HC Deb 26 February 1850 vol 109 cc59-68

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to extend the jurisdiction of the county courts to 50l. It was not his intention to trespass at any length on the attention of the House. There seemed to be no special reason why 20l. should have been fixed upon as the limit in affording the cheap justice which was intended to be given in establishing the county courts as they now existed. It was desirable, however, that in the first instance the sums recoverable should not be very large, in order that sufficient experience of the working of these courts should be acquired before their jurisdiction should be extended to sums beyond 20l. But it was within the knowledge of every gentleman acquainted with the working of the system, that the result had been most satisfactory to all parties; and the verdict which the public, who must be the best judges, had decidedly given in favour of these courts, was shown by the fact that the number of suits tried in them within the last three years considerably exceeded 1,000,000l., and the proportion they bore to the suits at Westminster-hall was in the proportion of four to one. The objections and opposition to his Bill would be almost exclusively raised by a very influential body from whom so many petitions on another subject had been presented in an earlier part of the evening, and, who might find their profits diminished, if his proposition were adopted. Although it was not to be desired that the profits of a learned profession should be unduly diminished, he thought no one could affirm that the interests of these gentlemen ought to stand in the way of further legislation—especially if those interests depended upon charges so multifarious and enormous as practically to prevent the great majority of the community from vindicating legal rights. He could not believe that in a great commercial community like this, that protection, which had been extended to the creditor to the amount of 20l., and which had been found to work so beneficially, would be attempted to be withheld from the creditor for 50l. He would quote one or two cases to show the ruinous expenses attending an action for even small sums in the superior courts:— There is now before the court at Colchester a person who has petitioned for protection as insolvent. He was plaintiff in an action at the last spring assizes at Chelmsford. Unfortunately, his case stood at the bottom of the list; his attorney and witnesses, twelve in number, were kept there a whole week. The consequence was, that though he succeeded in obtaining a verdict for 32l., and the plaintiff's costs, which were charged to the defendant, amounted to 120l., his own attorney's bill for the trial was 182l., thereby leaving the successful plaintiff loser of 30l. This, with 20l. more, the expenses of an inter-pleader, arising upon execution, reduced him to insolvency. How much better for him to have abandoned 12l., of what a jury decided was his just claim, and sued for the remainder in the county court! Mr. Amos, when upon this subject, gave the following instances:— The author wrote to a friend, whom he knew to have been recently a successful defendant in an action brought against him to recover 42l., desiring particulars of his costs. The question in dispute was, whether the plaintiff had or had not sold to the defendant a certain quantity of a chemical preparation? The gentleman replied, that his own taxed costs (which the plaintiff paid) were 80l., and his extra costs (which he, the successful defendant, paid) were 67l, The author's friend writes that he was afterwards told by the plaintiff (probably the parties to the suit were restored to amity by their common misfortune) that the lawsuit cost him 300l. Here was the case of another action for 42l.:— The defendant paid 25l. into court, which had been previously tendered; and thus the sum in dispute was reduced to 17l. The plaintiff called eleven witnesses, and the defendant four. Nearly all, if not quite ill, the witnesses would have been dispensed with had the parties to the suit been examinable; nor would either of these parties have hesitated for a moment to abide by the other's statement of the facts within his knowledge. The jury, after a noisy altercation for two hours, found that 40l. was due to the plaintiff, and that 25l. had been tendered. The costs were taxed the day before this page is written. The plaintiff proved on oath costs to the amount of 158l. 1s. 9d. After a hard struggle in the Master's office, these costs were taxed at 103l. 1s. 7d.; thus leaving the plaintiff to pay 55l. 0s. 2d. on the issue found for him. He might be asked, "Why stop at 50l.—why not make the operation of the Bill unlimited?" He should himself be prepared to try all actions of this description in the county court; but it must be patent to every one that if there were to be a limit it must be arbitrary, and he had fixed it at 50l., simply because he believed that by so doing he should obtain the support of some who did not think that an unlimited jurisdiction would be desirable. He asked, would any respectable solicitor advise his client to go into a superior court to recover 50l.? So strong was the feeling of the public in favour of these courts, that the number of cases was almost beyond belief in which the sums claimed had been reduced from 30l., 40l., and even 50l. to 20l., in order to bring them under the county court jurisdiction. Some observations appeared on Monday in the leading journal of the day in reference to the alteration of the law in India, which were so pertinent and so applicable to the present case, that he could not help quoting them. The Times upon this subject said— There is not a single county court throughout the kingdom in which justice is administered in civil matters without the technical rules of special pleading, in which judgment is not also daily pronounced against that system. If these rules be unnecessary in actions for value under 20l., why are they necessary in actions where 50l. is at stake? It is a very great affliction to a country where the cost of obtaining justice is so great, or the chance of obtaining it so precarious, in consequence of the prevalence of a technical system, that the subject is debarred from maintaining his rights, and seeking redress from his wrongs. But in England no prudent man, if he can avoid it, will meddle with legal proceedings; he will submit to any extortion within his powers of bearing, rather than be dragged into Westminster Hall. In reference to this subject last Session, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General said— The measure establishing the county courts had given great satisfaction to the public at large; but he deemed that it would not be safe, with the experience they had yet had, to extend the jurisdiction of the courts to 50l., without giving an appeal from the decisions of the judges. If the jurisdiction were so far extended without an appeal, he believed these courts, instead of giving great satisfaction, would create a perfectly opposite feeling."—Hansard, cvil. 406. He (Mr. Fitzroy) might mention to the hon. and learned Gentleman, that in the Bill which he now asked leave to introduce, there was a clause giving the power of appeal. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department stated upon the same occasion— Although he admitted that the courts had fully answered public expectation, he still doubted whether they would work as satisfactorily to that class of suitors who had hitherto resorted to them, in order to obtain a speedy remedy, after their jurisdiction should have been enlarged."—Hansard, cvii. 407. He thought the right hon. Baronet could scarcely be aware of the practical working of these courts if he thought that a "speedy remedy" was the principal bonus to the suitors who resorted to them. The principle of paying by instalments was an important clement in the county court practice, from which defendants were wholly debarred in the superior courts, and he knew that many honest debtors allowed themselves to be proceeded against in the local courts, in order that the opportunity of payment in that mode might be afforded them. He should not further trespass upon the time of the House, but ask for leave to introduce the Bill.


