HC Deb 21 March 1900 vol 80 cc1366-405

Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. CHARLES MCARTHUR (Liverpool, Exchange)

The object of this Bill is to limit the liability of shipowners in two particulars not provided for by the present Merchant Shipping Act. The House is no doubt aware that by the Act of 1894 the liability of shipowners in respect of damage to property at sea, inflicted by their vessels, is limited to £8 per ton; but the Merchant Shipping Act and the law in general is quite silent as to the liability of shipowners for damage on land, fixed piers, docks, canals, wharves, or landing stages. This omission is somewhat remarkable because in the French code there is a provision limiting the liability of shipowners in this respect. It is believed that the liability in Germany is the same, and there is a Bill now before the Belgian Parliament to limit the liability of shipowners in this respect. The reason for the omission is the less clear if we consider that the object of attaching a limitation to the liabilities of shipowners is because the shipping trade is one which is liable to peculiar and extraordinary dangers, coupled with the fact that, as a general rule, the shipowner has no control over the circumstances which result in accident. If shipowners were to be made liable for any loss that might be occasioned by their servants, the shipping trade would be overwhelmed with such responsibilities that capital would be prevented from flowing into the shipping industry, and shipowners might be involved in ruin. On that account shipowners have by law been permitted to limit their liability for damage at sea, and there is no reason why that general principle should not be extended to damage to fixed objects. Supposing when a ship is going into dock damage is done, it is quite immaterial to the shipowner whether that damage is done to another vessel or to a pier, and if we look at it from the point of view of the injured per-son it is equally difficult to see the reason for the distinction. I am quite aware that the dock owners have contended that they are entitled to preferential claims, but seeing that they are paid by the shipowners by means of dues, I do not see that their position is preferential as against shipowners or cargo-owners. I can only assume that the omission which we now seek to rectify was due to the fact that when the Act was passed ships were not so numerous, and that accidents, when they occurred, were not so dangerous as they are now; but owing to the increase of shipping, and the increased costliness of dock and harbour works, such accidents, when they do occur, are more serious; and they are more frequent. I think I shall perhaps make the necessity for the Bill more clear to the House if I mention a few of the accidents that have occurred. The first is the case of a steamer called the "Harold," which in 1899 was going down the Manchester Ship Canal, and when she approached the Latchford Lock her engines were ordered to be reversed, preparatory to entering the lock; but through some neglect in her engine-room the orders were not obeyed, and the vessel continued under full steam and came into violent contact with the gates, which were burst open; the ship entered the lock, and the engineer reversed the engines just in time to prevent the same thing happening to the lower gates. If that had occurred the water in the higher reach of the canal would have flooded the lower reach, and the damage done would have been enormous. The amount of damages actually paid by the shipowner for this accident was £13,000, while the statutory limitation in respect of damage to shipping was £5,456. On another occasion, a steamer, which had entered Barton Locks, was set in motion by mistake and burst the lower gates, falling down fifteen feet into the lower waters and damaging herself very much. Here again the consequences would have been very serious had not the officials shut the upper gates of the lock, and prevented the water rushing down into the lower reaches. In a third case a ship named the "Blanche Rock" lying outside the Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead, had to be moved up a little closer to the gates, but was moved too far ahead, burst them open, and all the water in the dock flowed into the river, sweeping a number of flats into the river, damaging several steamers, destroying a pontoon and a shed, and causing, I regret to say, some loss of life. And one point I should like to call attention to here is that this clause of the Bill does not in any way reduce the shipowner's liability in respect of any loss of life, but only in respect of damage to property. In the last case the damage done, taking the basis of £8 a ton on the tonnage of that vessel, would have amounted to £3,768, but the dock company alone claimed £6,000, and an enormous, amount of liability attached to the shipowner. In consequence of the accident to the "Harold" s.s., representations were made by shipowners to the Manchester Canal Company as to the difficulties and liability incurred in navigating that water, and the consequence was that the Manchester Ship Canal Company, seeing the point, introduced a clause in one of their Bills limiting the liability of owners, so far as the canal was concerned, to £8 per ton, and that is practically the clause which we attempt to make general to all docks and property on land by this Bill. With regard to the attitude of the dock authorities, who ask that if the liability of shipowners is limited they (the dockowners) should be allowed to limit their own liabilities in respect of damage done to ships, we recognise that the contention is a reasonable one, and, therefore, shipowners not only assent to that contention, but they are willing to assist in every way the action of the dock authorities to have a clause to that effect inserted in the Bill in Committee. We are willing to accede to the dock authorities a corresponding limitation of liability to that which we claim for the shipowners, but the dock authorities are not agreed among themselves as to the precise form the clause should take, and the details must be considered by the Committee. That being so, and there being absolute unanimity of opinion on this Bill among those interested, I hope the House will pass this first clause, which is just in itself and will be fair in its operation. The second clause is more complicated, and its object is to put the liability of the British and foreign shipowners on a reciprocal footing with regard to collisions at sea. The laws of other countries agree with the law of Great Britain in so far that they agree that the shipowner is liable for the acts of his servants, and that his liability shall be limited; but the law of all foreign countries is that the shipowner who becomes liable for damage by the act of his servants may discharge himself from all liability by abandoning his ship, or what remains of her, and her freight. The continental jurists recognise the principle that a shipowner shall be liable to the extent of the value which he exposes to risk his fortune de