HC Deb 28 February 1899 vol 67 cc834-55

Resolution proposed— To call attention to the desirability of extending the jurisdiction of the County Courts, and amending the Acts relating or giving jurisdiction thereto; and to move, that, in the opinion of this House, the time has arrived when Her Majesty's Government may reasonably be expected to initiate or facilitate legislation having for its object a considerable extension of the ordinary Jurisdiction of County Courts in Common Law, Equity, and Admiralty causes."—(Mr. Chas. James Monk.)

*MR. MONK (Gloucester)

In moving the Resolution standing in my name, I hope to be able to show the imperative necessity of the extension of the jurisdiction of the County Courts. I am aware, in introducing this subject, of the enormous difficulty of the task, which would have been better in the hands of one more conversant with the practice of the County Courts than I can profess to be. The position, however, is not one of my own choosing. In 1897 the Executive Council of the Association of Chambers of Commerce, of which I am a member, and was for some years president, requested me to introduce a Bill, which had been very carefully prepared and drafted at the instance of the Association, for the extension of the County Courts' Jurisdiction. I brought in that Bill in 1897, but I had no opportunity of carrying it to a Second Reading. In the following year I was likewise unsuccessful in the ballot, but I reintroduced the County Courts Bill, and I approached my honourable and learned Friend the Attorney-General with a request that the Bill should be read pro formâ a second time, in order that it might be sent to the Grand Committee on Law. My honourable and learned Friend informed me that the Lord Chancellor took exception to some portions of the Bill, and I at once felt that the Bill must be fully discussed on the Second Reading under those circumstances. Our next course was to endeavour to obtain an interview with the Lord Chancellor, and we approached him with that object in 1897. The Lord Chancellor informed us that he thought it unnecessary to fix a day for receiving a deputation, as there was no chance of the Bill passing that Session. Last year we again applied to the Lord Chancellor to receive a deputation, and received a reply from his Secretary to the following effect— His Lordship does not at present see any advantage in receiving a deputation on the subject of the County Courts' Bill. It appears to his Lordship wrong in principle and unworkable in plan; but should there arise any practical occasion for discussing the subject of County Court Jurisdiction with a view to legislation by the Government, his Lordship will consider the question of receiving a deputation. My honourable and learned Friend the Attorney-General received my honourable Friend the Member for Exeter and my- self with a small deputation on one occasion with regard to this Bill. He gave us a sympathetic reception, and assured us that any well-considered scheme extending the jurisdiction of the County Courts would be favourably considered by the Government. But he added that the Bill introduced last Session contained provisions of so highly contentious a character, that it would not be possible for the Government to support the Bill if it were reintroduced. Having been unsuccessful in obtaining a good place in the ballot this year, I came to the conclusion that it would be worse than idle to reintroduce a Bill which would be stillborn from its birth. A more cogent, and, to my mind, conclusive argument in favour of the course I am taking was that it seemed to me, and to those honourable Friends who are acting with me in this matter, that it is the duty of the Government to bring in any Bill for the extension of the jurisdiction of County Courts, and that any such measure should be in the hands of the Law Officers of the Crown. How, then, I would ask, does this matter stand at present? In the Debate on the Judicature Acts, in 1897 the honourable Member for North-West Durham, whom I am sorry not to see in his place, when commenting on the congested state of business in the Law Courts, said, "What was there to prevent County Courts from being given an equally extensive jurisdiction with the High Court?" Such system existed in Scotland, where it had been found to work very well. Soma such devolution of power to the County Courts has been earnestly and constantly desired by Chambers of Commerce throughout the country, by trade protection societies, and by the Incoporated Law Society. I should like to read one sentence from the report of the Law Society of 1898 approving— The suggestions emanating from Chambers of Commerce and others, that proceedings on the Common Law and Equity side might be initiated in the County Court where the amount involved did not exceed £1,000, provided that the provisions of Order 14 in the High Court were adopted. Excellent as I believe our County Court system to be, I submit that it still is susceptible of improvement and further development, while some of the present anomalies might be very easily removed by legislation. Now, on the Debate on the Judicature Acts in 1897, to which I have referred already, my honourable and learned Friend the Attorney-General made some remarks which disclosed to a certain extent the objections he had to the Bill I then introduced. He said that the real object of our County Court system was that there should be a speedy and cheap method of dispensing justice for the recovery of debts, and the trial of cases involving no difficult questions of law. If there were power on the part of the County Courts to take the class of action which was now confined to the superior court it might be found, in certain large centres, that the business of the court might be blocked for a week or 10 days while the judge was hearing one of these cases. If that evil were really to be dreaded, I should cordially agree with the Attorney-General. But I would remind my honourable and learned Friend and the House that in the Bill which I brought in last year provision was made for the appointment of a Chief Registrar in certain special circuits, who was to have power to attend the principal towns in the circuit, and hear all cases up to the amount of £20, while there was to be an Assistant Registrar who, with the consent of the parties, and with leave of the judge, was to hear cases up to £5, so that the judge would have time to try cases which were now confined