The King’s Inns Commission, 1871-2

Ruth Cannon BL barrister 3 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin
3 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, today. In 1871 it was the scene of the culmination of a dispute of many years standing between the two branches of the Irish legal profession. Image via the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

From the Dublin Evening Mail, 6 July 1871:


The second sitting of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the dispute pending between the Society of Solicitors and Attorneys of Ireland (incorporated by Royal Charter) and the Benchers took place yesterday, before the Right Hon Viscount Monck and Wm Richard Lefanu, Esq, two of the Commissioners, at their offices, No 3 Lower Ormond-quay.

Mr. Michael Joseph Barry, Bencher, acted as Secretary to the Commission.

Messrs. Palles QC, Sheckleton and Mr. Gerald Fitzgibbon (instructed by Mr. John H Goddard) appeared for the Law Society. Mr. Porter (instructed by Messrs. Crozier and Son) for the Benchers.

Mr. Porter said the Benchers had been, up to the year 1866, the governing body, not alone of the branch of the profession to which he (Mr. Porter) had the honour to belong, but they were from time immemorial the governing body of the whole legal profession. In the year 1866, the attorneys obtained an Act of Parliament, having previously formed an incorporated society, and they separated themselves from the control of the Benchers.

Previous to this period, both branches of the profession were completely identified, so far as government was concerned. The Benchers were in the possession of a portion of land on Inns Quay, which was taken from them by the Government, and on which the Four Courts were now situated; and in 1798 they obtained Parliamentary powers for the purchase of the land on Constitution-hill on which the present property of King’s Inns was erected. That land was purchased under Parliamentary powers, subject to the yearly rent of £1200, the Benchers having previously conceived the idea of establishing buildings on a scale worthy of the dignity of the profession in this country.

Accordingly, in 1792 a series of rules was adopted by the benchers which were ratified in 1794, in reference to the question of the fund called the ‘Deposits of Chambers,’ payments for which were to be made by barristers and attorneys. From that time, the rule was enforced, so far as the Bar was concerned, down to the present time, and so far as the attorneys were concerned until 1866; but it was important to observe, that at the time the rule was made the Benchers had no land – no grounds upon which to build chambers, nor any building suitable for chambers.  The real meaning of that rule, and the real intention with which it was imposed, was to establish a fund out of which the Benchers might provide buildings and land for the use of society.

It was not until the 1st of August 1800 that the King’s Inns Buildings were commenced. The revenue from deposits for chambers had gone on increasing until the Benchers were able to accomplish what was their first and primary object – obtaining suitable buildings for both branches of the profession.

In the process of time a surplus over and above the sum expanded came into the hands of the Benchers, and they were applied to, in 1826, by the attorneys to have chambers or proper accommodation, provided for the profession. The Benchers, having a substantial balance in hand, contemplated the erection of six sets of chambers for barristers, and six sets of chambers for attorneys, in Henrietta-street, but the site was not considered a convenient one, and the attorneys thought it would be better to have chambers at the Four Courts, and they petitioned the Benchers to erect a hall and arbitration chambers for their accommodation at the Four Courts.   In 1834, the Benchers placed a sum of £30,000 at the disposal of the treasurer, for the purpose of providing the solicitors with the accommodation that they not unreasonably asked, and out of that sum the ground, which did not belong to the Benchers, in the rere of the Four Courts, was purchased, and the present excellent building known as the Solicitors’ Hall was erected. 

The Benchers were prepared to account for every penny of money that they had received, and which had been expended for the benefit of both branches of the profession. There was only one item in reference to which an exclusive benefit had been given to the members of the Bar and that was in the construction of the Law Library in the Four Courts. Except such a portion of that sum as had been applied to the Law Library, no portion of the funds of the Benchers had been applied to the exclusive use or benefit of the Bar.

Ruth Cannon BL barrister early King's Inns c 1800
The King’s Inns, in the early 19th century, image via the British Museum. At the time, the building was used by both barristers and attorneys. Although the caption refers to ‘Queen’s Inns Chambers’ behind, in fact contemplated chambers for attorneys were never built. Instead, a Solicitors’ Hall in the Four Courts (now the Law Library) was substituted.

