obtained a Committee from their Lordships which inquired into the office of and the profits received by the Sheriff or his deputies. Although reports were received from Under Sheriffs in many cases, in many others none were received, and of course the Report of the Committee was based on such information as they received; and the conclusion to which they came was that while a considerable amount might be saved in a large number of counties, and in a few counties the amount saved would be small, they did not report that in their belief the amount saved would be sufficient to defray the whole of the expenses of the Sheriff. Nevertheless, the Committee were able to report that in their opinion the saving might be considerable, and they recommended that the Under Sheriff should in future be appointed by the Crown, and that his office should be a permanent one. The Under Sheriffs themselves were also anxious for this change. The second clause of the Bill stated that the Bill was not to extend to Scotland or Ireland. In Scotland there was no Sheriff, and with regard to Ireland, the system of local government in that country was so different from that in England, that he did not feel himself able to draft clauses to make the Bill apply to Ireland. The third clause of the Bill dealt with the question of making regulations. It stated that "the County Council in each county in England and Wales shall make regulations as to the manner in which Judges are to be received at Assizes," and so on. He could easily understand that it might be said that the County Council was not in all cases the body best suited to make such regulations; but it seemed to him that this matter of Assizes was essentially a matter which was very closely connected with the locality in which the Assizes were held, and if the County Council was not a suitable body, the Bill gave the Lord Chancellor power to make the regulations sufficiently uniform. What other body was there that could be suggested? He had made inquiries with regard to every other body that would be capable of making the regulations. There was, first, the Privy Council. The President of the Council, every March gave a dinner to certain of his colleagues, and at that dinner the Sheriffs for the year were virtually appointed. But when his appointment had been notified to a Sheriff, the connection between him and the Privy Council ceased. The Council had nothing further to do with the Sheriff; it gave him no orders and it received no returns from him, and therefore the Privy Council would hardly be the right body to make regulations of this kind. Then there was the Home Office; but the Sheriff's connection with that Department was almost exclusively limited to matters relating to the execution of the criminal law, and except in regard to these matters the Home Office had little to do with the Sheriffs. There was, thirdly, the Treasury. To the Treasury the High Sheriff was responsible for certain payments, the duty of the Department in relation to the Sheriff being limited to financial matters. Hitherto the Treasury had not attempted to interfere with the discretion of the Sheriff in any other respect, and it had shown no disposition to widen the area of its action. It seemed to him—and it was the conclusion accepted by their Lordships in 1890—that the County Council, acting under proper control, was the only body left to make regulations for the reception of the Judges. The 4th clause of the Bill simply provided for the employment of police in Courts of Assize. It made compulsory the exercise of a power which was at present optional, although generally exercised by those who had the control over the police. The 5th and 6th Clauses dealt with the question of expenditure, and provided that after the accounts of a Sheriff had been examined and audited by the Treasury, the Sheriff, if he thought fit, might apply to the County Council for the payment of costs which he had incurred under the regulations, but the Bill left the County Council free to pay these expenses or any part of them or to refuse to do so. He had been assured that the provisions of the last Bill, imposing a compulsory charge upon the County rate had no chance of acceptance. After considering the matter carefully, he had selected the plan embodied in the clause. For that plan he was indebted to Lord Belper, and it seemed to him to furnish a possible solution of the difficulty of the case. He might point out that the complaint in regard to expenditure did not come from all counties. In counties like Yorkshire and Lancashire, the position of the Sheriff was eagerly sought after, and high expenditure was willingly incurred. There was, of course, no reason for defraying out of public funds costs which private individuals were ready to defray themselves. The clauses, therefore, left the matter optional. The regulations would simply stale what it was necessary and proper to do, and any extra expenditure could be incurred by any Sheriff who so desired. The 7th Clause enabled the County Council to undertake on behalf of the county the whole or any part of the arrangements for receiving the Judges under the regulations. It had been suggested that some County Councils might think it desirable to maintain carriages, and to make other suitable provision for the reception of the Judges, and this clause would enable them to do anything of that kind legally. The 8th and 9th Clauses were really the two most important clauses of the Bill. By the 8th clause all the powers and liabilities hitherto imposed upon Sheriffs in connection with the summoning of juries, the election of members to serve in Parliament, and the execution of civil process were transferred to the County Council, and the 9th Clause provided for the appointment of an Under Sheriff by the Council, to discharge on their behalf, the duties transferred to them. He had inserted these clauses in the Bill for the following reasons. A High Sheriff was a layman and elected annually. In most cases he knew nothing of the law, and had no notion of the nature of his responsibilities. The Under Sheriff generally gave the Sheriff an indemnity, but in case of failure by the former to discharge the duties of the office in such matters as civil process, the Sheriff was held responsible. The County Council occupied a different position—at any rate it was a permanent body. He believed that ultimately the County Council would appoint as the Under Sheriff the Clerk of the Council, who at the present time was also Clerk of the Peace. In that way only was any saving to be effected. He did not see how any High Sheriff who occupied office for a year only could be expected in his year of office to effect any economical changes. The second half of Clause 9 provided that any person who had been appointed Under Sheriff by the Sheriff, either during each of the past three years, or during at least five of the 10 years next preceding the commencement of this Act, should be the first Under Sheriff under this Act, and should hold the office during good behaviour. He might be asked why should a vested interest be created where none existed at present. To that he would reply that although it was no doubt true that an Under Sheriff was appointed annually, some firm and individuals had filled the office through a long series of years, and might thus be considered to have acquired a certain interest in the post. There were in the Bill, he knew, many details which would require careful consideration in Committee, and to any suggestions for their amendment, he was ready to give close attention. One thing was clear, however—namely, that the Sheriff's representations deserved to be considered. They had shown that they had a very strong case before two Committees of their Lordships' House. The office of Sheriff was almost an anachronism, but as it was retained for ceremonial or other reasons, those who filled it had a right to know what were the duties which they were expected to discharge, and any duties which were of such a nature that they could not perform them satisfactorily, ought to be transferred to the hands of others. He begged to move the Second Reading of the Bill.