to the superior courts. I agree with my honourable and learned Friend that the County Court should be, as it is, the poor man's court, but I ask the House whether it is probable that the Chambers of Commerce and Trade Protection Societies (which during the last 10 years have come almost unanimously to the desire for a considerable extension of the jurisdiction of County Courts) would have recommended it if they were not satisfied that there would continue to be a cheap and speedy decision in summary cases. I should like to read some remarks which were made in one of the leading journals of the day after the Debate on the Judicature Acts in 1897— It is a little too much the fashion to speak of the County Courts as if they were still what they were in 1847, and what they were, indeed, then designated—Small Debts Courts. And again— Parliament has again and again enlarged their jurisdiction, and, contrary to many predictions, they are no less satisfactory to suitors for small sums than when their jurisdiction was limited to £320. They have been entrusted with duties which Lord Cotenham, and other framers of the first County Court Act, never thought would devolve upon them; and the policy of Parliament is to entrust them with new functions. I do not desire to go back to ancient history. But I would remind the House that the first County Court Act was passed in the year 1847, and that the jurisdiction was limited to £20, provided the action was founded on contract, and to £5 if the action was founded on tort. From time to time the jurisdiction has been been expended; in 1850 it was enlarged so as to bring in actions for debts or damages not exceeding £50; in 1856 it was extended to all actions except those for crim con. with the consent of both parties; in 1865 limited jurisdiction was conferred in equity, while in 1867 limited jurisdiction was given in actions of ejectment, together with jurisdiction in Admiralty cases up to £300, and unlimited jurisdiction in bankruptcy. Each extension has given great satisfaction throughout the country. I will ask the House to bear in mind what were the recommendations of the Judicature Commission in 1872. Lord Hatherley was chairman of the Commission, which also included the late Lord Selborne, Lord Justice Bramwell, and the eminent city solicitor, Mr. Hollams. The Commission said— We think that these Courts, as constituent parts or branches of the High Court of Justice, should, subject to the power hereinafter mentioned, have jurisdiction ultimated by the amount claimed, whatever be the nature of the case; and that thus, if the parties to the dispute are content that it should be decided in the County Court, it may be dealt with accordingly. We think that the Judges presiding over the more important of these Courts should receive salaries proportioned to the more important duties they have to perform. In 1879 Lord Cairns passed a Bill through the House of Lords which, unfortunately, was crowded out when it came down to this House, extending the jurisdiction to £200, and increasing the Judges' salaries to £2,000, with travelling expenses and a pension after 20 years' service. The question may fairly be asked, In what manner is it proposed that these recommendations can best be carried out? I think my honourable and learned Friend has a copy of the Bill in which I have, to the best of my ability, endeavoured to give effect to them. By that Bill provision was made to extend the jurisdiction in all cases up to £1,000. Nineteen special County Court Circuits were created in various parts of the country, each to be presided over by a Judge with a salary of £2,500, who was to have to assist him a Chief Registrar at a salary of £1,500, and an Assistant Registrar with a salary of £800, their entire time to be given to the Court, and the Assistant Registrar being prohibited from practising either as a solicitor or as a, notary. It was proposed that the Chief Registrar should hold courts throughout the special circuit, and hear all cases up to the amount of £20, while the Assistant Registrar, with the leave of the Judge and the consent of the parties, was to hear minor cases up to £5. By that moans, I think, the fear expressed by my honourable and learned Friend that the business of the Court might be congested was removed, so that under that system the Judge would have time to hear cases of importance which are now brought up to London. I may also venture to express the hope that by the appointment of barristers of eminence as Judges for the special circuits greater weight would attach to the decisions of the County Court, while in towns like Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester there would be continuous courts, and they would have what may be called local assizes, with an efficient jurisdiction brought to their own doors, instead of incurring the expense and loss of time in seeking it in London. It is needless to say that by this proposal the relief to the Judges of the High Court would be enormous, and I should have thought that on that ground the proposal would have carried weight with the Lord Chancellor himself. My honourable and learned Friend sympathises, I am certain, with the reasonable demands of the commercial community, and I would appeal to the Government to meet these wishes by promising to introduce a Bill to give effect to them at the earliest moment in their power. As to the expense, I am assured that it would not exceed £40,000 or £45,000, and that sum would quickly be recouped by the large extension of County Court business in the principal centres, and by saving the expense of holding unnecessary assizes in parts of the country where there is little to occupy the time of the Judges. Let me then summarise the recommendations which I venture to submit to the House. I propose to give the County Courts jurisdiction in all cases up to £1,000, to create Special Circuits, and to confer power to hear certain cases upon the Chief Registrar and Assistant Registrar. That scheme has the unanimous assent of the Associated Chambers of Commerce. Petitions have been presented by the Trade Protection Societies in favour of it, and I hope it will receive at all events some measure of support from the Attorney-General. I will conclude by urging him to take the wishes of the merchant community seriously into consideration by accepting my Motion to extend the jurisdiction of the County Courts in a manner which is so much desired throughout the country.