The large and handsome building erected by the Benchers at King’s Inns was requisite for the joint use of both attorney and barrister. In England, the attorneys were not members of the Inns of Court, but here they enjoyed every benefit precisely the same as the Bar – they dined in the same hall and had the use of the library on more advantageous terms than the barristers. The use of the table at the King’s Inns was still open for the attorneys. The Benchers were supposed to have very large sums of money under their control, but, in fact, it required the most rigid and cheese-paring economy on their part to enable them to pay the current expenses of the establishment.

Mr. Palles QC said that in 1866 an Act was passed by the legislature dissolving the connection between the attorneys and the Society of King’s Inns. the dissolution was the act of the Legislature, from motives of prudence. To carry out the analogy of the relation of partners it occurred to him that what they were engaged in was a commission with a view ultimately to see what part of the property now claimed by the King’s Inns ought, in equity and justice, be appropriated to the Incorporated Society which represents the body of solicitors and attorneys.”

The report of the Commission, delivered the following March, agreed that until 1866 a ‘deposit for chambers’ had been paid to the Benchers by the persons admitted to the profession of attorney and that from 1792 to 1866 that deposits amounted to £55,293 with similar charge upon barristers amounting to £52,290.

The report further stated that, in the year 1826, after the Benchers had erected the Inns at a cost of £81,000, the attorneys endeavoured to induce the Benchers to erect chambers for their use, and the Benchers agreed to build two blocks of six chambers each, one for attorneys and one for barristers. The attorneys then suggested that instead they would prefer ‘at the back of the Four Courts a solicitors’ hall and arbitration chambers,’ the Benchers adopted the suggestion, and the rooms of the incorporated society, the coffee room and the Benchers’ Room were completed in 1841 at a cost of £28,436 and about the same time the Benchers built the (first) Law Library at the Four Courts at a cost of £14,706.

Ruth Cannon BL Barrister Wide Streets Commissioners Map of Extension to Rear of Four Courts, c1840
A Wide Street Commissioners’ map showing the extension erected in the early 19th century at the rear of Gandon’s original Four Courts, with the Solicitors’ Hall (today’s current Law Library) comprising the centre block.

The Commissioners went on to say that, in 1866 the government of the attorneys was transferred from the Benchers to the Incorporated Society, whereupon that body laid claim to the ‘deposits for chambers’ made by attorneys; arguing that these fees were in the nature of a trust fund, that they should have been expended upon the object for which they were subscribed, and that now the Incorporated Society represented the interests of the subscribers.

The Commisioners decided against the attorneys’ claim on the basis that, if it were valid, the Benchers would have been under an obligation to provide chambers for every attorney and solicitor in Ireland out of a fund manifestly inadequate for that purpose, and that, furthermore, any right to make a claim was personal to the individual who originally made the payments, most of whom were now dead. In addition, the Commissioners found that the attorneys had tacitly acquiesced in the proceedings of the Benchers and agreed to a Solicitors’ Hall in lieu of chambers. Accordingly, the Commissioners concluded that the Benchers had performed ‘what was incumbent upon them toward the attorney branch of the profession.’

The above conclusion was weakened somewhat by the Commissioners adding that the buildings occupied by the Incorporated Society were insufficient for it and that the Benchers should permit the Society to become tenant of certain unoccupied premises at the rear – an addendum described by the Weekly Freeman’s Journal of 2 March 1872 as ‘a shuffling admission that the Benchers are debtors to the attorneys.’

The Freeman article critical of the Commission report, perhaps penned by a solicitor, ended with the following:

“The bar has the exclusive right to the Law Library in the Four Courts, everybody has a right to the coffee room, the Benchers occupy a couple of the apartments, and the attorneys have got one hall.  We hardly think this is a sufficient set off against the enormous sum of money contributed since 1792 and the Commissioner would have been justified in striking the balance by direct communication rather than an uncertain rejection.”

Readers of gothic fiction might be interested to know that Commissioner Le Fanu referenced above was the brother of novelist and short-story writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, himself a qualified barrister (though he never practiced) and married to a barrister’s daughter.  Just one of many famous persons associated with the Irish Bar!

Today, the Solicitors’ Hall in the Four Courts is now occupied by barristers as their Law Library, and only barristers have admission to the coffee-room and dining at the King’s Inns, but the very fine buildings occupied by the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland at Blackhall Place, Dublin are hopefully sufficient to mollify the ghosts of those attorneys who contributed for so many years to the King’s Inns chambers funds…

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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