said, that as it scorned to be the desire of the House to accept the measure of the hon. Gentleman, he was not inclined to interpose any objection to the introduction of the Bill. But he felt it to be his duty, though he was aware that in so doing he exposed himself to some degree of unpopularity, to point out the objections which he entertained to the introduction of the principle contained in the Bill. He could understand one who was adverse to the jurisdiction of the superior courts in matters of this kind bringing forward a proposition for removing all restriction as to the amount of debts to be recovered in these courts; but the hon. Gentleman did not profess anything of the kind. The cases which had been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman applied to sums of 30l. and 40l.; but suppose that his Bill were passed, and why might not cases of similar hardship be mentioned in reference to sums of 512. and 52l.? The hon. Gentleman said that there was no reason why a limit of 20l should be taken in the jurisdiction of the county courts. There was, however, a strong and pointed reason; 20l. was the amount laid down by the courts of law and the Legislature as the limit below which parties could not he arrested. Another reason was, that it had long been laid down as a rule in the courts that when the sum recovered by a man in an action was below 20l., that they would not grant a now trial, although the judge who tried the case might be dissatisfied with the verdict, because the expenses would swallow up the whole of the proceeds. His hon. Friend had even agreed that the present county courts were an experiment. They had been between two and three years in practice, and they had given great satisfaction. But as regarded the effect on credit, or on the conduct of persons incautiously incurring debts, the experiment had not been sufficiently ascertained. Why not take upwards of 50l., why not take 100l., 500l., 1,000l., or 5,000l., and see what effect could be produced? If they gave no appeal in the higher courts, it was impossible that the courts could work satisfactorily, as public opinion could not be satisfied respecting them. There could be no bar present to express an opinion on the proceedings, and no press to publish reports of the cases, therefore there would be no efficient check to satisfy the public mind. Then, again, were the parties to be examined in their own causes? If this was to be allowed, it would be seen that they would appear under the most excited feelings, and would hardly abstain from giving a colouring to their respective cases. In cases of arbitration, the arbitrator was authorised to examine the parties interested, but this was never done unless under very extraordinary circumstances. He thought this would be a very dangerous experiment for large sums, although the system had acted effectively as regarded small sums. If they gave appeals above 20l., they would altogether destroy the object of these courts. They were established that the proceedings might be summary, simple, and attended with as little expense as possible. If they gave an appeal, the result in all such cases would be the reverse of this. His hon. Friend said there should only be appeals in cases above 20l.; but in that case you make the bulk of the suitors in the court dissatisfied, for there was no reason why a man sued for 19l. 19s. should not have an appeal as well as he was sued for a little more than 20l. Every reversal order in a case of appeal, would shako the confidence of the public in these courts. If his hon. Friend gave an appeal only where a man could pay the costs, they would give it only to a rich suitor. He might be told that he was professionally interested, but he could safely stand there and declare that he had no interest whatever in the matter. He repeated that it was a most dangerous experiment, but he would not oppose the introduction of the Bill, as it appeared to be the wish of the House to sec it, but he must protest against it.