MR. BRYNMOR JONES (Swansea Districts)

I desire to second this Motion. It is one which simply affirms the expediency of increasing the jurisdiction of our County Courts, and I think my honourable Friend has shown a wise discretion in couching his resolution in these general terms with a view to eliciting the opinion of the House, and in not presenting a cut and dried scheme of judicial reform for the judgment of this Assembly. I will not now raise the question whether, if this House is going to say that the jurisdiction of the County Courts ought to be increased, it should or should not be done by raising the pecuniary limit to some defined sum. I propose to urge a few considerations in favour of the general idea which lies at the root of the motion of my honourable Friend. I, both as counsel and in other capacities, have had some experience of the working of our County Courts, and my own opinion, which I frankly admit has been very reluctantly arrived at, is that existing circumstances necessitate an extension of jurisdiction if the administration of justice in this country is to be carried on in accordance with the wishes of the great majority of the people and the requirements of modern, social, and economic conditions. On the other hand, I have to frankly admit that the question which is raised by my honour- able Friend is one of some gravity. If you are going to extend the jurisdiction of the County Courts it will in all probability become unnecessary to hold civil assizes in the majority of places in which such assizes are now held habitually, and you may be putting an end to the circuit system, which has worked well for centuries, and which, I think, in the general opinion of the civilised world, has been most conducive to the good administration of justice in this country. After all, we must look at existing circumstances. If one goes back and reads the Debates in this House at the time that County Courts were started, it will be seen that they were intended to provide for the collection of small debts, and for the decision of small disputes. But somehow or other, in a fortuitous and haphazard manner, jurisdiction after jurisdiction has been piled upon these courts, and the general result of the legislation of the last 40 years is that the jurisdiction is so anomalous and so chaotic that it requires to be made a special study to know what can or cannot be done by a County Court Judge. The thing has not been carried out properly and the real explanation of the present position is that the dissatisfaction of the country with the methods of the Superior Courts since 1873 has been expressed in the addition by Parliament, from time to time, of an added jurisdiction to local and particular courts. My honourable Friend has referred to the wishes of Chambers of Commerce. I will not travel over the same ground, but I should like to take this opportunity of calling the attention of the House to some actual facts about the jurisdiction of the County Courts. The range of the jurisdiction is very large. County Court Judges have jurisdiction in common law matters, and they also have jurisdiction in equity, in bankruptcy, and in regard to the winding-up of companies under the Companies Act. They also have a miscellaneous jurisdiction in regard to friendly societies and workmen's claims, which it would tax the patience of the House to detail. The range of the jurisdiction of the County Courts is, therefore, very large, but it is limited in three ways—firstly, by the pecuniary claim of the plaintiff or the amount of the subject-matter in dispute; secondly, by the character of the action; and, thirdly, by territorial area. Undoubtedly, Mr. Speaker, it is the pecuniary limit imposed upon the jurisdiction of the County Court Judges that is the most important question for our consideration to-night, and that is the question to which my honourable Friend directed himself but the second and third questions are by no means without importance, and I would respectfully ask the attention of the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General to these two limitations of jurisdiction. Under the original County Courts Act, County Court Judges could not try actions for breach of promise, seduction, malicious prosecution, or for libel, or slander. That is how the matter originally stood, and it is practically in the same position now. I am bound to say "practically," because, by one of the results of our fortuitous legislation, a County Court Judge often finds himself trying cases of breach of promise, seduction, and other actions, because the High Court have sent them down to him to be tried. I am not going to enlarge upon the point, but I would call the attention of the Attorney-General to this matter. Quite apart from the question of pecuniary limit, why on earth should the time of the High Court be taken up in trying trivial actions for libel and slander when there are County Court Judges, in whom you have entire confidence, ready and willing to try them on reasonable terms in the counties, boroughs, or districts in which they arise? With regard to the third limit—the limit of territorial area—that is a matter really of detail on which I do not propose to trouble the House more than to ask the Attorney-General to consider the burden which is imposed by this complicated jurisdiction on a County Court Judge. A County Court Judge may wish to try a case in a big centre, but he is unable to do so. Though he is called the Judge of a circuit, he is really only the individual or separate Judge of these units of jurisdiction, and when he goes to a remote district, and is met by a request to transfer a case to his court at, say, Bristol, Birmingham, or Liverpool, he has to reply that he is very sorry, but the case cannot be transferred. Indeed, if he were to consent, the registrar is not bound to go, even if the Judge orders him to. With regard to the pecuniary limit, I think it would be difficult to imagine a more anomalous state of affairs than that which has resulted from the Acts of Parliament which have been passed during the last 50 years. The limit in Common Law actions is £50. Why £50? If a plaintiff sues for £50, the defendant may counterclaim for £5,000. If, however, within a certain number of days notice is given, the action goes to the High Court. In nine cases out of ten, when there is a counterclaim, the defendant gives no notice at all, and the County Court Judge has to decide first of all on the claim for £50, and then on the counter-claim for the higher sum. In equity cases, the limit of jurisdiction of the county courts is £500; and here, again, we ask, why £500? In practice the value of the estate is not entirely known. The plaintiff begins