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for needful charges. What! are the rents not paid, then, to the widow, or the orphan, or the sick man, or him who has no roof to shelter him? The rents of the fourteenth century—the defined sums—are paid ; but the surplus of the rents of the nineteenth century, increased twenty-fold, go into the pockets of the said corporate bodies : and thus they necessarily peril their worldly health by feasting as never Heliogabalus feasted. Is this law ? Assuredly it is, good Sir,who dares to doubt it? Is this justice ?--that's quite another thing.
You see Westminster Abbey in the distance—and that Hall of Rufus, where the monarch, once in his life, drinks to the weal of his people, and the lawyers eternally labour to promote it. Great are the mysteries transacted beneath that roof; and violent are the transformations of the palpable into the obscure, of truth into fiction, of fiction into truth. It is a large building, my friend ; and its material passages are not very intricate: but the recesses, amongst which Justice sits, are labyrinthine enough—hard is it to find the entrance, and still harder to find the egress of her throne. If you want to discover the secret, spend a year in a special pleader's office; or, if this be inconvenient, go to law.
St. Stephen's Chapel—I doubt whether you can see that. It is crammed in between Westminster Hall and the House of Lords ; and its character partakes somewhat of its neighbourhood. Between the privileges of the Aristocracy and the precedents of the Judicature, it would be out of reason that St. Stephen's should make much figure in the panorama of London-so give over looking for it.
But how the town is growing! Will this eternal rearing up of brick never cease? Why a city of palaces is springing to the clouds within bow-shot of the King's confectionery work at Buckingham House. The tide of fashion is still setting westward. Will it stop at Brentford ? In a few years Portman-square will be vulgar. Well! these freaks of fashion are good things ; they keep the hand in the pocket of the rich, and thus lessen the inequalities of condition. But for fashion, a man with fifty thousand acres would be a state delinquent; and would require to be cut up, like a large whale, for his blubber. The folly of imitation is the hook which the million put into the nose of those Leviathans.
Reader, go to the Colosseum, where you may look upon London without the annoyance of fog or wind, of heat or cold. Mr. Horner's snug gallery is unvisited with rain or snow; and is, altogether, a nice place to moralize in. Take these few condiments, for intellectual digestion, that we have offered you; and be grateful both for what we give and what we hold back.
IMPRISONMENT FOR DEBT.*
This is a subject which requires deep consideration, and extensive knowledge of facts. The interests involved are most extensive ; the difficulties are great on both sides. We are, however, strongly inclined to go along with Mr. Dance in his doctrines of condemnation of the existing practice. It undoubtedly gives rise to severe abuses; but in any alteration great care must be taken to guard against the evils on the other side.
Mr. Dance's experience in his present situation entitles him to every attention from his knowledge of facts, aud, as far as he goes, he applies them with great clearness and force. But we regret exceedingly that he should have confined himself to such very narrow limits : it prevents his doing justice to his subject, which he shows himself to be so capable of handling. That subject needs thorough exposition, and the greater and more numerous are the “ many existing prejudices to be overcome,” the more should he have proved them to be such, exposed the falsity of the principles on which they stand, and given in detail the system which he proposes to substitute for that which exists. He seems to recede from the discussion of the general question of Imprisonment with which he opens, and proposes an arrangement with regard to insolvent debtors, as a preliminary measure to a general alteration. Now, we think that with the knowledge Mr. Dance possesses on the subject, with the liberal views he entertains, and with the power of enforcing them which even this slight pamphlet displays, a more extensive and detailed discussion of the whole question would be most desirable from his
“ I think that the situation in which I have been placed for several years gives the public a right to my testimony, such as it is.” Right” is a strong word ;-but now that he, an officer of the Insolvent Court, who has been for years in the daily discharge of the most extensive duties among debtors, has given us his testimony to a certain extent, we may be forgiven for,-not claiming the right, but-expressing a strong desire, that he would give more.
