Belfast Harbour Commissioners v Commissioner of Valuation

CourtKing's Bench Division (Ireland)
Judgment Date07 February 1897
Date07 February 1897
Belfast Harbour Commissioners
Commissioner of Valuation (1).

Q. B. Div.













Rating — Exemption — Property “dedicated to or used for public purposes” — Belfast Harbour Commissioners — Poor Law (Ireland) Act, 13 (1 & 2 Vict. c.5), s. 63 — Valuation Acts, 1852 and 1854 (15 & 16 Vict. c. 63, ss.15, 16; 17 Vict. c. 8, s. 2) — Statute, interpretation of.

The Commissioner of Valuation having included the property of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in the revised lists of rateable hereditaments for the year 1896, the Harbour Commissioners appealed to the Recorder of Belfast, who allowed the appeal, but at the request of the Commissioner of Valuation stated a Case for the opinion of the Court. Under certain local Acts the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, incorporated for the maintenance and improvement of the harbour, have vested in them the harbour and docks formerly held By a Corporation, with power to borrow money, to acquire land, and to levy tolls and duties. They have raised considerable sums on bonds, have improved and extended the harbour and docks, and maintain and light the same. Their revenue, derived from the harbour and dock rates, quayage storage and other dues, from the use of certain ferries owned by them, from rents of property and from interest on investments, is sufficient, after discharging the expenses of maintaining and improving the property held by them, and paying the interest on their bonded debt, to leave an annual surplus of considerable amount. Under a statute of 1882 their powers were further enlarged; a sinking fund was established for the repayment of borrowed moneys; and it was provided that the surplus revenue (if any) should be expended as the Commissioners might think fit in improving, or otherwise for the benefit of, the port and harbour.

Held (per O'Brien and Gibson, JJ., diss. Madden, J.), that the Court was bound by the judgment of the Exchequer Chamber in The Londonderry Bridge Case (I. R. 2 C. L. 577), to refuse to apply to the Irish Valuation Acts the rule of construction afforded by the decision on the 43 Eliz. c. 4, of the House of Lords in The Mersey Docks Trustees v. Cameron (11 H. L. Cas. 443); that the property of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners must be held to be “dedicated to or used for public purposes,” and within the exemption of the Valuation Acts, as interpreted by The Londonderry Bridge Case; and that the recorder was therefore correct in allowing the Harbour Commissioners' appeal.

Per Madden, J. (diss.), that, as the property of the Commissioners was not devoted to supplying ultimately a harbour to be used toll free by the public,

The Londonderry Bridge Case did not apply; that sect. 63 of the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 could not be construed by reference to erroneous English decisions then current but since overruled; and that the property of the Commissioners was not within the exemption from rating of section 63, whether construed upon its own terms in their ordinary acceptation or interpreted in the light of The Mersey Docks Trustees v. Cameron.

Case Stated, for the opinion of the Court, under the provisions of 23 Vict. c. 4, by His Honor the Recorder of Belfast (H. Fitz Gibbon, Esq., Q.C.), on the hearing before him, at the Trinity Quarter Sessions of the Peace, 1896, of an appeal, pursuant to sect. 22 of the Valuation Act, 1852, against the decision of the Commissioner of Valuation, who had included in the Valuation Lists for that year, and had refused to distinguish as exempt, the property of the appellants, the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast.

The accounts of the Harbour Commissioners for the year 1895, which were referred to and incorporated in the Case, and were to be taken as indicating as well the mode of user of the premises for which exemption was claimed as the source of the income of the Harbour Commissioners and the manner in which it was expended, showed a gross revenue for that year of £139,190 12s. 11d., and a net surplus revenue of £10,848 2s. 1d. The receipts for the year included rates on goods, tonnage and quayage dues, charges for porterage storage and cranage, income derived from harbour tramways weigh-bridges and steam ferries, rents of property, and interest on money. The expenditure included harbour maintenance, wages and working expenses, lighting and sweeping quays and streets, harbour lighting and harbour police, rates and taxes and income tax, superannuation allowances, interest on loans on bond and consolidated stock, and on loans from the Board of Public Works, and the amount transferred to the sinking fund under the Belfast Harbour Acts of 1882 and 1893. The accounts showed that during the year very considerable sums had been expended in the acquisition of new property, and in the extension and reconstruction of docks and quays.