mer, and no further. It is an old custom, that has been in existence since the fourteenth century, and for 300 years has formed part of the jurisprudence of all foreign countries; and I think I am justified in saying that this is the law of all countries except Great Britain. In my opinion there is a sound reason underlying this, because a shipowner having no real control over the acts of those in charge of his vessel, is not morally responsible for loss or injury caused by their negligence. Nevertheless it is desirable that the sufferer should not be without a remedy; and these two requirements are satisfied by the rule of law that the owner shall not be liable to a greater extent than the value of that which he has exposed to risk. The fundamental difference between the law of Great Britain and that of foreign countries is that while in this country the shipowner is made personally liable to the extent of £8 per ton, foreign shipowners can get rid of their liability by abandoning their vessel and her freight. Every country in the world except Great Britain accords to the shipowner this right of abandoning his vessel and her freight. According to the common law of England, the shipowners' liability is unlimited; but in 1862 the Legislature of this country enacted that in regard to property the owner was to be liable to the extent of £8 per registered ton of his vessel, and in regard to life to £15 per ton. Now let us consider the effect of this difference in the law? If a British ship and a foreign ship were in collision on the high seas and both sank, if the wrongdoer were British, the foreigner could come to a British court and recover £8 per ton from the British owner, but if the foreigner were in fault and the British owner went to the foreign court he could recover nothing. An actual case of this kind has occurred, viz., that of the "Indra" s.s. (British), and the "Desterre" s.s. (German), which came into collision. Both vessels were to blame, and the foreign owner obtained £30,852 damages in a British court. If the German steamer had been at fault and our shipowner had pursued him in a German court, the German owner would have escaped altogether by simply abandoning his ship. He would have said, "You can have my ship; she is at the bottom of the sea, and you can go and take her. "If a collision occurs between a British and a foreign vessel, neither being sunk, and the vessel in fault is of lower value than £8 per ton, then if the British owner is in fault the foreign owner can recover his £8 per ton in a British court, whereas if the foreigner is in fault the British owner in a foreign court can only recover perhaps £4 or £5 per ton, according to the value of the vessel. Even in regard to actions in British courts against foreigners we are not able to enforce the £8 per ton if the value of the foreign vessel were below that figure, for then the foreign owner would not give bail. The foreigner has thus the option of limiting his liability to £8 per ton, or of abandoning his vessel and freight, whichever may be to his advantage. The French law does not even permit British owners to abandon their ships in the French courts, and holds that outside the three-mile limit the law is the law of the flag, and therefore they say, "She is a British ship, and cannot be abandoned, and we hold you liable to the extent of £8 per ton." I think I have shown the way in which the difference between British and foreign law is applied against Great Britain in every way, and the result is that our ships are worse off and pay a great deal more to foreign countries than they would do if they had reciprocal treatment. That is a state of things that ought to be put an end to. It is reciprocity that we ask for. But I put the case on higher ground, that there is great need of a uniform international law in such matters. The open sea is no man's land, it is a public highway where the vessels of all nations meet on terms of equality, subject to a common law of the sea; but this common law is not universal, and I propose to pass the second clause of this Bill not only as an act of justice to the shipping trade, but as a step towards international uniformity. A recent conference held in London, convened by the International Law Society and the Comité Maritime International of Antwerp, and consisting of eminent jurists, legislators, and mercantile men from Great Britain, the Continent, and the United States, after a long discussion, arrived at an agreement which is substantially expressed in the second clause of this Bill. There was a time when the policy of this country was to foster the shipping trade, or, at least, to leave the shipowners untrammelled, and then came a period of restrictive legislation, when burdens and liabilities were laid on British shipowners from which foreign owners are entirely free. Since then there has been a slight reaction, due in no slight degree to the present President of the Board of Trade, who has resisted further restrictive measures, and done something to alleviate in a slight degree the burdens devolving upon shipowners. I think we ought to acknowledge our indebtedness to him and the sympathetic attitude he has always displayed regarding the shipping trade. But what have foreign countries been doing? They have been encouraging the shipping trade in every possible way by bounties on navigation or bounties on the construction of ships, and we know that there is before the American Congress at the present time a measure proposing to grant large bounties to American shipping and American shipowners, and in that way efforts have been made to increase their merchant shipping; because, after all, they know that merchant shipping is one great source of wealth and prosperity. If the shipping trade is discouraged in this country and encouraged by foreign countries the natural result must be that we must decrease and they must increase, and the maritime supremacy so long enjoyed by this country must pass away from it. That is the opinion of many who are well able to judge as to the position at the present time. There are signs of that already appearing. One sign is the displacement of British by foreign seamen to a great and increasing extent; and another is the transfer of British shipping to foreign flags, which is increasing every year. Well, it is as far as possible to prevent this that I appeal to the House to grant the Second Reading of this Bill. I know that to a large extent we must expect opposition to the second clause. I hope that if the Government cannot see their way to assent to the second clause they will take the matter into serious consideration and grant a Committee to inquire into this matter. I put the case now to the House as a whole. I think we ought to have the Bill as a whole. I trust the Government will give us their support to pass the Second Reading of the Bill, and I put it before the House as an act of justice to shipowners and an instalment of international uniformity. I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed "That the Bill be read a second time."—(Mr. Charles MacArthur.)