thought the hon. and learned Attorney General had been very facetious, and had thumped the red box in an extraordinary manner; but he (Sir G. Pechell) had not been able to understand any of the reasons why he opposed the Bill. When, fifteen years ago, he (Sir G. Pechell) introduced his Bill for the extension of the jurisdiction of the Sheriffs' Courts to 50l., the most determined of his opponents was John Jervis, the then Member for Chester, and one of the chief grounds of that Gentleman's opposition then was, that the measure would take the business out of the courts in Westminster Hall. The proposition met the approval of the present Lord Chancellor, and he (Sir G. Pechell) received the support of Mr. Baron Rolfe, who was then Solicitor General, and the Bill was carried through both Houses. He was quite unable to understand why the hon. and learned Attorney General should oppose this measure; the county courts had worked most satisfactorily; and if they wanted proof of the fact, it was fully afforded by the general demand for the extension of their jurisdiction to 50l.


said, with reference to an observation which had fallen from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General, that the only reason why the bar and the press should not be represented at the county courts at present was, that the cases were of so insignificant a character as not to pay for their attendance; but that might be remedied by enlarging the jurisdiction. It was said that they would destroy the county courts if they introduced the right of appeal. He (Mr. Clay) did not understand what possible objection there could be to such an appeal as at present lay from a decision at quarter-sessions. If he was told that these appeals would burden the superior courts with too great an amount of business; his answer was, that the amount of business of which this Bill would relieve the superior courts would more than compensate for any addition that would be imposed upon them in the way of appeals. But his belief was that the real reason for opposing the Bill was the fear of the superior courts losing business, rather than that it would overburden them with additional business in consequence of appeals.


regretted to find that the hon. and learned Attorney General had given his sanction to the introduction of the Bill. It would be only consuming another night in discussing its principle, if the Government was prepared to throw it out at a future stage. It was admitted on all hands that these courts had worked extremely well; and so sure as the sun was in the heavens, if they extended their jurisdiction they would destroy their utility. It was on that ground that he opposed the measure. He wished to know whether hon. Members who were disposed to do away with imprisonment for debt for all sums under 20l. were disposed to extend it to 50l., or to all sums? If they did so, where were they to stop? He regretted, under these circumstances, that if the Government had a strong objection to the Bill, they had not at once thrown it out.


said, that the doubts entertained by his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General referred not so much to the expediency as the practicability of the measure, and that was the reason he was not prepared at once to move its rejection. He (Sir G. Grey) stated last year the grounds upon which he opposed the proposition for the extension of the jurisdiction of the county courts from 20l. to 50l. He still entertained the opinions he then expressed. At the same time it was impossible to deny that there was a strong feeling in the country in favour of the extension of the jurisdiction, and he thought the House would discuss the measure with much greater advantage when they had the Bill before them, not, as last year, containing the mere substitution of 50l. for 20l. as the limit of the jurisdiction, but accompanied by a right of appeal, the nature of which, however, the hon. Member had not yet stated, and with the admission of the bar, at least so he understood the hon. Member. He (Sir G. Grey) believed that the popular favour in which the county courts were held had arisen from the fact that justice was administered in them under circumstances which were only compatible with the existence of a small stake. With reference to the right of appeal which the hon. Member now proposed to allow in regard to sums between 20l and 50l, he (Sir G. Grey) owned he was curious to see how that was provided for in the Bill; whether the appeal would involve a new trial in the court where the former trial took place, or whether it would be transferred to the courts at Westminster; for if so the whole value of the county courts would cease; for he feared the result would be, that however the cases were decided, the losing parties would always appeal.