the action in the County Court, but the judge finds, on a valuation of some kind, that the amount is over £500. He thereupon says, "I have no jurisdiction. Go to the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice." The High Court, under these circumstances, invariably sends the case back, whether the sum involved is £1,000 or £1,500, to the very County Court Judge from whom the motion originally came. In Admiralty matters the jurisdiction of the county court judge is limited to £300, and in bankruptcy the jurisdiction is absolutely unlimited. I have myself known a case of a judge deciding an action involving a few shillings at 11.30, and at 11.45 a case involving £1,340 has been called on under the Bankruptcy Act. With regard to remitted actions, the High Court can remit actions of contract up to £100, and in certain other cases they may remit actions upon any amount, even including those matters to which I have alluded as being subjects which are not within the control of the County Courts. By the consent of the parties the Judge of a County Court may try any action, whatever the amount in dispute may be. When we go on to the other, and what I call the miscellaneous jurisdiction, the illogicality becomes, it seems to me, more apparent. I only wish to urge these considerations on the House as showing that the new legislation in regard to this jurisdiction has not been properly and logically thought out. I have never looked upon these limits as any reflection upon the capacity of the County Court Judges. This is only a question of the arrangement of the business of the country between one set of courts and another. Let us see how the thing works out. I must apologise for mentioning any personal matters, but really the position cannot be understood without concrete experiences. On Monday in last week, I went to the Court of Appeal of the Royal Courts of Justice. Both Courts of Appeal were sitting, and had very important business before them. All the Chancery Courts were sitting, as also were the Probate and Admiralty Courts. I then went into the Queen's Bench Division, and there were only two judges trying cases, one with a jury, and the other without. The remainder of the judges were all scattered about the country on circuit. I take up my paper and find that Mr. Justice Darling is complaining at Dolgelly that he is prevented from returning to important business in London by the fact that he is detained trying a case of larceny of a penny. Mr. Justice Channell was per contra trying, at the little town of Lampeter, a right-of-way case that lasted so long that he had to ask Mr. Bowen Rowlands to open the Commission at Carmarthen. Similar instances might be multiplied to show the unbusinesslike character of the present High Court organisation. Does it really transcend the ingenuity of lawyers to devise a better system of administering justice? Let me tell you what I saw in the Swansea County Court on Tuesday last. There were no fewer than seven counsel in the court—more than are seen in the small assizes. The judge first began by trying an action in which the plaintiff claimed £80. The second case was one in which two counsel came from London to appear. The plaintiff claimed £300, and the other cases were for equally large amounts raising points of interest, and a large number of solicitors was engaged in them. On Thursday, at Neath—quite a small place—the same thing occurred. There was a throng of suitors in the county court. The first was an action, under the Workmen's Compensation Act which was passed two years ago by this House, for £140. The conclusion I draw is that the real practical work of administering justice for the great majority of our fellow citizens is now being transacted in the county courts. They are the real Courts of First Instance. That is what it comes to. It is for these broad reasons that I assent to the Motion of my honourable Friend that there ought to be an increase in their jurisdiction. It seems to me impossible to defend the anomalous and capricious jurisdiction of the county courts at the present time. There are, no doubt, points on the other side. I can quite see that a hasty, not well-thought-out alteration, might lead to difficulties in regard to the performance of their original functions by the county court judges. It is thought that the county court judges have an easy appointment. That, I think, is not true. I have worked out, in regard to more than one circuit, a table showing the number of hours that county court judges are employed; and if you take into account the travelling, which is, if not the most difficult, at any rate a very irksome and disagreeable part of the County Court Judge's work, I find in one circuit that for 16 days in the month the judge was at work eleven hours a day, and in another circuit eleven and a quarter. So that when you come to compare the actual number of hours these judges spend in doing their work with those of the judges of the High Court, it seems to me there is really nothing to choose between the amount of work done by the one set of judges and the other set. Therefore, I can quite understand the argument that you must not hastily increase the work of the county court judges, but that does not in the least degree amount to an argument against this Motion, because it is quite easy to make alterations of detail in regard to the system which would permit the county court judges to do the additional work we propose to throw on them without in any way diminishing the efficiency of the County Courts. I have addressed the House longer than I intended to, but I think I have made the general line of my argument fairly clear. I should like to say that a very great historian, in writing of the courts of an empire not so great as our own, but which has the same system of jurisprudence as we have, gave a very unfavourable judgment upon the system. I refer to Mr. Edward Gibbon, a former Member of this House, and he said, with reference to the Imperial Courts, that the expense of the suit exceeded the value of the prize. That is the case with regard to this country, and their rights are often abandoned by litigants owing to the great cost involved in obtaining them. I do not wish to suggest what the Bill should be which the Government should bring in on this matter, but I am perfectly certain, Mr. Speaker, that I am voicing the views of the great bulk of my profession, and voicing the opinion of the great mass of the busines people of this country, when I say the time has come when some change ought to be made in regard to the jurisdiction of our courts, whether by increasing the jurisdiction of the County Courts, or by absorbing the County Courts in the High Courts of Justice.