*SIR ALBERT ROLLIT (Islington, S.)

There is a very strong case indeed for the Bill, and it has been admirably presented by my hon. friend who has just addressed the House. So far as the first portion of the Bill is concerned—the part as to the limitation of liability for damage to fixed objects—it is really a corollary of existing statutes, which are as old as George II. and George III.—the foundations of shipping limitations—and so recent as the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1854 and 1894, which confirmed and renewed that limitation. I think it is to be assumed that, inasmuch as the limitation does not rest on the common law or even upon maritime usage, but upon the express words of statutes its enactment is founded upon deliberation, and indicates the decided sense of this House that this limitation is based upon a proper principle. We have also the fact that the limitation is supported by the provisions of the great majority of the codes of foreign nations. It was included, I believe, in the French code, but long before that it existed in French ordinances which were passed for the purpose of increasing the maritime trade of France. It existed in a maritime nation like Holland at an early period, and is found in ordinances of Rotterdam, Hamburg, and other great maritime ports. I think it may be said, therefore, that the common sense of maritime nations has generally felt that this provision is essential to the full development of that important branch of national industry, the shipping trade, so that the limitation has an international sanction. I would suggest to the House that the great basis of that provision is probably that there must practically be a proportion between the return expected in commerce and the risk which is undergone, and if the disproportion is so great as to hazard a man's whole fortune in consequence of the acts of those over whom he has no immediate control, then you place by a law of that description a limitation upon shipping and commercial enterprise, which other nations and our own have felt to be almost prohibitive. The principles upon which the law of limitation is based have been put before the House, and I think they only require consideration to recommend them. The perils of the sea and the difficulties of navigation are exceptional, and are probably the first ground upon which limitation has been enacted. It has also been provided for the encouragement of maritime enterprise, and I think when the statute of George II. was originally passed it was on that express ground among others, and upon petitions presented by the shipowners and merchants of the city of London expressing their alarm for their business if a case which established unlimited liability were upheld by the legislature. Those grounds are fully set forth in the preamble of that statute. But after all, one of the chief grounds of this exemption from complete liability seems to me to be a necessary condition under which the shipping industry is carried on—that of the owner being himself at a distance and absolutely dependent in a difficult and dangerous calling upon those whom he employs, and over whom he has no continuing control. That this principle underlies the legislation that has taken place is shown by one case in which the shipowner is still, notwithstanding the statute, held to be liable, namely, if he happens to combine in himself the position both of owner and master, and when he is on the spot taking part in the navigation of the ship, in which case he is not able to avail himself of the limitation. The calling is so exceptional, and the dependency so extreme in difficult circumstances on the part of the owner, that he ought to be specially protected. I can imagine its being said that such a provision may tend to negligence on the part either of the owner or the master or crew. I think the great fact—and surely this is an appreciation of the encouragement given to maritime enterprise—that the mercantile marine of this country has transported so vast an army to South Africa without the loss of a single life, is, at any rate, an indication that there has been no growth of negligence on the part of shipowners, and no deterioration in the character of our seamen in consequence of such legislation. The statistics which show that casualties in which there is loss of life are decreasing point to the same conclusion. The particular amendment of the law proposed by this Bill is in relation to fixed objects, and the principles apply equally, for these works are very costly and equally within the dangers and difficulties of navigation, even in canals in which we have instances of injuries. It cannot be said that this is adding to the principles on which the Merchant Shipping Act is based by including objects on land. I venture to suggest that there is a provision already in relation to objects on land, the principle of which is the same, and the growth and origin of which has been the same—I mean the Carriers Act. The Carriers Act protects a common carrier in the case of the loss of or injury to valuable articles. He is equally dependent upon those whom he employs, and difficulties of land transit exist, though not so much as in the days of highwaymen, so the law limits his liability to a very moderate amount as compared with the value of the articles which from time to time are entrusted to his custody for carriage. Originally a common carrier was an insurer; but it has been felt that it would be a very unjust state of affairs if the risk was so wholly disproportionate to the return to be expected and the remuneration to be gained from the calling. It is a singular fact that the first statute of George II., limiting the liability of shipowners, was passed on exactly the same principles as the limitation in the case of the Carriers Act. In other words, to meet the carriage of valuable articles—the particular case being the carriage of bullion to Portugal—for to the astonishment of the shipping community of London it was held that the shipowner was liable to the full amount of the article carried. The statute of George II. therefore limited liability at first to cases of robbery and fire, just as in the case of the land carrier, and that was followed by the Act of George III., and the more recent Acts of 1854 and 1894, placing limitation of liability on a firm and broad basis. I think, under these circumstances, there is an irresistible case for the present Bill. As I have said, it is a consequence of the principles on which legislation was originally initiated, and I trust the reasons advanced by my hon. friend will commend themselves to the House, so that an act of justice to the shipowners will be done by the passing of the Bill. I have only one word to say about the second part. I think my hon. friend said very wisely that he left the alteration of the law as to the right of abandonment very much in the hands of the Government, and I shall be interested to know what course they will follow. In these days of great international trade it has become most desirable that we should have a wide assimilation of the law of nations. Certainly in this particular case it seems to me that the principle of abandonment has been amply justified by my hon. friend. The great reason why shipowners claim this clause is that in many cases they are in an unequal position as compared with foreign and competing owners. I will not argue the case so fully of our own ports, though even here there are great comparative disadvantages, but take the case of foreign ports, where a foreign shipowner thinks proper to bring his remedy. He may choose that law, foreign or English, which will suit his purpose best without any regard whatever to justice toward English shipowners. If he thinks it well to take his own foreign principle of abandonment as the basis of his law, he does so if it pays him better. If, on the other hand, he finds the English law of limitation by amount works out more advantageously he says, "We will try you by your own law. "He thus gains an unequal advantage. On the other hand, the English shipowners are practically unable to adopt the same course, and thus you have a breach of that equality which is equity. This clause asks that equity shall be done to the British shipowner, and it asks it with the assent of foreign, nations. The proposal is to place our people on an equality with foreign nations, in both our courts and theirs, not against their will, but as interpreted by the international conference, with their full will and assent, accepting as they do the right of abandonment as a principle of modern international law. The object of this Bill is simply to assimilate our law to the foreign law, and to place foreign shipowners and British shipowners on an equal basis. I hope that, after what has been said by my hon. friend, those who take an adverse view of the measure, such as dock and harbour authorities, will be conciliated, for they may be assured that there is no disposition whatever to do otherwise than fully recognise reciprocal rights. But that cannot be done at this stage of the Bill. If one's contention in favour of the assimilation of the foreign law to the British law is correct, the Bill must, of course, go into Committee on that point, apart altogether from the question of limitation. I hope when that time comes the general indications of agreement which have been shown to-day and which are seriously and genuinely felt by the shipowning interest, will be put into words. The privilege which we seek is one which we are equally prepared to extend to those owners of property who may be affected by the passage of this Bill. There are other points of absence of limitation of liability where it ought to exist; there are many anomalies, one of which is that simply on the technical ground that the Crown can do no wrong, or on the equally technical ground that no statute binds the Crown unless the Crown is expressly mentioned therein, a mercantile shipowner might be made liable for the whole value of one of Her Majesty's ships in the event of its being injured by collision with a merchantman. But that is not a point I am going to raise now. I shall certainly do nothing, by introducing other elements, to jeopardise an act of justice to shipowners. If the time should arrive in Committee for speaking of these other matters, well and good; but for the present I heartily support the proposal made by my hon. friend, and, in justice to the shipping industry, I hope it will be carried.


As my objection to this Bill is confined to the point raised by my hon. friend who has just spoken, it might appear that I should be satisfied with the assurances which have been given by the mover of the Second Reading of the Bill. But I am not quite sure that I can be so satisfied—not that I doubt the sincerity of my hon. friend, or of those who are acting with him, but because I am not certain whether the forms of the House will allow the clause which he has promised to be inserted in Committee. If that question is satisfactorily cleared up I should be quite willing to withdraw my opposition to the Bill; but in the circumstances it appears to me and to those for whom I am acting that I have no alternative but to oppose the Second Reading. Although it has been said that the principle of reciprocity is fully admitted, and that those who are supporting the Bill are willing to insert such a provision, the fact remains that it is not at present in the Bill; and as long as it is not in the Bill, or until we are satisfied that it will ultimately be in, we must continue our opposition. I need not labour the argument in favour of this clause for which I contend, but at present the Bill is one-sided. It may be a question—but it is one into which I shall not enter whether it is right for Parliament to extend the limitation of liability which at present exists. I quite admit that there is a prima facie case in the legislation which has already taken place on the subject, and as there is a limit at present existing it may be right to extend it. But certainly if it is extended there should be this reciprocity between the two parties who are concerned when damage occurs. At present there is substantial reciprocity, because although an owner may, when he is in the right, receive only a portion of the damage, yet when he is in the wrong he would have to pay only a portion of the damage. In the measure proposed there would be no reciprocity. The shipowner would receive from the dock or harbour authority his damage in full, but in the event of the fault lying with his ship the dockowner might receive only a proportion of the damages. That is manifestly unfair, and it is out of harmony with the law as it at present stands. But I need not press this point, as those who are supporting the Bill see the justice of our case, and are willing to grant it. At the same time, some action is required on the part of this House before the suggested clause can be inserted in Committee, and that is the reason why my hon. friend opposite, whose name is on the back of the Bill, has an Instruction on the Paper to provide for that being done. It would certainly be very bad legislation, and cause a great deal of injustice and irritation, if the reciprocal clause did not appear in the measure. It is because I am in the difficulty of not feeling safe in withdrawing my opposition that I have no alternative but to proceed with the Amendment of which I have given notice, and which I now beg to move.


formally seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed— To leave out all the words after the word 'That,' in order to add the words 'this House does not consider it would be equitable to pass a Bill extending the limitation of the liability of the owners of ships to claims for loss or damage to property on laud without a reciprocal limitation of liability in favour of the owners of such property for loss or damage caused to ship'"—(Sir William Houldsworth.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

SIR J. LENG (Dundee)

When I agreed to my name being placed on the back of this Bill there was no anticipation of any difference of opinion arising between shipowners and dockowners. The dockowners had, in fact, come to an agreement with the shipowners, and it was only when it was found that the Bill did not contain the clause which it is desired to have inserted that the dockowners and the harbour authorities felt it necessary to take steps to protect their own interests. All that is required is that reciprocity should be given to the harbour authorities and the dockowners. I think it would clear the atmosphere to a certain extent if I asked you, Sir, as a point of order, whether I shall be at liberty to move the Instruction which stands in my name.*


I do not know whether it will facilitate the progress of this Bill, but I may say that I think the Instruction is unnecessary, and on that ground it is out of order. I think its object might be obtained by an Amendment. The Bill proposes for the first time to limit the liability of ships for damage to piers and harbours. I think an Amendment might be moved saying that the House considers that that limitation should be given only on condition of a reciprocal limitation.

MR. PROVAND (Glasgow, Blackfriars)

Irise to support the Amendment. I understand from the correspondence which has sent to me that promises were made before the Bill was introduced that a clause to this effect should be included in the Bill, but when the Bill comes before the House there is no such clause to be found. It is therefore necessary to take care that reciprocal terms should be included either in this Bill or in some future measure, and I am supporting the Amendment in order to bring about that result. This Bill has for its object the freeing of shipowners from some of the liability which at present rests upon them in regard to collisions at sea or in harbour. But the proposal requires extension in some way, because there are other persons liable who are entitled, I think, to be included within the scope of any such measure. I refer to naval officers. At present, it a man-of-war damages a merchant ship, it is true, as the hon. Member for South Islington said, the merchant vessel has no claim against the man-of-war, but the owners have a claim against the captain of the man-of-war, and may sue him for the whole amount of the damages. About four years ago a man-of-war damaged the ship "Syren," so that she foundered. In the inquiry the captain of the man-of-war was held to be in the wrong, and had to pay on the usual scale * The Instruction standing on the Paper in the name of Sir John Leng was as follows:—"That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they have power to provide a limit to the liability of harbour and conservancy authorities. of £8 a ton. The Admiralty are not bound to pay anything, but I understand that they always pay according to scale, and that they are always willing to receive payment according to scale. But the officer in command of a man-of-war is personally liable, and I certainly think an officer should be held free from responsibility in such a case. If he is to blame he will be dealt with by the Admiralty according to the rules of the service, and such claims should not be allowed to hang over him. In the case of the "Syren'the claim was for £86,000, and the amount offered by the Admiralty according to scale was little more than £4,000, but the captain of the man-of-war was, and I suppose is still, liable to an action on the part of the owners of the "Syren" for the balance of about £82,000. I hope the supporters of this Bill will not object to the exemption of naval officers from all liabilities, in view of the way in which the Admiralty deal with such cases, and I hope the Government will see that such a provision is inserted in the Bill in Committee. There is another point to which I wish to direct attention, and that is with regard to the division of the payments. At present the whole of the compensation received is paid to the owner of the ship. The master and crew receive nothing, although they may have lost their all. In the case to which I have referred the crew lost everything, but the Admiralty handed over a sum sufficient to make good the loss of their effects. That was the first time the Admiralty had done such a thing, and I hope it is a precedent which will always be followed. In the case of a merchant vessel the crew would receive nothing whatever. I think, therefore, that provision should be made for a more equitable distribution of the compensation received. First of all, sufficient should be taken to reimburse the crew for the loss of their effects; secondly, the passengers should be recouped; and then the cargo of the ship should come in. That, I think, is only reasonable and fair. It has been stated that the captain of a vessel is liable for the whole amount if he is in any respect also part-owner. He has no protection under the Act of 1894. If the captain is still to be held liable—I think he ought not to be—the officers and crew should not be so held. I hope the supporters of the Bill will permit Amend- ments in the directions I have indicated to be made in Committee, as it is only right and proper that the Bill should be so amended.


As the House listened with so much attention to the clear and lucid statement of the mover of this Bill, it must have felt that there was a strong case in favour of the measure. Whether that case is strong enough to succeed on both the counts into which the Bill may be said to be divided, the House will be better able to judge after it has heard arguments in support of the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for North-west Manchester, and a statement by the hon. Gentleman the Attorney General with regard to the international questions involved. As regards the first part of this Bill, dealing with the question of limiting the liability of shipowners for damage which their ships mayo to fixed objects upon land, I confess that I have not heard from the hon. Baronet or anybody who appears to support him a single argument worthy of consideration. Let us examine for a moment what is the reason the liability of shipowners is limited as it has been limited for a century and a half by statutes of this House. The reason is that the ordinary law of master and servant is inapplicable, because the fundamental principle of that law does not apply in the case of shipowner and shipmaster. When you accept the ordinary principle of justice that the employer is liable for the wrong-doing of his servant, and must make good the consequences of that wrong-doing to anyone who suffers thereby, you set up that principle because the servant is under the orders and control of his master, and therefore the master must be responsible for that which the servant does. But in the case of a shipowner, the ship may be several thousands of miles away; the person having control of the ship is technically known as the shipmaster, and he is only nominally and in no degree substantially in the service of the shipowner so far as control over his acts is concerned. What is the position, in relation to this rudimentary principle, of a dock owner, a dock master, and the official in charge of awharf? Does the hon. Baronet say for a moment that any dock owner or person representing a dock trust cannot daily and hourly supervise the acts of the wharf master or dock master or harbour master? The two cases are fundamentally different, and to my mind there is not a single reason which is likely to justify the dock owners in saying, that because the shipowners come here asking for a proper and reasonable extension of the existing law, they must have a similar extension. The dockowner can, if he chooses, introduce a Bill of his own, but it seems to me to be a dog-in-the-manger policy on his part to say that unless he is allowed to ride off on the shipowners' horse he will do his best to cause that horse to stumble—in other words, to prevent this Bill being passed by the House. One word with regard to placing the British shipowner on an equality with the foreign shipowner. What the Bill asks is equal rights among shipowners, British and foreign. [The Attorney General was understood to dissent.] My right hon friend the Attorney General says it does not. But having read the Bill, it does seem to me that there is a substantial difference between the application of the law as it now stands to British shipowners and its application to foreign shipowners. If a British shipowner had the right to surrender the wreck after a collision to a foreign shipowner, he would be on the same plane as the foreign shipowner whose ship is in this country, perhaps, arrested. But no doubt we shall hear a clear statement upon this important international question by the Attorney General. My object in alluding to the matter was to refer to a point which has not yet been mentioned, namely, the substantial difference in value that obtains between British and foreign ships. Every year old and obsolete tonnage of the British mercantile fleet is being sold to foreigners. When a vessel is too old and antiquated to be worked at a profit by the British shipowner, her natural fate is to be sold to a foreign shipowner, who, by reason of being able to load his ship deeper than the British shipowner in running between foreign ports, is able to make the ship pay. That has the effect of reducing still further the value in England of such vessels before they are sold to foreign buyers. It is perfectly true that a small and comparatively valueless vessel is capable of inflicting fatal damage on the finest mail-steamer under the British flag. There was an instance not many months ago when an important steamer carrying a large number of passengers was run into by an old sailing vessel amidship, broadside on, and sunk in a very few minutes. When one remembers that a fatal accident may take place to the largest British mail-steamer by collision with oven a valueless Norwegian brig, one sees how important it is to make as equal as possible the relation of British and foreign shipowners in regard to their liability. It is because I have the greatest respect for what may fall from my hon. friend later on, and because I believe the Bill will render substantial justice to shipowners in relation to their liability for damage to fixed objects on land, and in giving them a nearer approach to equal treatment with foreign shipowners, that I shall support the Second Reading.

MR. HARRINGTON (Dublin Harbour)

I was very glad to hear that those who are opposing this Bill are prepared to accept a compromise. But if the speech we have just heard is an indication of the manner in which the Bill will be promoted in Committee I am sorry to say that so far as we are concerned the reasonable attitude we proposed to take up cannot possibly be persevered in.


I spoke for myself only.


It seems to me to be absolutely unreasonable on the part of owners of merchant shipping to seek to limit their own liability by a certain standard, and then when they come into collision with, or are injured by, the property of other persons, to fall back on the limitations of the law regulating the relations of servant and master, and to say that although they do not apply to ships at sea, they must be held to apply to harbour or dock authorities. So far as I gather, those who are opposing the Bill are opposing it nominally with a view to obtaining this reciprocal treatment for dock and harbour authorities, and if they are prepared to accept the assurance given by the promoter of the Bill I see no reason whatsoever, after your ruling, why the measure should not have a quick passage through this House to-day. According to your ruling this reciprocal clause can very easily be in- serted, by which the harbour authorities will be given the same advantage as the shipping authorities are seeking for themselves. So faras the question of collision at sea is concerned, I take it that the merchants of the United Kingdom are interested in both sides. They are the men whose vessels sometimes, inflict the injury, and they have limitation of liability there; but they are also running the risk of being the sufferers by that limitation in certain cases. Undoubtedly, so far as the shipping of this country is concerned, it is absolutely unfair and unreasonable that the merchants should be placed in a disadvantageous position as compared with merchants of other countries if a collision occurs. I think the provision offered by the promoters of the Bill is a very reasonable one, and, for my part, opposing the Bill only because it did not give the reciprocal advantages which are sought, I should be very glad to see the Bill go into Committee and to give it my support with a view to that result. I think the mover of the Amendment should be satisfied with the assurance of the promoters and with the ruling that such an Amendment is not only in order, but can very easily with the consent of the supporters of the Bill be inserted in Committee. I would therefore appeal to the hon. Baronet not to hinder the progress of the measure, because I think the sense of the House will be in favour of the granting of these reciprocal advantages.

