The subject was originally dealt with in the sole interest of History. creditors; it was considered fraudulent for a debtor to procure his own bankruptcy. Thus the earliest English statute on the subject, 34 & 35 Henry VIII. c. 4 (A.D. 1542), was directed against fraudulent debtors, and gave power to the lord chancellor and other high officers to seize their estates and divide them among the creditors, but afforded no relief to the debtor from his liabilities. Subsequent legislation modified this attitude and introduced the principle of granting relief to the bankrupt with or without the consent of the creditors, where he conformed to the provisions of the bankruptcy law, and under the act of 1825 the debtor was allowed himself to initiate proceedings. Since 1542 about forty acts of parliament have been passed, dealing with the many aspects of the subject, and slowly expanding, modifying and building up the highly complex system of administration which now exists.
The courts exercising jurisdiction originally, consisted of Court of 1831. commissioners appointed by the lord chancellor. But in 1831 a special court of bankruptcy was established, consisting of six commissioners with four judges as a court of review, and official assignees attached to the court for the purpose of getting in the distributing the bankrupt's assets. Non-traders were originally excluded from the bankruptcy court, and a special court called the "court for relief of insolvent debtors" was instituted for their benefit, in which relief from the liability to imprisonment could be obtained on surrender of their property, but they were not discharged from their debts, subsequently-acquired property remaining liable. Both of these courts were subsequently abolished, non-traders were permitted to obtain the benefit of the bankruptcy laws, including a discharge, and in 1869 the system of official assignees was swept away, and a new court of bankruptcy created with one of the vice-chancellors at its head as chief judge, and a number of subordinate registrars or inferior judges under him.
This court has also now been abolished, and the business is administered by a judge of the high court specially appointed for the purpose by the lord chancellor, with registrars of the high court, who deal with the ordinary judicial routine of bankruptcy procedure in the London district, while similar duties are performed by the county-court judges throughout the country.
But the questions which have proved the most difficult to Rights of creditors. deal with, and which more than any others have been the cause of fluctuating and inconsistent legislation, have undoubtedly been those relating to the share which the creditors ought to have in the administration of the proceedings, and to special arrangements effected between a debtor and his creditors under conditions more or less beyond the control of the court. These two questions are largely intermixed, and the history of English legislation on these points and its results throw much light on the causes of the failure of the many attempts which have been made by the most eminent legal authorities to bring the law into a satisfactory condition. The right of creditors to exercise some control in bankruptcy over the realization of the debtor's property through an assignee chosen by themselves was recognized at an early date, but this right was exercised subject to the supervision of the court which investigated the claims of creditors and determined who were entitled to take part in the proceedings.
Provision was also made for the interim protection of the debtor's property by official assignees attached to the court, who took possession until the creditors could be consulted, and under the supervision of the court audited the accounts of the creditor's assignee. So long as this system continued substantial justice was generally secured; the claims of creditors were strictly investigated and only those who clearly proved their right before a competent court were entitled to take part in the proceedings. The bankrupt was released from his obligations, but only after strict inquiries into his conduct and under the exercise of judicial discretion. The accounts of assignees were also strictly investigated, and the costs of solicitors and other agents were taxed by officers of the court. But the system was found to be cumbrous, to lead to delay and too often to the absorption of a large part of the estate in costs, over the incurring of which there was a very ineffective control. Hence arose a demand for larger powers on the part of creditors, and the introduction into the bankruptcy procedure of the system of "arrangements" between the debtor and his creditors, either for the payment of a composition, or for the liquidation of the estate free from the control of the court.
Acts of 1825, 1831, 1842, 1849. At first these arrangements were carefully guarded. Under the act of 1825 a proposal for payment of a composition might be adopted only after the debtor had passed his examination in court, and with the consent of nine-tenths in number and value of his creditors assembled at a meeting. Upon such adoption the bankruptcy proceedings were superseded. Dissenting creditors, however, were not bound by the resolution, but could still take action against the debtor's subsequently-acquired property. These powers were not found to be sufficiently elastic and the act failed to give public satisfaction. Attempts were made by the acts of 1831 and 1842 to remedy the defects complained of by a reconstitution of the bankruptcy court and its official system. But these measures also failed because they were based on the assumption that judicial bodies could exercise effective control over administrative action, a control for which they are naturally unsuited, and which they could only carry out by cumbrous and expensive methods of procedure.
Under the act of 1849 a totally new principle was introduced by the provision that a deed of arrangement executed by six-sevenths in number and value of the creditors for £10 and upwards should be binding upon all the creditors without any proceedings in or supervision by the court. But the determination of the question who were or were not creditors was practically left to the debtor himself, without any opportunity for testing by independent investigation the claims of those who signed the deed to control the administration of the estate. It is not difficult to see, in the light of subsequent experience, how likely this provision was to encourage fraudulent arrangements, and to introduce laxity in the administration of debtors' estates. A modification of the too stringent conditions of the act of 1825, which would have enabled a bankrupt to pay a composition on his debts, with the consent of a large proportion of his bona-fide creditors, and subject to the approval of the court, after hearing the objections of dissenting creditors, would doubtless have proved a beneficial reform, but the act of 1849 proceeded on a very different principle. Instead of reforming, it practically abolished judicial control.