admitted that a case had been made out for some relief to the Sheriffs. He thought it was very hard indeed that some gentleman should be selected simply because it was supposed that he was able to pay the bill, in order to perform the work which was in truth part of the administration of justice. That some relief should be granted was no new opinion of his, because on the occasion of a former Bill he induced the Lord Chief Justice to withdraw a Motion he had made in connection with it, on the ground that, according to his judgment, a case had been made out for relief. But, having made that admission, and expressed his sympathy with the Sheriffs, he could not refrain from saying that he could not conceive anything more unworkable, anything more unjust to the Sheriffs, than the Measure which the noble Lord now proposed. One leading feature of it seemed to him to condemn the Bill at once. The Sheriff was to be made an officer of the County Council, and he was bound under the Bill to comply with the directions made, with or without the assent of the Lord Chancellor, to incur certain expenses. In the Select Committee very intelligible provision was made that this having been done the expenses should be defrayed by the county. But, according to the Bill, the Sheriff, being a servant of the County Council, should be at liberty to make an application to the County Council to be paid, and the County Council should be at liberty either to pay or refuse, as they thought proper. That was the oddest kind of relief he had ever heard suggested. Further, the whole Bill appeared to him to be absolutely unworkable. The County Council in each county, with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor, were to make regulations; but suppose they did not agree, what was to happen?


The present state of things shall go on.


