§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. NORWOOD
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, its object was to enable a creditor living more than twenty miles from his debtor to bring an action in the court of the district where such creditor resides, and thus to obviate a considerable hardship which had been inflicted upon plaintiffs by the County Courts Act of 1867. Before the passing of that Act plaintiffs had a right to bring their action in a superior court, but they were now compelled to bring any action for a sum less than £50 in the County Court of the district in which the defendant resides. This caused great inconvenience. In by far the great majority of cases there is no defence to the action, and plaintiffs found when they had travelled 100 or 200 miles to prove the debt, that they lost their expenses and their time unnecessarily. An objection had been taken by the hon. Baronet the Member for Reading (Sir Francis Goldsmid) to the Bill, when it was last before the House, that it might work injustice to defendants; and in order to meet that objection he had drawn up a proviso which, when the Bill was in Committee, he would move. It was to the effect that if the defendant in any action shall make an affidavit that he has a good defence, and shall give reasonable security for costs, the registrar of the court may make an order transferring the cause to the County Court of the district which the defendant resides.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Norwood.)
§ SIR FRANCIS GOLDSMID
said, he was of opinion that it would be quite sufficient for all purposes that the defendant should make an affidavit that he had a good defence without requiring him to give security for costs. As notice of the clause had been given only last night, perhaps the best course to be taken would be to allow the Bill to be read a second time; and before it should go into Committee ample opportunity should be given to the Attorney General to consider whether the proposal of the 685 hon. Gentleman was sufficient to protect defendants against vexatious actions.
§ MR. MUNDELLA
said, he thought that the measure was much misunderstood. In 75 per cent of the cases in which a creditor in London sued a debtor in the country the debtor had no defence. The plaintiff was now required to send his agents or his clerks to a distance to prove the debt; and after he had incurred considerable expense indoing that the result was that the defendant put in no appearance; and in addition to the one bad debt for the sale of the goods another bad debt was made in the loss of expenses. That system operated as much against the interest, of the small trader and purchaser, by stoppage of credit, as against that of the large dealer. In one instance the cost of obtaining a judgment for a debt of £11 14s. 7d. amounted to £19 4s. 7d., that large expense being occasioned, to a great extent, by the necessity for several of the plaintiff's witnesses to travel a long distance. Some of the largest London merchants abandoned debts of £5, £10. and £20 due to them because they could not go or send their clerks so far to prove them. It was absurd to suppose that great merchants were desirous of suing men in the country for debts that were not justly due; and the clause providing that the defendant might make an affidavit that he had a good defence and should give security for costs would be sufficient to protect him from hardship. If the defendant had a good defence the plaintiff would of course pay all the costs. Nearly every Chamber of Commerce in England was in favour of the Bill, and he hoped it would now be read the second time.
§ MR. G. GREGORY
was understood to say that to compel the debtor to give security was objectionable, and his simple declaration that he had a good defence ought to relieve him from the necessity of going a great distance from his home to resist what might be an unjust demand.
§ MR. DENMAN
said, he would support the second reading, in order that the Bill might be carefully watched and amended in Committee. Whether it would be a good or a bad Bill would depend upon how it was shaped in Committee. There were cases in which it was now a hardship for the plaintiff to have to follow the defendant all over the country; and, on the other hand, it 686 would be a considerable hardship on the defendant—who was generally the poorer party of the two—to be obliged to fight his case in a court a long way from his own home. He understood his hon. Friend who had the charge of this Bill was prepared to consider any Amendments which might have due regard to the justice of each case.
§ MR. COLLINS
said, he thought the measure, as it stood, ought not to pass. Whether it could be so altered in Committee, as to remove the objections to which it was liable, was another matter. A mere affidavit, in the simplest form, that the defendant believed he had a good defence was all that was required. Without opposing the second reading, he hoped the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) would be very careful in introducing such Amendments in Committee as would, in fact, make the Bill a different Bill from the one now before them.
§ MR. M'MAHON
said, he thought it doubtful, whether they ought really to agree to the second reading. The third and fourth clauses of the Bill were in themselves pernicious. The Summary Procedure Act went altogether on a wrong foundation, giving a preference to promissory notes and Bills of Exchange which it did not give to documents of greater weight—that was, under seal; and there was no reason why such a power should be extended to County Courts, and to all sums under £5, not payable by instalments. It might be all very well that the great London merchants should be able to drag their debtors from Northumberland. Cornwall, or Wales; but such a power might be abused by spiteful creditors, or by persons who were not merchants or traders at all. The question was one that ought to be taken up by Government.
§ MR. MUNTZ
said, he did not see the necessity of troubling the Government to take charge of the measure. There was need of such a Bill; as, at present, traders were in the habit of ordering goods to a small amount by letter, and in some eases they did not pay, relying on the wholesale dealer not thinking it worth his while to travel a long distance to prove the debt. Great complaints had been made of the large expenses incurred in obtaining redress in the County Courts; and he thought, as the 687 hon. Member for Reading (Sir Francis Goldsmid) had promised to move an Amendment in Committee to meet the case, the Bill ought to be read a second time.
§ MR. M. CHAMBERS
said, he thought if the Bill was really required, it ought to he introduced by some Member of the Government. Its principle was that the great traders were to have a certain privilege, while the small traders, who lived at a distance, were to be put in a different position; and to that he altogether objected. In a busy Session like this, ought the House to read a confessedly imperfect measure the second time, and assent to go into Committee, to do what the framers of the measure ought to have done for themselves?
§ MR. STAPLETON
said, when the Bill was first discussed, some time ago, it was suggested by the Attorney General that it should be remodelled. Its author had accordingly proposed to amend it: but the House had not had an opportunity of seeing and examining those Amendments. It should, he thought, now be withdrawn; and, if deemed necessary, be afterwards brought in on the responsibility of the Government. In undefended cases, some additional privilege might be given to creditors; but beyond that he was not prepared to go. If the second reading were agreed to, certainly the Bill ought to be discussed when the Law Officers of the Crown were present on the Motion for going into Committee.
§ MR. NORWOOD
explained that the Bill was confined to traders; and whether those traders were poor or rich, they could equally avail themselves of its provisions. Fie also protested against the dictum that a private Member was not to be at liberty to initiate any legislation for the removal of any proved defect in the existing law, and he could not see that he was bound to wait, under all circumstances, for the attendance of the Law Officers of the Government.
MR. STAVELEY HILL
said, he believed that every clause of the Bill but the 5th had received a fatal wound, and even that solitary exception could also be shown to be open to serious objection. Where a claim in the County Courts amounted to £5, no defence could be heard, unless six clear days' notice were given of an intention of putting in 688 a defence. In many cases there was no opportunity of giving such notice. This Bill would aggravate the present state of things. He therefore appealed to the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) to withdraw the measure, and either bring it in himself, in an amended form, or leave it in the hands of the Government.
§ SIR GEORGE JENKINSON
said, that, unless either of the alternative courses suggested by the learned Member who spoke last were adopted, he would move that the Bill be read the second time that day six months.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow.