HC Deb 27 July 1859 vol 155 cc481-8

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.


said, as there appeared to be some misapprehension as to the nature and objects of this Bill, he wished briefly to state what its intentions really were. It was supposed by some that his object was to abolish altogether the power of imprisonment for small debts by County Court Judges; but all he proposed to do was simply to put an end to the power of imprisonment without a hearing. According to the opinion of some lawyers, his Bill would not alter the law at all. One of the clauses of the County Courts Act gave to Judges in those courts power to commit persons to prison in the following cases, viz.: —If a party appeared before them, and gave unsatisfactory answers; if a party did not appear, and the Judge was satisfied from the evidence that the debt was contracted fraudulently, or that the party had the means of paying it, while refusing to do so. That was the interpretation, he ventured to say, most hon. Members would give to the clause on reading it. Some of the County Court Judges, however, had interpreted that clause as giving them power to commit a person without any inquiry whatever; and it often happened that illness or other circumstances which could be satisfactorily explained, prevented the attendance of the party, who was punished with imprisonment. The real question therefore was whether a County Court Judge should commit with or without inquiry? Upon a previous occasion he had shown that no less than 8,000 persons had been so committed during the past year, and the committal, it must be borne in mind, was simply a punishment, not operating as an extinguishment of the debt. With regard to the treatment of prisoners so committed, he found it stated in a newspaper that they were stripped upon entering the gaol, their clothes searched, their diet limited, and only two hours a day allowed for exercise. He had received a communication from the governor of Carlisle gaol, pointing out the hardships involved in the operation of the enactment in question. From this paper it appeared that persons were imprisoned for very small sums, and that in one ease a man had been imprisoned nine times for one debt of £9. The whole term of his imprisonment amounted to a year, although if he bad stolen the money lie would only have been committed for half that period. The present state of things on this subject was unjust, cruel, and intolerant, and demanded the immediate interposition of Parliament, and he believed that the Bill, instead of impairing the efficiency of the County Courts, would improve them, by removing the only cause of scandal and dissatisfaction to which they gave rise.


said, he entirely concurred with his hon. and learned Friend in the propriety of passing the first clause of the Bill, for he was of opinion that a minority of the County Court Judges, some thirteen or fourteen out of sixty—put a wrong construction on the 98th section of the County Court Act. It was important that doubts on the point should be removed, for all the hardships and scandal with respect to these commitments had arisen from that erroneous though conscientious construction of the law. The late Lord Chancellor directed the standing committee of the County Court Judges, which regulated the practice and framed the rules for those Courts, to ascertain what the practice of the County Court Judges had been in respect to the matter to which the attention of the House had been called. Their report had unfortunately been laid on the table only the night previous, but from that it appeared that it was only thirteen or fourteen of those Judges, as he had just stated, who put that peremptory construction of which the hon. and learned Gentleman complained on the 98th section of the Act. He therefore thought that the public was indebted to the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth for introducing the present measure to set the matter at rest. In the report he had just mentioned it was stated that the County Court Judges approved the present Bill in reference to the 98th section of the Act; but they were of a different opinion in regard to the second clause, limiting the amount of imprisonment. All the abuses had arisen from the erroneous construction of the 98th section, but the County Court Judges considered the second clause of the present Bill most impolitic, and thought that instead of operating as a relief to the lower classes it would produe the opposite ef- fect. Considering the precaviousness of employment and the liability of the labouring classes to attacks of illness, they conceived that it would be hard on them if any step should be taken having the effect of depriving creditors of their rights and thus preventing them occasionally obtaining credit.


said, that there was no wish to prevent credit being given to the poorer classes, or to deprive creditors of the means of obtaining their money; but the House had to consider whether the poorer class of persons who came within the purview of the County Court system had not a harder measure of justice dealt out to them than persons obtaining credit in a different situation. He strongly objected to the imprisonment which the Bill proposed to abolish. The commitment was, in fact, not for debt, but in poenam; and it was altogether objectionable that a Judge should commit a debtor, without investigation, and merely at the instigation of a vindictive creditor. When there was fraud in respect to a debt there ought to be some determinate punishment, and he could not understand why there should he a power of committing and re-committing time after time the same person for the same debt. It should be borne in mind, too, that in many prisons the persons so committed were treated nearly as possible like criminal prisoners. He should, therefore, be glad to see, as proposed by the second clause of the Bill, some limit put on the amount of imprisonment.