Mr. Speaker, it will be well, I think, if I state at once the reasons why it will be impossible for Her Majesty's Government to accept this Motion. The subject to which it refers has been several times before the House in recent years, and on the present occasion neither the honourable Member for Gloucester nor the honourable Member for Swansea has given us any new argument in support of the Motion. No doubt there is a considerable body of opinion in the country in favour of the extension of the jurisdiction of the County Courts, and I am not going to say that there are not matters in the existing Acts of Parliament relating to the County Courts which require consideration. But I am bound to say that I think those who hold the opinion that there is great necessity for an extension of the jurisdiction of the County Courts are, to a large extent, drawn from the class of people who desire to recover debts themselves, and are not drawn from the class of people who have experienced the difficulties that surround the question of extending the jurisdiction of the County Courts. Let me illustrate that by one argument used by the honourable Member for Gloucester. He says that what he desires to see established is the Bill, or the system embodied in the Bill, which he introduced in 1897, and he tells us that that scheme is supported by a large number of Chambers of Commerce in this country. What is the leading feature of that scheme to which he says the Chambers of Commerce have given their support? It is that in every action in which the claim does not exceed £1,000 the County Courts should have jurisdiction. I wonder if my honourable Friend knows the proportion of actions in the High Court in which the amount claimed is less than £1,000? I have gone into the figures, and have had statistics furnished to me, and I remember that something between 80 and 90 per cent, of the actions on the Common Law side of the High Court were actions to recover less than £1,000. Therefore, if this system were adopted, it would practically mean, the abolition of the High Court. No arguments have been adduced to justify such a change. Passing from what I may call the preamble of the honourable Member's Motion, he desires to say that the time has arrived when it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government to initiate or facilitate legislation having for its object a considerable extension of the ordinary jurisdiction of County Courts in Common Law cases. Mr. Speaker, I quite agree with the honourable Member for Gloucester that if any such scheme is to be undertaken it must be undertaken by the Government of the day. County Courts are under the special jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor, and there is a vast machinery connected with them, information as to which is in the hands of Public Departments, and it would be quite impossible for any private Member to have the information necessary to elaborate a proper scheme. But, before we say the matter is ripe for the Government of the day to initiate or facilitate legislation, let us see what the existing state of things is. The primary object of the County Courts is, and should be, the speedy recovery of small debts, and the trial of actions in which there are not likely to be difficult questions of law. But the burden of work already cast on the County Courts by recent legislation is such that, to a very large extent, they are not able to fulfil that primary duty for which they were introduced. The honourable and learned Member for Swansea speaks with special qualification and experience on this matter, having been himself a County Court Judge, and having practised at the Bar. He has enumerated to the House the range of jurisdiction already given to County Courts, but there are many County Courts which are not able to discharge the duties which have been imposed upon them under the various Acts of Parliament. It is a fact at the present time that under the Workmen's Compensation Act the County Court Judges have had to avail themselves, to a large extent, of the services of arbitrators to sit and hear cases. The congested state of business in the County Courts is such that it is impossible, without sacrificing the efficiency of the County Courts, to extend their jurisdiction to any large extent. How does the honourable Member for Gloucester propose to deal with that? It is all very well for the House to adopt an abstract Resolution of this kind, but it would be absurd to pass any legislation unless the House has in its-mind some definite scheme. The honourable and learned Member for Gloucester proposes, first of all, to establish 19 special County Court circuits in various parts of the country, to be presided over by a Judge, who is to have a salary of £2,500; with a Chief Registrar, who is to have a salary of £1,500; and an Assistant Registrar, who is to have a salary of £800. This proposal, in my opinion, would create an invidious distinction between one County Court