thought it creditable to the Government that they had given permission to the hon. Member for Lewes to introduce the measure. They had withdrawn their objections to its consideration, and it was possible, when the Bill came to be farther discussed, that the Government might give way still farther, and allow it to be made law. The country desired that the jurisdiction of the county courts should be extended—whether it was right or not was another question—and he thought the Government were perfectly right in taking the course which they now proposed to adopt. The Secretary of State for the Home Department and the hon. and learned Attorney General had asserted that this was a most dangerous measure. Now, he held in his hand a return which showed that very few causes ranging between 20l. and 50l. were tried. It was the return of causes tried in 1830 by the Court of Queen's Bench, in its sittings in London and Middlesex. In the latter there were 83 causes tried, 34 of which were under 20l., while between 20l. and 50l. there were only 9. In London, 103 causes were tried, 36 of which did not exceed 20l., and between that sum and 50l. there were only 8. He thought the county courts had worked well, but he did not believe that they gave entire satisfaction. The administration of justice might be made much cheaper than it was at present. Some of the officers of the courts, who had a great deal to do, were very much underpaid, while others, who had but very little to do, received a very disproportionate remuneration. The whole subject of the county courts demanded great attention, and the Government would do well to take it into their consideration. He should wish that such a Bill as the one under discussion had been brought in by the Government rather than by an individual Member. The Government ought to take up the question. It might be necessary to send the Bill to a Select Committee upstairs; but if it should be thrown out, he should advise the hon. Member for Lewes to move for a Committee to inquire into the whole subject, as one deserving the attention of the House. He felt sure that great advantage would arise to the country from its being thoroughly inquired into.


could not feel satisfied that this proposed extension of the jurisdiction of these courts would not have the effect of setting aside the present courts altogether. He confessed he entertained great fears on the subject. He was very doubtful whether it was possible to admit the bar to practice in these courts without altering the nature of the judges who presided in them. He trusted that Her Majesty's Government would not yield an inch from the position taken up by the hon. and learned Attorney General.


, as a retired practical lawyer, would give his cordial support in favour of bringing in the Bill. He did not, however, agree with the hon. Mover, that all the great expenses incidental to the superior courts went into the pockets of the attorneys. The pleadings alone were enormous to bring the case to an issue. The parties went down to the assizes with all their witnesses, having previously given enormous fees to their counsel. They were then often obliged to wait for several days before the cause could be tried. For all these proceedings the attorney did not get one farthing beyond the money he expended; and, at last, he perhaps had the pleasure of recovering 50l., after having incurred an exipenditure of 60l or 70l., while the unhappy plaintiff had probably to pay 40l. or 501. by the way of extra costs. He thought that these county courts had conferred the greatest benefit upon the country, and that benefit would be considerably increased by extending the jurisdiction of them to claims of 50l. He hoped that the proposed measure would also go so far as to bring in equitable matters, which, in the ordinary course of things, did not come within the cognisance of a court of law. He did not think that there would be any difficulty in allowing appeals, provided the party so appealing was required to give security for costs.


said, it was not an uncommon thing in the trade to which he belonged to sue persons owing 30l. or 35l. in the county courts, the claimants thus consenting to abandon the excess over 20l., in order to render it recoverable in that way. But the effect of this was to give encouragement to fraudulent debtors to refuse payment until they were compelled by these courts, being thus assured of being able to get rid of their liabilities in an easy way. Great injustice would be done to all such claimants if the jurisdiction of these courts was not increased.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Fitzroy, Lord Dudley Stuart, and Mr. Mullings.