We will now lay before our readers a précis of the pamphlet as it stands. In the first place, it certainly springs from an amiable feeling. Mr. Dance has evidently been struck, in the execution of his duty, with the misery brought upon “ the honest and unfortunate” by the existing state of the laws; and his object is to produce a system which may relieve them, while it still would afford a sufficient protection to the creditor:
An arrest for debt is the only instance in which one subject holds the liberty of another in his own power without the previous control of any tribunal whatever; the sole condition is, that he shall make oath of a debt heing due to him, amounting to at least twenty pounds. It is needless to inquire how this power originated, or has been maintained; my present question is,
Remarks on the Practical Effect of Imprisonment for Debt, and on the Law of Insolvency. By Henry Dance, Provisional Assignee of Insolvent Debtors in England," Pages ļ6.
ought it to continue ? It must be granted me, that the object of this extraordinary power can be no other than to enable creditors to recover their just debts with more certainty and expedition, and at a less expense, than they otherwise could. I think I may safely say, that I have had, during the last nine years, the best possible opportunity for impartial observation on this subject; and it has impressed me with a most sincere conviction, that none of these requisites are attained; but that, on the contrary, the results are uncertainty, delay, and increased expense.
Let us trace the usual progress of a single case, and consider the effects produced. We will suppose a tradesman possessing a small capital, invested in his business, and having debts due to and from him—we will also suppose that the regular profits of his trade, if realised, are just sufficient to enable him to maintain himself and his family, of course allowing a moderate annual average for losses, by bad debts. So long as this average is not exceeded, all is well; but the moment it increases, the derangement of his affairs commences, and he becomes unable to make his payments with his former regularity ; in this situation it generally happens that some one of his creditors takes, or threatens to take, legal proceedings against him. To save his credit, and avoid a prison, he is obliged to make a sacrifice, in some way or other, so as to procure ready money, and discharge the demand; but, whatever means he adopts, the diminution of his resources must be greater than the aid he obtains. The consequences cannot be obviated, and they follow, sooner or later, as he becomes less of ability to satisfy succeeding claims. Arrests multiply—he procures bail, and so gains time, though at a frightful expense; but after paying several of his most severe creditors twenty shillings in the pound, with the addition of their costs and his own, he can pay no longer. The next arrest takes him to prison ; there he becomes not only an unproductive member of the community, but an actual incumbrance, and so he must remain, or apply for his release under the Act for relief of Insolvent Debtors. After what has happened, it is almost certain that his estate cannot pay more than a very trifling dividend (if any at all) on his remaining debts, and he is left in total beggary to begin the world again.
The case I have here drawn, represents a much larger class than is generally imagined; and, in reviewing it, we must observe, that those creditors who forbear to sue lose their whole debts, while of the severe creditors, some obtain twenty shillings in the pound, and others lose not only their debts, but the costs they have incurred for the chance of recovering them. Thus it is evident that a most unequal distribution of the debtor's property takes place, though at a very considerable expense. The loss of the many is caused by the severe conduct of the few.
Mr. Dance then proceeds to set forth the disadvantages of this system. He says that it causes great expense, and great inequality of distribution. He wishes that the law should “ afford an honest man, who finds himself insolvent, the power to cause an equal distribution of his property among his creditors at moderate expense;" and he represents the present course as a devil-take-the-hindmost race, in which the severest creditor gets payment in full at the expense of the others, by diminishing the property to the whole amount of his debt, while the rest will ultimately receive only dividends, by charging it with law expenses, and by all manner of irregular proceedings, into which the debtor, as we have seen, is forced. The present system may be good for one creditor, but it is highly hurtful to all the rest, as well as to the debtor.
Mr. Dance next alludes to all the horrors and corruptions of prison. We have not space to go into his remarks; but our readers' minds
can easily supply this painful part of the subject. His distinction, also, between regular and irregular credit seems to us most sound-and his illustrations of it are very interesting.
There are two descriptions of credit, which I may distinguish by the appellations of the regular and the irregular.
Regular credit I consider to be that which is given in the proper course of business, to established and well-known customers. This sort of credit is quite legitimate, is generally advantageous to both buyer and seller, and would not, I firmly believe, be at all deranged, or altered, if the law of imprisonment for debt were totally abolished this moment.
Irregular credit I define to be that which is given to customers of whom so little is known that they ought not to be trusted without more diligent inquiry; or, so much is known, that they ought not to be trusted at all. The latter class consists generally of young men, notoriously without resources of their own, but having relations or connexions on whom it is intended to rely for payment, without giving them any previous intimation. No legal responsibility being here incurred, such payment can only be obtained by making the imprisonment of a relative the means of practising on their feelings; which, I venture to assert, are, in ninety-nine casés out of a hundred, much more hurt than those of the real debtors, for whose release they are excited; and I think that the law under which such a system as this can be carried on, might very properly be entitled a law to compel the payment of debts by persons who do not owe them.