*MR. WARR (Liverpool, East Toxteth)

Perhaps I may be permitted to say that when my hon. friend introduced this Bill, and presented it to the authorities of the House, it did contain a clause giving the harbour authorities the reciprocal advantages for which they ask. It was only because it was considered that the title of the Bill was technically too limited that the clause did not appear in the Bill as circulated. Having regard to your ruling that this clause can be introduced in Committee, all I have to say is that so far as the promoters of the Bill are concerned, they do not associate themselves with the criticisms of my hon. friend the Member for the Shipley Division of Yorkshire. They think it fair and reasonable that the reciprocal advantage which is sought by the harbour authorities should be secured, and for that reason they are prepared to do everything in their power for the purpose of obtaining the insertion of the clause. I trust that that assurance will be satisfactory to the hon. Baronet the Member for North-west Manchester. I thought it right on this subject to ask the judgment of another set of people interested in the matter, and I am able to say that so far as it concerns the Liverpool Underwriters'Association, while they are not so much enamoured of the provision in favour of the harbour authorities as they are of the first clause, they will not take any steps to prevent the Bill containing such a provision from passing into law. With regard to the second clause, I should like to say, speaking with some experience in the matter, that it must be admitted that when a foreign and an English ship meet in an English court of law the English shipowner is at a very great disadvantage. Take a case in which both vessels are sunk. The foreigner can come to the English court, and, if he succeeds in establishing the liability of the English shipowner, he can recover up to £8 per ton, because the shipowner is under a personal liability. On the other hand, if the foreign shipowner should be found to blame, there will be a judgment which may be of no advantage at all to the English shipowner. Or supposing it is a case not of total loss but of damage. In the one event the foreign shipowner will obtain damages in full, while in the other the English shipowner will get a judgment from which practically he can reap no advantage whatever. There is a provision in the Act of 1861 which was intended to guard against this injustice. The court is enabled to stay an action if the defendant ship has been arrested, until security is given for any amount that may be awarded. Unfortunately it is extremely easy to evade that provision. In such a case, I believe, it is the constant practice not to bring an action in the name of the foreign shipowner, but to select the name of the foreign ship's cargo owners, and I understand that in Scotland it is possible to associate with the name of the plaintiff the name of a person within the jurisdiction of the court who will undertake responsibility, and so the provision of the Act of Parliament is avoided. The provision in the Act of 1861 has no application unless the defendant's ship is placed under arrest, and the foreign plaintiff is wise enough not to proceed to arrest when the consequence of that step may be to involve him in the obligation to give security for the counterclaim. These are difficulties which present themselves in proceeding in an English court, and we have already heard what an extraordinary injustice presents itself when proceedings are taken in some of the foreign courts. The French court actually, in the case of a collision on the high seas, applies the law of the flag to an English ship, and the law of France to its own shipowners, so enabling the French ship to avoid all liability on the abandonment of the ship and to secure judgment against the English ship to the full extent of £8 per ton. The clause before us endeavours to deal with this extremely difficult matter. I do not feel sure that it solves the difficulty. It is a difficulty which can be solved by the assimilation of the law of England and of foreign countries, but my hon. friend has told us that at the meeting at which this matter was discussed by foreign jurists there were no indications of foreign countries being at all inclined to accept the English liability, while, on the other hand, I do not think there is the slightest chance of proposing with any success to the English Legislature that shipowners' liability should be limited upon the foreign basis. My hon. friend has said that this Bill is an endeavour to carry out a compromise arrived at at the meeting of the International Maritime Committee to which he referred, and he read to the House the resolution. It states that "the conference recommends for universal legislative adoption" the rule which it mentions. This Bill will not bring about the "universal legislative adoption" of that rule. We cannot legislate here for foreign countries. I must further observe with regard to that resolution that when it came to the vote of the English representation it was passed by a majority of ten to four, but it is very remarkable that amongst the four was the president upon that occasion, Mr. Justice Phillimore, who is most thoroughly acquainted with this matter in all its bearings. What may have influenced his view on this particular question I cannot say because it does not appear in the proceedings. There are several difficulties in connection with the matter, one of which is with reference to the cargo on the English ship. Is the cargo on board the English ship to have one principle of limited liability applied to it, while another principle of limited liability is applied to the cargo on board the foreign ship? I do not regret that the clause has been included in the Bill as has been presented to the House, because it has enabled my hon. friend and those who have followed him to put before the House in the most able manner the difficulties under which English shipowners labour when they are involved in litigation with foreign shipowners, and the disadvantages which they suffer in consequence. I hope my hon. friend will not regard this clause as of vital importance. It seems to me that it is totally distinct from the first clause in the Bill. I trust the Government will give their support to, at all events, the first clause, and that they will give their consideration to the questions raised by the second, even if they do not feel themselves at liberty to sanction its passage into law.

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

I rise to oppose this Bill in the interests of seamen and working men. I am not sure as to whether the promoters of the Bill are prepared to make it more clear whether the first clause applies to the loss of life and limb. If not I shall oppose the Bill, and do all I can to prevent it being passed into law. I am surprised that the shipowners should come to the House of Commons and ask it to pass a law to limit their liability to the extent of £15 per ton in the event of loss of life, and to £8 per ton in the case of property. I am confident that if Members of the House of Commons understood how this Bill will affect the interests of a large number of people they would reject it by a very great majority. As far as the law applies at the present time, if any damage is done at sea outside ports and harbours, the shipowner is protected by this limitation of liability. We have had an instance of how far this affects the interests of the public, in the case of the loss of the steamer "Stella," which, as will be remembered, was a passenger vessel trading between Southampton and one of the French ports which, through an error on the part of the captain, was run ashore, a large number of lives being lost. The relatives of many of the people drowned sued the London and South Western Railway Company for compensation, they being the owners of the vessel. The Court awarded the plaintiffs something like £150,000 in the aggregate, but under this limitation of liability, the owners of the vessel have been able to escape with a payment of something like £20,000, so that, in many cases, where widows were awarded £1,200 or £1,300 compensation for the loss of a husband, they have been only able to obtain from£50 to £100. Now, as I understand this Bill, shipowners want to apply the same principle to docks, ports, and harbours, so that if any damage is done to life and property in such places, their liability will be limited.


Clause 1has no reference whatever to loss of life or personal injury. It is concerned entirely with property.


I thank the hon. Member for that. I can assure him, if he is prepared to make it more plain in the clause that the limitation is not to apply to the loss of life and limb, my opposition will immediately cease, because it is a matter of indifference to me how shipowners and dockowners may settle their differences as to who is to pay for damage done. What I am concerned about is the interests of working men, not only of seamen, but of working men employed in and about docks. I can very well imagine the case of a dock under construction and a vessel running into one of the dams and causing it to be flooded while a number of men are working in it. I do not think that in such a case the shipowner's liability should be limited so that the relatives of the drowned men would be unable to obtain a fair amount of compensation. All I ask the hon. Member is, to undertake to make the clause more clear on this point. At present it is not clear, for it provides that the limitation of liability of the owners of any ship set up by Section 503 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in respect of loss or damage to vessels, goods, merchandises,"or other things," shall extend and apply to all cases where, without their actual fault, any loss or damage is caused to property, whether on land or water, or whether fixed or movable. If the hon. Member will give me a promise that in Committee a clause will be accepted to make it clear that the Bill is not to apply to the loss of life or limb, then the opposition to the measure, so far as I am concerned, is dropped, as I do not concern myself at all as to how the dock companies arrange their business with the shipowners.