remarked, that if the House wished to allow a system of credit for the benefit of the lower classes and of trade, then a power of summary punishment must be given against the debtor in certain cases. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henley) had said that, if there were fraud in respect to a debt, let that fraud be once for all punished. But it should he borne in mind that these imprisonments under the County Courts were for nonpayment of debt, accompanied by continual ability to pay it. Consequently, the Judge went on ordering the imprisonment of the debtor so long as the latter had money in his pocket, in order to obtain that money for the creditor, a working man in many cases who had charitably made a loan to his fellow workman, who ungratefully avoided repayment. As to the injury so much spoken of, generally the only person who could give any information was either the plaintiff or the defendant. If the defendant did not appear, the only course loft open to the Judge was to question the plaintiff. He regarded the first clause of the present Bill as declaratory of the existing law, and deemed it unobjectionable.


observed, that the effect of the measure would be to destroy credit; in his opinion a very cruel proceeding to the labouring classes themselves. He would therefore move that the Chairman report progress, in order to allow time for the Report of the Committee of the County Court Judges to be printed, and to give an opportunity to hon. Members connected with manufacturing districts to communicate with their constituents on the subject.


said, it was altogether a fallacy to say that a power of inflicting perpetual imprisonment was necessary to sustain credit. He would therefore express his hope that some limit would be placed upon the terms of imprisonment imposed by County Courts. The present system of imprisoning debtors for successive terms was most oppressive, and he thought this Bill would be beneficial, inasmuch as its most important feature was to propose that there should be something like a limit to the period of imprisonment.


said, he hoped that as the Bill would restrict the power of imprisonment it would receive the assent of the Committee and the sanction of the House. He found that a large proportion of the debts for which persons were subject to imprisonment by County Court Judges were contracted with travelling hawkers, frequently by wives without the knowledge of their husbands, who, however, suffered for their imprudence. In his own district (Bedfordshire) he found that the number of debtors committed by the County Court Judges was, in 1855, 40; in 1856, 60; in 1857, 93; and in 1858, 122—a large proportion of these persons having been consigned to prison at the suit of travelling hawkers. The increase in the number of commitments was, he believed, attributable in a great measure to a recent change in the law, by which the cost of conveying debtors to prison under County Court commitments was transferred from the plaintiffs to the Treasury. Some of the persons committed were young women under the age of 21, and in one case a girl of 19 was sent to prison because she had not paid for a shawl sold to her by a travelling hawker some five years before, when she was only 14 or 15 years of age. He be- lieved that these harsh proceedings were not generally attributable to the hawkers themselves, but to agents to whom, when they quitted a district, they sold the debts due to them. Persons were constantly imprisoned, under successive commitments, for a long period, and at the last Spring Assizes the Lord Chief Baron, in referring to this subject, mentioned the case of a wan who had been imprisoned eight time?, and for a period of 270 days for the same debt. The individuals imprisoned under these commitments were, in his opinion, treated with unnecessary rigour. In the gaol of the county with which he was connected the accommodation for this class of prisoners was very insufficient; the area for exercise was extremely limited; they were only allowed to receive visits under certain restrictions; they were not allowed to maintain themselves if they were able to do so, nor were their friends allowed to furnish them with any supplies; and, although they were treated with all the indulgence consistent with the prison regulations, their dietary was by no means satisfactory. He hoped, therefore, that measures would be taken to put a stop to the system of renewed commitments. If, then, the Committee would only pass the first section of the Bill, one step, at all events, would be gained. There would no longer be a term of imprisonment which was in excess of the intent and meaning of the law; but if it were considered that eighty days' imprisonment was too low a minimum, he hoped that in any case some limit or other would be agreed upon. Let it be remembered that when a labourer was taken from his wife and children and imprisoned, the only resort of the family was the workhouse. Many cases of that sort had occurred in his county, and in the course of the present year a memorial had been presented to the Home Secretary from the Board of Guardians of the Bedford Union, complaining of the hardships to families and the injustice to ratepayers which had resulted therefrom.


said, he trusted the Motion for reporting progress would not be persisted in, for he felt that if there were but one hour left remaining of the Session it could not be more profitably spent than in the endeavour to pass this Bill. He wished to call the attention of the hon. and learned Solicitor General to one point with respect to which the existing law operated very oppressively. He had been told that it was competent to a creditor to go to any Court within the jurisdiction of a Judge and obtain a summons there. The result was that the creditor went to the Court which was most convenient to himself and summoned the debtor to that Court, and it had been stated to him that men had been suddenly summoned to answer for a debt of 3s. 6d. at a distance of twenty-five miles, and if they did not travel that distance forthwith the omission to do so was followed by committal to gaol. There was a clause in the Act, however, which empowered the Judge to reconsider his own order of committal, and to make such further orders as he might deem necessary; and it would seem to have been contemplated that, when he made out a commitment in consequence of a person not appearing to give an account of his property, the debtor could then be called up before the Judge, and the matter further investigated, when he might reverse the commitment, or deal with the case as he might think proper. But that clause did not seem to have been carried into effect for the purpose of mitigating the severity of the law. The present state of things was such as to affect the working classes most seriously. There must be some limit fixed to the power of commitment; and now that this measure was before the Committee, he hoped it would be thoroughly discussed and considered.


