§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. M'MAHON
said, he rose to move the second reading of the Bill. It consisted of eleven clauses only, embracing Amendments in the procedure of the County Courts which had been suggested by parties conversant with the practice in those courts, and which, if sanctioned by the Legislature, would greatly improve the administration of justice. His object was to assimilate the practice of the County Courts to that of the Superior Courts. One; of his Amendments was that the County Courts should have the power exercised by the Superior Courts of bringing third parties into court. Another had reference to the raising of questions of law by special case. By another he sought to extend to County Courts powers in regard to suits on Bills of Exchange already exercised with great advantage to suitors by the Superior Courts. The only provision to which he apprehended exception would be taken was that which gave an appeal from the decision of the Judge in cases where no such appeal now existed. At present the County Court Judges were as absolute as Turkish bashaws in all suits for sums under £20: and under £5 the party had no right even to ask the intervention of a jury, so that the opinion of a County Court Judge was in these cases absolute and final, both as to law and facts. The County Court Judges had also in certain cases a very extraordinary power of imprisonment for periods of thirty days, which might be repeated without at all diminishing the amount of the debt claimed. He did not propose to give an absolute right of appeal, but only in cases where the County Court Judge thought it right to allow an appeal. Another Amendment was to give the County Courts, as the higher courts had under the Common Law Procedure Act, power to entertain equitable defences. These were the main objects of the Bill, and he trusted the House would be of opinion that it was entitled to a second reading.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, he thought it would be inexpedient to pro- 1342 ceed further with the Bill. The business and the form of procedure in the County Courts were of a peculiar character, and the Judges of those courts were the only persons fully qualified to decide how far it was expedient to change the state of the law under which their duties were at present administered. He had endeavoured to ascertain what were the opinions entertained by those Judges in reference to the clauses in the Bill of his hon. and learned Friend; and the result of his inquiries was that he had found that the County Court Judges in general disapproved of the changes proposed by that measure. No complaint had been made of the operation of the existing law, and there appeared to be no reason to suppose that any advantage would be gained by the contemplated alterations. The greater proportion of the clauses of the Bill were confessedly taken from the Common Law Procedure Acts of 1852 and 1854, and so far they might be made available without the intervention of Parliament. With regard to the highly penal clauses which were found in the County Courts Acts, and which enabled the Judges from time to time to impose imprisonment of a longer or shorter duration, without that imprisonment diminishing the debt, he would not now express any opinion as to the policy of the existing law. If they were to be considered in that House, they should be considered in a separate and distinct shape, without reference to general questions of County Court procedure. The interpleader jurisdiction given by one of the clauses the County Court Judges saw no necessity for, besides which it was opposed to that general view on which the County Courts were founded, and might entail considerable expense and inconvenience upon the litigants. The jurisdiction to entertain equitable defences was equally objectionable. It was rarely ever resorted to in the Superior Courts, and it was obviously inconvenient to refer questions of equity to courts constituted for wholly different purposes. It was found in practice that when such questions arose they were referred to the ordinary Courts of Equity, instead of the parties availing themselves of the powers conferred by the Common Law Procedure Act. The principle of the Bill was opposed to that of the County Courts Act, which was to withdraw from the Superior Courts, and so to exempt the parties from the expense and delay of prosecuting in those courts claims under a certain amount. If a 1343 Bill were really called for, he thought the sixth clause was unobjectionable; and, if they should go into Committee, his conviction was that the Bill would be reduced to that clause. If that were so, it was not desirable to legislate piecemeal in, the matter. Probably there were some matters connected with the procedure of the County Courts that might advantageously obtain the consideration of the House, with a view to the amendment of the law. He had been in communication with some of the County Court Judges, and suggestions from such a source would receive the consideration to which under the circumstances they would be entitled. If the matter were thus originated, it would be easy enough to introduce a measure including the sixth clause, but it was not desirable to press the Bill before the House, and he should move that it be read a second time that day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."
said, the remarks of the hon. and learned Attorney General induced him to ask the Government to turn its attention to the position in which the poorer classes were left in respect to imprisonment for debt. Recent legislation had had the effect of almost clearing our prisons of persons who had been incarcerated on account of having contracted large amounts of debt; while, on the other hand, the system of what he might call penal imprisonment was still continued against the humbler order of debtors, simply because a County Court Judge might be of opinion that they could pay if they liked. Parliament having, therefore, almost wholly abolished imprisonment for debt as affecting the upper and middle ranks of society, he wished the Government now to consider if it was fair or just to subject the poorer classes to confinement in gaol for debt pure and simple, while their families were, perhaps, left to starve in the mean time.
§ MR. AYRTON
said, that while the Bankruptcy Bill of last session was under discussion in that House, he had endeavoured to draw attention to the point just mentioned by the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire; but hon. Members were then so busy in amending the law to suit the convenience of their own class that they could not stop to consider its operation on the poorer classes. The present state of 1344 things was monstrous. If a man could only contrive to incur a debt of £20, if he even could induce a friend to allow him to contract a debt to that amount, then although he might owe a hundred smaller sums, and although judgments might have been had against him for them, he could nevertheless relieve himself of them all by giving up the tables and chairs in his room. But if he were not fortunate to have a friend who would enable him to go through that process, then he remained under the County Courts' jurisdiction; and although he only owed a paltry debt of a few pounds, he might be sent to prison again and again for the space of two years. On the other hand, the man who ran into debt for thousands was furnished with the means of exonerating himself, and the Government sent round its officials to tell him not only that he could get out, but that he must get out of prison. It was a scandal to that House that there should be one law for the wealthy and another for the poor; and he trusted it would not be long before that scandal was removed.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
said, there could be no doubt that the point to which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henley) had called attention was well worthy of consideration, especially with reference to the change effected last year by the Bankruptcy Act. At the same time, he did not think that practically the poorer class of debtors were detained in prison for debt, but rather because, in the belief of the Judge, they had the means of paying, and refused to do so. But, without expressing a decided opinion on this matter, or pledging the Government to bring in a Bill upon it, he could say they were willing to consider it.
§ MR. M'MAHON
said, if they were to wait for the approval of the County Court Judges to any measure, there would never be any improvement of the law. Of all persons judges were the last to be consulted upon such subjects. If we had been guided by the opinions of Judges, we might still have been hanging women, with children at the breast, for stealing handkerchiefs worth 5s. If, therefore, the County Court Judges were to be consulted on the subject, preparatory to the introduction of a measure, no Bill would be brought in at all, because those learned gentlemen would naturally be opposed to any disturbance of the settled state of things to which they were accustomed. As regarded imprisonment for debt, the same law should apply 1345 to the County Courts as applied to the Superior Courts. He did not anticipate that the subject would have been discussed, or he would have been prepared with returns showing the magnitude of the evil. To show how severely it operated on the poor, however, he might state that the gaols of Worcester and Stafford were filled with persons committed at the suit of pedlars, who were in the habit of going about the country, and inducing labourers' wives to purchase trinkets and other articles for which their husbands could never afford to pay. In the gaols in question there were, a short time ago, as many as 300 persons committed at the suit of one such firm. Again, he did not see why County Court Judges could not administer a "rough equity" as well as they now administered a "rough law."
§ MR. VANCE
said, that by what he believed to be an oversight a clause had been inserted in the Bankruptcy Bill of last Session which repealed a prevision that had previously been in force, to the effect that County Court Judges should not be allowed to sit in that House. It appeared to him that that prohibition was a, very proper one, and he hoped that some means would be taken to renew it.
§ Question, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.
§ Words added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
§ Bill put off for three months.