If there is any doubt about the matter, which I do not think there is, I am quite prepared to agree to the addition of words making it clear that this clause has no reference to loss of life or personal injury.


On that understanding, I do not think I need further detain the House.

MR. URE (Linlithgow)

There are three conditions attached to the business particularly affected by this Bill which do not apply to other trades. In the first place the premises are not under the owner's personal supervision; in the second place he has not a free hand in regard to the control of the vessel or the engagement of the employees, because the State has stepped in and placed him under certain limitations, and, in the third place, any lack of skill or care on the part of those employed by him may entail an enormous amount of responsibility. The Legislature for these reasons has thought right to limit the responsibility, although that limitation of liability does not apply to cases in which the shipowner is personally at fault. The case of the dockowners is totally different from that of the shipowners, and I confess I cannot see what right they have to ask for what they call reciprocity. I think that their claim is indefensible, although I understand that the shipowners are willing to introduce such a clause as is asked for. They will not benefit by a reciprocity clause or suffer by the want of it. The dockowner wants his claim limited to the extent of £8 per ton on the tonnage of the largest ship that enters his dock. This is not a limitation at all, because £8 per ton is beyond any claim of damage that any shipowner has been asked to pay since docks were first commenced. I am surprised that in the course of this debate those who represent the dockowners have not attempted to give us any information which will enable us to judge the extent of the claims they anticipate. I have examined the records of the Scotch Courts for the purpose of ascertaining the facts, so that we may remove this discussion from the region of speculation. During the last quarter of a century in Scotland only six claims have been litigated between dockowners and the owners of ships. In one case when a ship of moderate size was injured by coming in contact with a private pier the owner was awarded £750, which was far within the limit of £8 per ton on the tonnage of the ship. But the most serious case we have had investigated was one in which a large sailing ship entered a harbour, grounded upon some banks, settled down and broke her back. The North British Railway Company were sued by the owners of the ship for compensation and were awarded £5,000. The tonnage of the vessel was 1718, so that the statutory limit of compensation imposed on the dock-owners by this Bill would have been £13,700. In 1892 an accident occurred to a vessel in Kircudbright Harbour and only £300 was awarded, although the dock-owners would have been responsible for £1,400 under this Bill. It will thus be seen that accidents which occur in docks by which piers or wharves are damaged or ships injured do not involve very large claims, and the dangers which dock-owners fear are really imaginary. I entirely agree that Clause 2 involves serious difficulty. As I understand it, the promoters of this Bill desire that when a British shipowner and a foreign shipowner enter into litigation in our ports, each of them shall be at liberty, if he choose, to abandon his ship and so escape from further liability. It is stated that at the present moment, if a foreign shipowner abandons his ship, his liability ceases, but if a British shipowner pursues that course he may still be found responsible to the foreigner for £8 a ton. I think that is not quite a correct statement of the law of England, and it is certainly not a correct statement of the law of Scotland. I propose to consider this matter for a moment from the point of view of a Scotch lawyer. When a foreigner comes in to a Scottish port to claim damages against a British shipowner, in consequence of a collision, he has to get to conjoin with him in the action a person of his own rank in life within the jurisdiction of the Court who is to be held responsible first for the costs and secondly for the decorous conduct of the litigation, and if he is unsuccessful the gentleman who conjoins with him is found responsible for the costs, and there is an end of the matter. If, on the other hand, the foreigner is successful, here covers from the British shipowner £8 per ton. If this Bill were to become law that result would not follow, and the British shipowner would be entitled to abandon his hulk and to say to the foreigner, "You can take it and make the best of it, and there is an end to my liability." That would be not only a grave but an unjust change of the law. In the case of a British shipowner suing a foreigner, the first step he must take in Scotland is to arrest the foreigner's ship if within the jurisdiction, or a sum of money however small; even 5s. would do. If he recovers his judgment and it happens that the value of the ship he has arrested is far within the amount he has recovered, he can then take the judgment to the foreigner's country and do his best to work out his remedy there. Then the injustice from which the British shipowner suffers arises, because when he takes this Scotch judgment to a foreign country it is of no avail to him, for the case is investigated afresh and the principles of foreign law are applied to it. I do not think that Clause 2 in this Bill, as it at present stands, would cure that injustice. It might be possible to frame a clause which would do justice in an ordinary case where there is a cross action between a foreign Shipowner and a British shipowner in the Courts within our jurisdiction. A clause might be framed to the effect, that where there is a cross action of that kind either or both of the parties might be entitled to abandon their ship and so escape from further liability. But this clause should only apply in cases where there are cross actions. I know I may be asked why an owner of British cargo on a foreign ship should be precluded from recovering £8 per ton from the owner of a British ship which ran down the foreign ship, if the British shipowner chose to abandon his hulk and thus escape all further liability. That may appear to be hard, but what we have to consider is where lies the balance of hardship, and the House in Committee will have to ask itself if the hardship is not the greater on the British shipowner than on the British cargo-owner who carries his goods in the foreign ship. I think we are agreed that the first clause is sound in principle, and will be beneficent in practice, and I think the second clause might be so framed as to remove admitted injustices of shipowners.