and another. If there is to be an extension of jurisdiction, it should apply to all County Courts. I would like to know what the Chancellor of the Exchequer would say to this scheme, by which it is proposed to increase the cost of the County Court Judges by £17,000 a year, the Registrars by £15,000 or £20,000 a year, and then to add a new class of Assistant-Registrars at a further cost of £10,000 a year. I myself agree in the opinion that the Common Law Division of the High Court requires further revision, but I cannot see the logic of the argument of the honourable and learned Member for Swansea, who says that the fact that there were very few Queen's Bench Judges sitting on the day of his visit is an argument in favour of the work of the County Court Judges being increased. There must be some sub-division of jurisdiction. You can always point to anomalous cases. It is always easy to say that, if a man can bring an action in a County Court for £49 19s. 11d., why should he not be able to bring an action for £51? These anomalies always do exist where you have any dividing line. I decline to pledge Her Majesty's Government to bring in a Bill to extend County Court jurisdiction when no one suggests a practical scheme by which it could be carried out. I have never yet heard of any scheme by which all anomalies will be avoided, or which would prevent honourable Members from, saying "How ridiculous it is there should be an arbitrary money limit!" But, looking at the object for which County Courts were established, and the questions which accompany claims for largo amounts, I do not think our ancestors were at all foolish or misguided when they suggested that the one test should be the amount to be recovered. While I thoroughly agree with the suggestion that the number of County Courts ought to be reduced, and that there ought to lie economy of time and of travelling, so as to make County Courts fully efficient, I do not see how you can appreciably increase the burden of actual work which has to be performed by County Courts if they are to do that which has been placed upon them by the Statute Law. I am at one with the honourable Member for Gloucester in his wish that the traders of this country should have a speedy means of recovering their debts, and that this should be done at as little cost and inconvenience as possible; but, in my opinion, neither of these very desirable objects would be attained by the suggestions which have been made by the honourable Member. I do trust that the House will not be led away to vote for the Motion, expressing the opinion that the time has come when Her Majesty's Government should reasonably be expected to initiate or facilitate Legislation having for its object a considerable extension of the ordinary jurisdiction of County Courts when it has no scheme before it by which such a proposal could be carried out. For these reasons I am not able to support the Motion of the honourable Member for Gloucester and I think the House would be wise in rejecting the Resolution, in order that we may have time to consider and develop a proper system which will be satisfactory to the country. SIB R. REID (Dumfries Burghs): Mr. Speaker, I think it is very unfortunate that the Attorney-General has not seen his way to say something a little more definite with regard to this Motion. He has not disputed the fact that there is at the present moment a considerable grievance in this matter, and he has not permitted himself to say that that grievance cannot be removed. Ho tells the House that this Motion, which is couched in general terms, is really the same thing as the Bill which the honourable Member for Gloucester introduced in 1897, although the Motion says nothing about that Bill. The anomalies and inconvenience of the present County Court system are very considerable, and no one attempts to defend them. No one disputes that County Court judges are quite capable of deciding larger issues than are now entrusted to them. The absurdities of the system are not the result of any design, but simply of accidental haphazard legislation. We are all ready and willing to assist the Attorney-General so far as we can in this matter. It wants a little time for consideration; it wants a little thinking out; but I do not believe that the difficulties in the way of bringing about a reform are insuperable. I do not think it would be even necessary to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer for any additional money. I cannot see, from what I have heard of the Bill of the honourable Gentleman the Member for Gloucester, that it contains very many elements of good beyond the proposed extension of jurisdiction. I do not see the coed of multiplying offices, and in creating a number of largely paid officials. I believe, that is the kind of proposal which, when it accompanies a reform, does more than anything else to postpone the reform for an indefinite time. At the present County Court judges have not very much work to do.