Though this mode of proceeding often succeeds, it also often fails. The irregular credit, therefore, has the peculiar property of being disadvantageous to both buyer and seller; the latter incurs undue risk, and the former is encouraged to improper expenditure.
But even this is not the extent of the evil; for the well-known phrase of “making the good pay for the bad," is significant of the fact, that those who buy and intend to pay are charged considerably more than they need be, as an indemnity against those who buy without the slightest thought, or care, whether they shall ever be able to pay or not. The destruction of this irregular credit seems to me of itself almost a sufficient motive for the repeal of the law.
It is to be borne in mind that these are not fancy sketches, knocked carelessly off by a soi-disant observer of manners: they are statements made by a gentleman whose official duties have rendered it a matter of necessity that he should be thoroughly conversant with all the details of the whole subject. There is an absence, also, of all exaggeration of tone, which proves that his ideas are not in the least warped or coloured by that which may be termed the spirit of advocacy. On the contrary, Mr. Dance seems to have had his opinions created by the constant observation of doings which seemed to him—and we confess we quite go along with him-productive of extreme hardship and injustice. He then faces the difficulties which surround his subject :
I am far from denying that serious difficulties oppose themselves to a simple repeal; while I contend that the majority of debtors are honest, I acknowledge that there are many quite fraudulent enough to require some strong regulations; and while I concede that the majority of creditors are lenient, I insist that the severe conduct of a very small number is sufficient to produce the evil to the body at large, of which I have before complained.
Fraud ought undoubtedly to be punished in many cases, perhaps, more severely than it is now; but my objection is, that at present we commence by imprisoning a debtor, and make the proof of his honesty the condition of
his discharge, instead of making the proof of his fraud the condition of his imprisonment. It is not until after this has been done, that he should receive the sentence of the Court, which should then be really carried into effect, and not remain subject to the caprice or the collusion of a creditor, who may enforce or abandon it without control*.
If my views were to be favourably received, and it were determined to abolish imprisonment for debt, it would of course be necessary, not only to permit debtors to place themselves, but also to enable creditors, in fit cases, to bring them under the power of the Court, so that a due distribution of their property, and a complete examination of their conduct, might be had. This would also require various other alterations from the present mode of establishing claims by law, so that economy might be judiciously combined with due expedition in the process.
Mr. Dance then suggests a moderated form of this plan; namely, to permit a debtor, not in custody, to declare himself insolvent, and give up his property for distribution among his creditors, and that he should consequently be protected from arrest and imprisonment for debt, until his case can be brought on for hearing ; the same privilege to extend to those who have been already arrested, their bail being exonerated on the surrender of their property. Strong provisions against fraud are also recommended. Mr. Dance says that this will
а law for the honest and unfortunate and that those who believe as he does that there are many such, must certainly support it, for the good it will afford; while those who believe they are few, need not oppose it, as it could furnish no assistance to the dishonest. We think it speaks highly for the class of middling tradesmen in this country, that one who has so constantly witnessed their misfortunes as the Provisional Assignee should declare these misfortunes to be so little connected with guilt.
Mr. Dance proposes that this measure should be passed into a law for a limited period—a year or two-when, “if it should prove prejudicial in practice, it can be discontinued without disturbing any part of the system ; while, if found successful, it will be a material step towards the complete alteration." He then bears testimony to “ the intrinsic excellence and honesty” of the principle of the Insolvent Laws,—and states his opinion that a measure such as he suggests would bring it more thoroughly into action.
On the whole, the only fault we have to find with this pamphlet is, that there is not enough of it. It has effected, however, the remarkable end of shewing that those most conversant with the laws relating to debt' are adverse to the principle of general imprisonment; and we hope we may be allowed to consider it as the introduction to a more extended statement-giving facts, and drawing inferences from them, so that every one will be able to form his own judgment upon this most important subject. Mr. Dance is eminently qualified for such a task; and we trust he may find occasion to execute it ere long.
* By the existing Act, debtors are, for certain offences, to remain in custody during a time specified by the Court, at the suit of a creditor or creditors, also specified; but if such creditors neglect to detain them, or choose to give them their discharge, the Court cannot interfere.