said, there seemed to be a disposition to treat this Bill as if it related only to debts of very small amount, but it must be remembered that the County Courts exercised jurisdiction in cases of debts up to the amount of £50, and he thought if this Bill were passed it would operate prejudicially to the interests of creditors whoso debts were of any considerable amount. If the Bill passed in its present form no debtor would ever appear on a judgment summons, but creditors would have to search the country round for evidence as to the debtor's means of payment, and in many cases it would be the creditor's interest to lose his debt rather than incur such labour and expense. He thought that after a creditor had proved his debt the onus probandi with regard to future proceedings ought to rest upon the debtor, and not upon the creditor. He hoped, therefore, that the hon. Member for Nottingham would persist in his Amendment.


said, he bad had some experience of the working of the power of imprisonment now exercised by the County Court Judges, and he believed that the efficiency of those Courts would be very much impaired if that power were interfered with. In cases, for example, where there were no goods upon which to recover, it was only by the existence of the power of imprisonment that the payment of instalments could be enforced.


said, he would suggest to the hon. Member(Mr. Paget) that it was most desirable that he should not press his Amendment, and that the better course would be to allow the Committee to proceed with the discussion of the clauses. One point to which he would direct attention was, that the County Court Judge had a double capacity. He was a Judge of the County Court for small debts, and also a Judge in insolvency. As a Judge in insolvency he possessed the power of bringing up the insolvent before him for examination, and of putting any questions to him with regard to his debts; but it so happened that he had not that power in his capacity of County Court Judge. The consequence was that he could not bring up a debtor to be examined, or put questions to him on the subject of his debts; and it was in that inability that the necessity for the power of imprisonment resided. If the County Court Judge could have the debtor before him there would be no necessity for falling back upon that which was an imperfect resource, the examination of the plaintiff. A Judge had no originative power; he could only examine the witnesses that were brought before him by the plaintiff or the defendant, or examine the parties themselves if they appeared. If he had not the power of compelling the attendance of the defendant all he could do was to examine the witnesses produced, and if he were deprived of the power of imprisonment, or if that power were materially curtailed, he would be deprived of the power of operating upon the defendant altogether, and in a corresponding degree the disposition to give credit would be diminished. If a person could not recover the debt, of course he would not give credit; and in the exact proportion in which the remedy of the creditor was diminished, was necessarily diminished the inducement to give credit. Now in his opinion there had been a disposition to form too harsh an estimate of the conduct of the County Court Judges as a body in respect to the exercise of this power of imprisonment. The system of small debts courts, it should he recollected, had not been created by the County Courts Act. For a long period before the passing of that Act a number of Small Debts Courts and Courts of Requests had been scattered over the country, which had a power of imprisonment exactly similar to that with which the Committee was then dealing; and several of the Judges of those Courts had been appointed County Court Judges. The practice of those Courts of Requests had, as a rule, been somewhat arbitrary. For example, they had been in the habit of admitting an agent to appear instead of the creditor or plaintiff, and of imprisoning debtors upon very loose evidence; and these Judges, acting as County Court Judges, would naturally continue the ancient practice. He hoped, therefore, that the Committee would not form an erroneous opinion of the County Court Act, by supposing that it had introduced a more lax system; the truth being that it had introduced a stricter one, and secured the appointment of a more learned class of Judges than had presided in the Courts of Requests of old.


said, that after the discussion which had taken place he would so suggest that the hon. Member (Mr. Paget) should withdraw his Motion for reporting progress, and that after the first clause, which was generally approved of by the County Count Judges themselves', had been agreed to, the hon. Member should move the omission of the second and only other clause.


consented to the suggestion. Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2, (limiting imprisonment to a period of 80 days) agreed to.

Preamble agreed to.


said, he wished to express his opinion that power ought to be given to the County Court Judge to call the defendant before him and examine him in ordinary cases, the same as in cases of insolvency.

House resumed.

Bill reported, without Amendment.