That statement has been made before. I can assure my right honourable Friend that if he inquired into the matter he would be surprised to find how busy County Court judges are, and how much their time is occupied.


I accept the statement of the Attorney-General, but the fact remains that County Court judges might very easily be relieved of a good deal of their work by a better distribution of that work, and by removing some of the extremely simple cases which now come before them. This is not a reform which will require enormous human qualities to discover a remedy for. Though, perhaps, not strictly germane to the Resolution, I should like to say that the expense of the County Court, by reason of the fees, is now, and has been, greatly beyond what it ought to be. The attention of the Attorney-General has been drawn to this matter before, and I understood that he promised last year that we should have some amendment. Well, nothing has been done. I know that it takes more than a year to redeem a promise, but I hope something will be done.


I did not promise anything. What I said was that I would consider the matter in the hope of being able to do something.


Yes, that was so; but nothing has been done. I hope the Attorney-General will not be discouraged, but that he will continue his efforts to effect a reform in this matter. I have no more to say, as the matter has been thoroughly thrashed out, but I do think we ought to have something more specific—much more specific—from the Government than we have had from the Attorney-General. I certainly think the time has come when some amendment should be made.

*MR, GEDGE (Walsall)

Sir, I regret that in a matter of this kind, which is far removed from Party politics or fundamental political principles, the Government should take so decided a line in opposing my honourable Friend's Motion, because it seems to me that this is just one of those matters in which the Government should rather try to ascertain what the wishes of the various constituencies are, as represented by their Members in Parliament, than set themselves up sternly against a Motion of this kind. They should have left Members who have no desire to oppose the Government to vote as they thought lit, or as their constituencies might wish them to vote. As I occupy the position of a solicitor in London, I should not, personally, desire an extension in the manner proposed of the jurisdiction of the County Courts, but I am the representative of a large commercial borough, whose chamber of commerce, an important body, comprising a large number of the employers and manufacturers and commercial men in the town, have unanimously resolved that this Motion ought to be supported by their Member. I shall, therefore, vote for it unless the Government ask for it to be withdrawn, on a strong promise that they will take the matter into consideration, with a view of dealing with it. It seems to me that, whilst the proposal contained in the Motion is a wide one, the arguments of the right honourable Gentleman the Attorney-General do not at all prove that a mistake will be committed if the Motion is passed. We shall be by no means tied up with a Bill which is in embryo. All we ask is that the Government shall take the matter into their consideration, and initiate, or facilitate, legislation on the subject. The Attorney-General asks us to negative the Resolution, in order that the Government may have time to consider the matter. Nobody supposes that, if this Resolution is passed, the Government are bound to bring in a Bill to-morrow. I am sure we shall all be satisfied if a Bill is brought in next year. Surely between now and next Session there will be plenty of time for the Government to bring in this not very difficult Bill! It is true that some county court judges are not sufficently employed, but one reason why more business is not taken into the county courts is that the fees are too high. It is cheaper, in some cases, to issue a writ in the High Court. Great injustice is done to the poorer parties to an action in consequence. In many cases people prefer to endure wrong rather than incur the great expense which is necessary to obtain justice. I certainly think the Attorney-General should consider the question of fees. With regard to the extension of jurisdiction, there is one great good which would come from that. In the first place, with enlarged jurisdiction the salaries of the judges must be increased, and the result will be that we shall get a higher class of barristers to seek these appointments. I do not mean to say that many of the present County Court judges are not good men, but more than one Lord Chancellor has acted as if a County Court judgeship were a very nice position for a man who has failed at the Bar. I look upon this proposal as a Statute for the distribution of County Court judgeships and the distribution ought to be per capita and not per stirpes—that is, according to brains rather than family considerations. It is of even greater importance to appoint good men to the County Courts than to the higher courts, because in County Courts there is seldom jury possibility of appeal. Though the reform that is proposed may cost the country a little money, it will certainly add to the popularity of the County Courts by giving cheap, speedy, effective, and well-administered law, and the increase of fees will soon recoup the extra cost. I venture again to ask the Government to allow us to ascertain what is the opinion of Members of this House in regard to this Motion, and I am sure, if they will do that, they will see at once that there is quite sufficient reason for this matter being taken in hand in order that a Bill may be brought in next year to put an end to what is now a crying evil.

*SIR. J. LENG (Dundee)

Mr. Speaker, as a layman, I should not have entered into this discussion except for two reasons. The first is, that for several years I was a Vice-President of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, of which the honourable Gentleman who seconded the Motion was he respected President. I can testify, from my attendance at the deliberations of that association, that there was no subject on which the members representing the mercantile community throughout the country were more unanimous than that the jurisdiction of the county courts should be extended. My second reason is this: What is proposed and considered as an innovation for England is a matter of experience in Scotland, and I am glad to see that there are two right honourable Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench who are particularly well acquainted with the work of our Sheriff Court system in Scotland. It is only proposed to extend to England the same jurisdiction that the sheriff's have in Scotland. All who are acquainted with the working of the system in Scotland have the highest respect for the sheriffs of that country, and it is quite a common thing for not only very important cases, but cases involving large sums of money, to be initiated in the Sheriff's Court. It does not follow, because you have an unlimited jurisdiction in the Court of First Instance, that, therefore, people will not resort to the Supreme Court. The litigants have their option. Many of them initiate their cases in the Supreme Courts, but, on the other hand, hundreds and thousands of cases are initiated in the Court of First Instance—the local court—and in a very large number of cases the litigants are satisfied with the decisions that they receive there. Now, all that is proposed by the honourable Gentleman the Member for Gloucester with regard to the extension of jurisdiction practically exists in Scotland, and any attempt to deprive the people of that country of it would be resented and resisted. Why should you not, in the South, avail yourselves of the experience of Scotland, and adopt the system which has been found to work so satisfactorily there? I very much regret that the right honourable Gentleman has not seen his way to benefit by our experience in this matter. The right honourable Gentleman has said that no scheme has been suggested for carrying out this reform. In my opinion, it is the duty of the Government to devise means for giving effect to the wishes and the intentions of their constituents. The attitude taken up by the Government to-night is a non possumus attitude. To raise up, magnify, and multiply difficulties is not the right attitude for any officer of the Government to take up. Year after year, for many years past, the Chambers of Commerce in England have urged that this reform should be brought about, and I contend that it is the duty of the Government to take this matter into their consideration.

Question put— That, in the opinion of this House, the time has arrived when Her Majesty's Government may reasonably be expected to initate or facilitate legislation having for its object a considerable extension of the ordinary Jurisdiction of County Courts in Common Law, Equity, and Admiralty Causes."—(Mr. Monk.)

The House divided: —Ayes 69; Noes 98.—(Division List No. 24.)

