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In the case of Divorce Bills and Election Petitions, the determination depended solely upon the decision of plain issues of fact, and the application to these of strict legal principles. In such matters it is much better that a judge should decide according to law than that Parliament should come to a decision without the requisite knowledge. But to the Private Bills which come before Parliament to-day, no fixed rule can be applied any more than in the case of Public Measures. One would be laughed at if one proposed to have all Public Bills submitted to a Committee of Judges or a Special Tribunal, and why the proposal to submit Private Bills, the expediency of which must be determined by precisely similar considerations, to such a Court should be received with the compliment of seriousness it would be difficult to say. The Committee which hears and disposes of a Petition for a Private Act is performing a purely legislative act. The Judge who hears and determines the truth of the allegation in an Election Petition is performing a purely judicial one. Sir William Harcourt, who was very familiar with Private Bill legislation, said, “The question for discussion in the case of Private Bills is not essentially, or even mainly, a judicial question. It was an administrative question; in many cases the question involved one of public policy” (Speech in House of Commons, 22nd March, 1872); and Mr. Chichester Fortescue (now Lord Carlingford), in speaking in the same debate, said, “ It was a mistake to suppose that the business before the Private Bill Committee was judicial and of the same nature as that with which the House had already parted ” (Speech in House of Commons, 22nd March, 1872). But Mr. Dodson argues that the changes which took place when the trial of Election Petitions was transferred from Committees of the House to Election Judges “was universally admitted to be of the most beneficial and economical character," and he seems to infer that the transfer of Private Bill business from Committees to a “permanent tribunal of a judicial character” would also be attended with benefit. It is, however, quite conceivable that the transfer of such casescases in which members of the House were in fact trying members of the House—to a judicial tribunal might be beneficial, while any similar transfer of Private Bill legislation proper would be quite the reverse. But apart from the weight of the observation there is not much truth in it. If it was universally admitted to be beneficial, why did Parliament pass an Act, quite recently, making it necessary that two judges should hear such petitions ? As to the universal admission of the economy of the change, we should like some further evidence. The fees given to counsel upon Election Inquiries are, as a rule, five times greater than those which are given to Parliamentary counsel for much heavier cases, or than those which used to be given when the Petitions were heard before Committees of the House. Any case which requires the best legal talent, and which necessitates the absence from town of the counsel possessing it, must necessarily be expensive. The comparatively small fees given at the Parliamentary Bar are acceptable to counsel who can attend to a considerable number of cases in the same day, and consequently the fact that a large number of Committees are sitting at the same time has the effect of cheapening Parliamentary proceedings to the promoters and opponents of Private Bills.
Mr. Dodson's scheme involved, as we have seen, local inquiries, and he supported bis opinion as to the expediency of these, by assuring the House that “the nearer home the inquiry took place the cheaper it would be.” This argument has long ago been refuted. Mr. Dodson himself seemed to be aware that his statement was not wholly accurate, for he informed the House that the cases in which the expense of the inquiry would be greater in the provinces than in London, were exceptional. But had he taken the trouble to inquire into the matter, he would have found that the principal items of the cost of Private Bills must be incurred, before whatever tribunal the matter is ultimately heard. The heaviest expenses in connexion with Private Bills is incurred in connexion with the referencing, surveying, and engineering; and all that work must be done whether the Bill comes before a Parliamentary Committee or a “permanent tribunal of a judicial character.” A return showing what a small proportion of the costs were incurred in relation to the actual hearing of any important Bill would be exceedingly instructive. But assume that the Bill is important; is it possible to conceive that the fact that it is heard at Sligo, at Perth, or at Newcastle will make the costs less ? Anyone who has any acquaintance with such cases will tell you that the expensive witnesses are not the local ones, but the experts or skilled witnesses. Eminent engineers or chemists would still be employed in every important inquiry and their charges for attendance on a local inquiry will be much more exhorbitant than they have been in connexion with an inquiry in London. At the present time their charges are by no means modest, but their fees for going to Sligo, Perth, or Newcastle would be very large, and, whenever the matter was an important one, they would be paid. The view of Mr. St. George Burké, Q.C., after he retired from the Parliamentary Bar, when he had no longer any interest in the bolstering of a bad system, was that there would be an increase of the expenses if inquiries were held locally.* It is too, we believe, a motto of the Parliamentary Bar that Provisional Orders are better than Bills, if they are big enough, for in that case there are three briefs and three inquiries instead of two. But if the
measure is unimportant, it would pass through Parliament cheaply enough were it not for the House fees which are doubtless heavy. But, strange to say, in his anxiety for economy, Mr. Dodson does not propose any diminution of these fees, indeed he takes credit for these fees, and proposes to pay the commissioners of his permanent tribunal out of them. It might have been worth while to inquire whether the whole amount of these fees was not already necessary in connexion with the permanent staff and expenses of the House. But apart from that, it is a curious economy to substitute a highly paid tribunal for one which does its work gratuitously. But there is, as we have seen, another expense in connexion with the hearing before the Committee, and that is, the expense of counsel and agents. These, at the Parliamentary Bar, are by no means excessive. Measured by comparison with the fees given on Election Petitions or Arbitrations they are very small. Is there any reason to suppose that these would be diminished if the inquiry was held locally before a Court of Commissioners ? Suppose the Hull and Barnsley Railway and Dock Bill, which passed through Parliament in the last Session, had been transferred to such a tribunal and heard locallyalthough where“ locally" is, in the case of a railway about sixty miles long with a dock at one end, it would be difficult to say; but suppose it had been heard at Hull or Barnsley, is it possible to believe that the expenses in relation to counsel and agents would have been less than they in fact were ? They must, it is evident, have been immensely increased. But we are not left to surmises for an estimate of the expenses of such a case. We know that under the cheap Provisional Order system there was an inquiry held this spring as to the expediency of sanctioning a scheme for the disposal of the sewage of the Lower Thames Valley. The inquiry was held by one of the Inspectors of the Local Government Board, at Richmond. It lasted for forty-five days, and is stated to have cost £45,000.* But passing to Mr. Dodson's last argument, we find that he thinks his plan would relieve Parliament of an immense amount of work which its members are not well qualified to perform, and would enable them to devote more time to the public business which, year by year, makes more demands upon them. One of these demands is doubtless the attendance upon Select Committees which, according to Col. Wilson Patten (now Lord Winmarleigh), have unduly increased in dimensions. While formerly these were constituted by fifteen members they now frequently consist of twenty or twenty-one. But apart from such duties it seems certain that the time of Parliament is more fully occupied, although possibly not more profitably employed than in former years. Now we have Mr. Dodson's scheme and arguments before us. The scheme is that there is to be a tribunal composed of lawyers of ability and experience, who are to investigate into the expediency of passing Private Bills into Law. Their inquiry is to be held locally, and there is, with the consent of Parliament, to be an appeal to a point Committee of both Houses. The reasons for the change, put shortly, are, that the time of Parliament is much occupied, that members are not qualified to undertake the investigation into the truth of the preambles of Private Bills, which involve quasi-judicial inquiries. That the proceedings are long, the costs enormous, and the results unsatisfactory.
This subject was of course discussed at the time when the proposals were first made, and many very able criticisms were made upon the scheme. Those who are most familiar with the practice of Parliament as to Private Bills are of
* The experience of all is that it is no cheaper to go for a Provisional Order than for a Bill in a matter of any importance. It is in such a case likely to necessitate three inquiries instead of two. In unimportant matters no doubt it is cheaper, but that is only because the charges made by the House are smaller.