replied that the noble Lord did not say so in the Bill. As a matter of fact they could not go on because the noble Lord had made the County Council practically the Sheriff; the County Council had all the duties and all the authority that the present sheriff possessed. It seemed to him that the noble Lord endeavoured to preserve the Sheriff as a name while giving all the duties of that official to the County Council. At almost every turn he found inconsistent enactments in the Bill. What had the County Council to do with the propriety of summoning juries or with the election of Members to serve in Parliament? Was that the kind of body to be intrusted with powers of that kind? Whether the Sheriff should be relieved was one thing, but to transfer all his duties to the County Council and to make it the body to summon juries, and to make arrangements for elections was about the most extraordinary suggestion he had ever heard. Next, as to the administration of justice and the execution of writs. Imagine the County Council being the authority to carry out the execution of the law throughout England! He could hardly conceive a Bill more filled with matters which would lead to conflict. Take the question as to the receiving of Judges. He thought that the questions between the Sheriffs and the Judges were fewer in point of number than was imagined, and so far as his experience went they were only applicable to questions in connection with the eccentricity of particular Judges and particular Sheriffs. He did not believe that if they took the whole body of Judges and High Sheriffs for the last 50 years they would find more than a dozen cases of such conflict. According to his own lengthened experience on circuit he had never met with a case of conflict between the Judges and the High Sheriffs. On the contrary, the best feeling had prevailed between them, and therefore he believed that the real remedy was to be found in a totally different region of inquiry. Let it be ascertained what was made by the fees in the administration of justice and the execution of the law. There were the Sheriff's cravings which he received from the Treasury, and the fees themselves, which, if he did not receive himself he ought to take care to see that an account of them was presented to him by the Under-Sheriff. Though he admitted the serious nature of the burden often cast on the sheriff, yet he believed that the Under-Sheriffs throughout the country, in consideration of the indemnity they granted to the Sheriffs against actions at law, had received a large sum of money from time to time; and if accounts were taken it would be ascertained that the amount of which the Sheriff was left in default was a small one indeed. At present the Under-Sheriffs took all the fees in consideration of the indemnity. When he was Chairman of Quarter Sessions it came to his knowledge that the Treasury had from time to time paid money for the lodgings provided for the Judges. He found that the money had been appropriated by the Under-Sheriff as his perquisite. Their Lordships would be at a loss to understand how that deficiency was made up. He found on inquiry that it had been placed on the county rate, so that the county had paid for that the Treasury had already paid for. If proper inquiry was made as to the amount actually necessary for the Sheriff's duties, he thought it would be found that an ample sum was provided for the expenses of the Sheriff. He had looked at this Bill with great care to see whether it was possible to get out of it any machinery by which the relief which ought to be provided could be afforded to the Sheriff; but without altering every section of the Bill and the whole machinery of it seemed to him that it would be impossible. Reluctant as he was to oppose any Measure in favour of the Sheriffs, which he heartily admitted was needed in point of justice, he must ask their Lordships to reject this Bill.


agreed with the Lord Chancellor in the criticisms he had made. Whatever relief should be given to the Sheriffs he thought that this was not the method to be adopted. He did not think that it was correct to regard the execution of the law as merely a local affair in the different counties. It was a matter of general interest to the country at large; and, in fact, the execution that was put in force in county A was very often for the benefit of county B which had brought the action. At the present time certain grants were made by the Treasury and there were fees received in connection with the execution of legal process. Those fees at present were practically received by the Under-Sheriff who undertook the liabilities. There might not be in every county in every year enough received to meet all the Sheriff's expenses, but he had a very strong conviction if the country at large was taken year by year that the fees would be sufficient for that purpose when added to the sums now paid by the Treasury. He had always thought that the proper course was to treat the question as one in which the country at large was interested, that the fees should be received by the Treasury; and if this method was adopted he believed that all the funds for the proper fulfilment of the duties carried out could be found without any additional burden being cast on the public Exchequer. That was the direction in which he thought relief should be sought, and it would be open to no practical objection.


also strongly took the view that this was not a local burden but one which should be imposed by the Treasury. He thought that the noble Lord who introduced the Bill would now see that nothing could be done in this matter effectually except by the Government of the day.


said he wished he could feel greater confidence than he did in the sympathy which had been expressed by the Lord Chancellor and other speakers. Everyone was agreed that the present arrangement pressed very hard on the Sheriff, and that a remedy should be found; but whenever it was proposed to do anything everyone appeared to agree that the remedy was not the right one. The Lord Chancellor pointed out how absurd it was to speak of the execution of writs by a County Council. Was it not equally absurd to speak of the execution of writs by the Sheriff? The Sheriff had no more to do with the execution of writs than the man in the moon. In the circumstances, of course he should accept the advice which had been tendered to him from the other side and withdraw the Bill, and he only hoped the Government would bear in mind what had been said to them. They had been urged to meet this grievance, for it was admitted to be a real one, and although the remedy which they proposed seemed to him very difficult to carry out, he trusted that next Session of Parliament they would draw up a Bill to deal with the matter. He begged to withdraw the Bill.

Bill, by leave, withdrawn.