The Case referred to the Act incorporating the Harbour Commissioners (The Belfast Harbour Act, 1847, 10 & 11 Vict. c. lii.), and the later Acts dealing with and extending the powers of that body, namely, The Belfast Port and Harbour Conservancy Act, 1852 (15 & 16 Vict. c. cxxxi.), The Belfast Dock Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict. c. xlv.), The Belfast Harbour Act, 1870 (33 & 34 Vict. c. xcvii.), The Belfast Harbour Commissioners Act, 1871 (34 & 35 Vict. c. xli.), The Belfast Harbour Act, 1882 (45 & 46 Vict. c. clxxi.), The Belfast Harbour Act, 1882 (46 & 47 Vict. c. lix.), and the Belfast Harbour Act, 1893 (56 Vict. c. lxiv.) (1).

The Case then stated that previously to 1895 the property of the Harbour Commissioners had been distinguished in the Valuation Lists as being of a public nature, and accordingly exempt from all assessment for the relief of the poor and for Grand Jury and county rates; that in October of that year the Clerk of the Belfast Poor Law Union had included this property, so far as same was within that Union, in the list transmitted by him to the Commissioner of Valuation of property the valuation of which required to be revised; that thereupon the Commissioner had transferred same to the revised general lists of rateable hereditaments and tenements, and fixed the annual rateable value thereof at £34,000, overruling the objection of the Harbour Commissioners, that the property should be allowed to remain upon the list of property exempt from rating; that the Harbour Commissioners had appealed to Quarter Sessions; that the learned Recorder, having heard counsel for the appellants, for the respondent, and for the guardians of the Belfast Union, allowed the appeal and ordered the lists to be amended accordingly; that in taking this course he followed the decision of Mr. Otway (Recorder of Belfast), who on two occasions (2) had held that the Harbour of Belfast was exempt from rating as being used for public purposes, and of Sir Frederick Shaw, Recorder of Dublin, who had held that the property of the Dublin Port and Docks Board was exempt on the same ground, thus placing the Commissioner of Valuation in the position in which he was after Mr. Otway's decisions in 1869 and 1870, when he might have taken the case for the opinion of the Superior Court, but did not. On the requisition of the Commissioner of Valuation the Recorder now

stated this Case for the opinion of the Court on the question, “Are the hereditaments the property of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, which are specified in the schedule to the notice of appeal set out in the schedule hereto, hereditaments of a public nature within the meaning of 17 Vict. c. 8, sect. 2?”

J. Vesey Fitzgerald (The Attorney-General, the Right Hon. J. Atkinson, Q.C., with him), for the Commissioner of Valuation. They contended that there was here a beneficial occupation within the English authorities, from The Mersey Docks Case (1) onward. That case, and the later decisions of the House of Lords, the most recent of which was The London County Council v. Overseers of Erith (2), could not be disregarded; the exemption sections of The Poor Law Act of 1838, and the Valuation Acts of 1852 and 1854, could not be interpreted by erroneous decisions then current in England. It must be taken that the law in England then was what it now is, and the strong current of English decision since the date when the judgment in the Londonderry BridgeCase (3) was pronounced, justified the Court in considering the matter anew. But, even assuming that the Londonderry BridgeCase (3) was binding on the Court, and must be followed where similar circumstances were found to exist, still the facts of the present case distinguished it therefrom. The bridge was a highway open to all and designed ultimately to be toll free. The harbour of Belfast could be and was utilised only by a section of the community, and the “sinking fund” was only applicable to the bond debts of the Commissioners, not to the reduction of any of the tolls or charges set out in the accounts incorporated in the case. The immense income of the Commissioners was expended not merely in the improvement of the port, but in the erection of new works, the purchase of additional lands, and the reclamation of waste ground. A large revenue was derived from ferries, &c., which could in no sense be called a public service, and a very considerable net income remained year after year in the disposition of which the Commissioners had the widest powers. There was a beneficial occupation

in respect of such property which brought the case within the principle on which the Londonderry BridgeCase (1) was distinguished in The Mayor of Limerick v. The Commissioner of Valuation (2).

A. H. Bates, and John Gordon, Q.C. (J. H. Campbell. Q.C., with them), for the Harbour Commissioners, argued that the property of the Commissioners should be distinguished on the Valuation Lists as exempt from poor...

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