Allan, William (Gateshead) Hedderwick, Thomas C. H. Power, Patrick Joseph
Asher, Alexander Hemphill, Rt. Hon. C. H. Priestley, Briggs (Yorks.)
Ashmead-Bartlett, Sir Ellis Hickman, Sir Alfred Provand, Andrew Dryburgh
Austin, Sir John (Yorkshire) Hutton, Alfred E. (Morley) Rickett, J. Compton
Baker, Sir John Jones, W. (Carnarvonshire) Samuel, J. (Stockton-on-Tees)
Barlow, John Emmott Kenyon, James Smith, Samuel (Flint)
Bayley, Thos. (Derbyshire) Kitson, Sir James Steadman, William Charles
Brunner, Sir John Tomlinson Lawson, Sir W. (Cumberland) Strachey, Edward
Burt, Thomas Leng, Sir John Sullivan, Donal (Westmeath)
Caldwell, James Lewis, John Herbert Thomas, A. (Glamorgan, E.)
Cawley, Frederick Lloyd-George, David Thomas, David A. (Merthyr)
Channing, Francis Allston Logan, John William Walton, Joseph (Barnsley)
Clark, Dr. G. B. (Caithness-sh.) Macaleese, Daniel Wanklyn, James Leslie
Clough, Walter Owen M'Dermott, Patrick Wedderburn, Sir William
Cooke, C. W. R. (Hereford) Maddison, Fred. Weir, James Galloway
Curran, Thomas (Sligo, S.) Moulton, John Fletcher Whittaker, Thomas Palmer
Davies, M. Vaughan-(Cardigan Northcote, Hon. Sir H. S. Wilson, J. H. (Middlesbrough)
Dilke, Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Norton, Capt. Cecil William Woodhouse Sir J. T. (Huddersfd)
Donkin, Richard Sim Nussey, Thomas Willans Wortley, Rt. Hn. C. B. Stuart-
Douglas, Chas. M. (Lanark.) O'Connor, Arthur (Donegal)
Duckworth, James O'Keeffe, Francis Arthur TELLERS FOR THE AYES—
FitzWygram, General Sir F. O'Kelly, James Mr. Monk and Mr. Brynmor Jones.
Fry, Lewis Palmer, Sir C. M. (Durham)
Gedge, Sydney Pickard, Benjamin
Harwood, George Pickersgill, Edward Hare
Ambrose, William (Middlesex) Fisher, William Hayes Murray, Rt. Hn. A. G. (Bute)
Archdale, Edward Mervyn FitzGerald, Sir R. Penrose- Nicholson, William Graham
Arrol, Sir William Forster, Henry William Nicol, Donal Ninian
Atkinson, Rt. Hon. John Garfit, William Parkes, Ebenezer
Balfour, Rt. Hn. A. J. (Manch'r) Gibbons, J. Lloyd Pease, H. Pike (Darlington)
Balfour, Rt. Hn. G. W. (Leeds) Gilliat, John Saunders Pryce-Jones, Lt.-Col. E.
Banbury, Frederick Geo. Goldsworthy, Major-General Purvis, Robert
Barton, Dunbar Plunket Gordon, Hon. John Edward Richardson, Sir T. (Hartlep'l)
Beach, Rt. Hn. Sir M. H. (Bristol) Gray, Ernest (West Ham) Ritchie, Rt. Hon. C. Thomson
Beckett, Ernest William Greene, H. D. (Shrewsbury) Rutherford, John
Bemrose, Sir Henry Howe Gretton, John Sandys, Lt.-Col. Thos. Myles
Bhownaggree, Sir M. M. Hamilton, Rt. Hon. Lord Geo. Seton-Karr, Henry
Bigwood, James Hanbury, Rt. Hon Robert W. Sidebotham, J. W. (Cheshire)
Blundell, Colonel Henry Haslett, Sir James Horner Sidebottom, W. (Derbysh.)
Bowles, T. G. (King's Lynn) Heath, James Stone, Sir Benjamin
Brassey, Albert Helder, Augustus Strauss, Arthur
Cavendish, R. F. (N. Lancs.) Howard, Joseph Strutt, Hon. C. Hedley
Cavendish, V. C. W. (Derbysh.) Johnston, William (Belfast) Talbot, Lord E. (Chichester)
Cecil, E. (Hertford, E.) Keswick, William Talbot, Rt Hn J. G. (Oxf'dUniv.)
Cecil, Lord H. (Greenwich) Lafone, Alfred Thornton, Percy M.
Chamberlain, J. A. (Worc'r) Lawrence, Sir E. Durning-(Corn- Usborne, Thomas
Chaplin, Rt. Hon. Henry Llewelyn, Sir Dillwyn-(Swansa) Valentia, Viscount
Clare, Octavius Leigh Lockwood, Lt. Col. A. R. Wallace, Robert (Perth)
Cochrane, Hon. T. H. A. E. Long, Rt. Hn. W. (Liverpool) Webster, R. G. (St. Pancras)
Collings, Rt. Hon. Jesse Lowles, John Webster, Sir R. E. (I. of Wight)
Colston, Chas. E. H. Athole Loyd, Archie Kirkman Welby, Lieut.-Col. A. C. E.
Cook, Fred. Lucas (Lambeth) Macartney, W. G. Ellison Whiteley, George (Stockport)
Cornwallis, Fiennes S. W. Macdona, John Cumming Wyndham, George
Curzon, Viscount MacIver, David (Liverpool) Wyndham-Quin, Major W. H.
Disraeli, Coningsby Ralph Maclure, Sir John William Young, Commander (Berks. E.)
Douglas, Rt. Hon. A. Akers- M'Killop, James
Duncombe, Hon. Hubert V. More, R. Jasper (Shropshire) TELLERS FOR THE NOES—
Elliot, Hon. A. Ralph Douglas Morgan, Hn. F. Monm'thsh.) Sir William Walrond and Mr. Anstruther
Finlay, Sir Robert Bannatyne Morrell, George Herbert