It will probably be convenient to the House if I state at once the view the Government take of this Bill. They do not take any exception to the principle of the first clause, though I will point out that certain difficulties in connection with the subject will have to be borne in mind. As regards the second clause the Government think there are fatal objections, and unless they receive from the promoters of the Bill an assurance that they will be prepared to strike out that clause they cannot allow the Bill to go to a Second Reading. Although the speeches we have heard on this matter have been most able and interesting, I think they have overlooked most important considerations which are bound up with this matter. As to the first clause, I agree that when once we have determined that limitation of liability shall be applied to ships, there is no primâ face reason why limitations of liability shall not be applied in the case where a ship, by negligent navigation, comes into collision with a dock. If a ship comes into collision with another ship anchored in the Mersey the liability of the shipowner is limited to £8 per ton, but if, a few yards further up, the ship comes into collision with a pier, the shipowner's liability is unlimited. There does not seem to be much logic in that distinction. The Government are prepared to say that the subject of the first clause is well worthy of discussion, and they do not think there can be any real answer to the claim of the shipowners. Then comes an objection from another standpoint, and I can assure my hon. and learned friend opposite that he has quite underrated the damage which might be occasioned by an accident in a dock. I understand that the case of the dock companies is that if a ship by negligent navigation runs full tilt at the dock gates and knocks them down, though the water may run out of the dock and damage to the extent of £50,000 or £100,000 be done, the liability of that ship is to be limited to £8 per ton. But supposing that ship, in consequence of the dock master giving a wrong order, is stranded in the dock and breaks her back, the dock company have no limit to their liability. I admit that the real difficulty is to find on what principle the liability of the dock company can be limited, and I understand it is proposed to set up some hypothetical standard based on the tonnage of the largest ship that has ever entered the dock. But that would be establishing quite a new limitation of liability. All I say is that it does seem to me that the dock company has some right to say to the shipowner, "If you ask that when a ship runs down the dock gates its liability shall be limited to £8 a ton, there ought, at least, to be some reciprocity. "The real difficulty will be as to whether the House can discover some equitable basis on which the principle of limited liability can be applied; but if the House can see its way to some clause which will give limited liability to the dockowner, the Government would have no objection to the first clause. I now come to a very much more important point, namely—whether for the first time this House is to enact, in regard to foreign ships, that a foreign plaintiff in British courts shall have a different measure of remedy to a British plaintiff, not on the ground that a less wrong has been done to him, but on the ground that in some other proceedings—in proceedings in the French courts, for instance—which the British shipowner may have to take, justice will not be done to him. This is not a Bill to put the English and the foreign law on the same footing. It is not a Bill to make abandonment the measure. It is a Bill to provide that the British shipowner, whose vessel has run down a foreign ship, shall pay £8 a ton or the value of the ship, whichever is the least. I would like to remind the House of a passage in the Report of the Committee of 1860, which brings out very clearly that the real reason for the limitation of liability is that to exempt shipowners from liability beyond the value of their ships would be to place a premium on the employment of worn out and inadequately manned ships. In 1862 Mr. Milner Gibson, who was a man of great experience in these matters, enforced that view, and contended that the owner of a good ship and the owner of a bad ship should be placed on the same level as to responsibility, and I think the House will agree that that is a sound principle. Shipowners of the present day are gaining enormously by this limitation of liability, and I am bound to say if we were to reconsider the limitation of liability in the present day I very much doubt if the limits would be kept as low as £15 and £8 per ton. But let it be assumed for a moment that the object of this second clause is to assimilate the law of foreign countries to ours. Take the case of a vessel of 2,000 tons, of a value of £40,000 or £50,000. Her statutory limit in respect of the subject matter touched by this Bill is £16,000. That ship may run down another worth, with its cargo, £50,000, and be practically uninjured herself. According to French law, the vessel run down can recover the full value. In such a case abandonment means the abandonment of property worth £50,000. But in our Courts the British shipowner can get off in all cases with the payment of £8 a ton. I am sure that hon. Members interested in shipping have not considered the value of that consideration. But the most important objection to the clause is that it creates a different rule for two different plaintiffs, in the same Court, in respect of injury arising out of the same circumstances. The Court is to be told to apply a different rule when the plaintiff happens to be a foreigner to what it would apply if he were a British subject. That would be a most dangerous principle, and I am sure it would lead to the strongest and well-founded remonstrances on the part of foreign nations. The principle on which merchant shipping legislation in this country has always proceeded is to apply the same rules to British as to foreign ships, and I should certainly view with the greatest regret any measure which gave to the British shipowner a privilege over the foreigner. Indeed I am not at all sure that difficulty would not arise in connection with our existing treaty obligations. At present there are in existence treaties whereby we have given equal rights and privileges with British subjects in all matters of commerce and navigation to the subjects of foreign nations, and any such action as is proposed in this clause would in such cases form the ground of strong remonstrance. My hon. friends have a little understated the protection afforded to British shipowners by the Admiralty Court. It is provided by the Admiralty Court Act of 1861 that whenever a foreign ship comes into the Admiralty Court and sues a British ship, the foreign ship shall give security to the extent of £8 a ton. That privilege in favour of British shipowners exists at present. It may be sometimes evaded, but I know of, and have been concerned in, many cases in which it has been enforced. What a cogent argument could be brought against such a practice if the distinction as to value which is sought to be established by the Bill were set up. The promoters of the Bill say they want to bring about an international arrangement whereby the laws of nations will be made the same. This is a most admirable object, which I have for years been endeavouring to promote, but, in my judgment, there could not be a more retrograde step from such an object than to pass a Bill which makes a distinction between British ships and foreign ships, not on the ground that our law is unjust, but because in some other proceedings in the French Court you cannot get the measure of justice which you think you ought to have. That seems to me to be a class of legislation which shipowners ought to be very slow to adopt, and which I hope this House will not for a moment accept. With regard to the second clause, the real question is whether or not there is anything left to discuss. An appeal was made by the promoter of the Bill asking the Government to let the second clause be inquired into, but there is nothing which it contains to be inquired into by any Committee. The question to be decided is, Are you going to adhere to limited liability or not? If you are, in my opinion you must make that limited liability apply all round. We have had this afternoon, as I expected, from the hon. Gentlemen who have addressed the House a very interesting discussion. We cannot, however, overlook the grounds on which this limited liability rests, and I am quite sure we should be doing wrong in attempting to draw this distinction between British and foreign ships in regard to liability. For these reasons I am obliged to say that unless the promoters of this Bill say they will abandon the second clause the Government will have no alternative but to oppose the Second Reading. I think the promoters will be well advised if they agree to accept this view without putting forward the second clause.

SIR R. T. REID (Dumfries Burghs)

I may say that, in the main, I do not differ from the views which the Attorney General has expressed. I think we all agree that this Bill should be read a second time, but I wish to offer a few observations upon the measure. As regards the first clause of the Bill it seems to me that it is obviously fair that the same protection should be extended to owners of docks as is proposed to be extended to the owners of ships. If you extend a protection which is now enjoyed by owners of ships, why should persons on the other side enjoy a similar immunity? But this point seems to me to be so far agreed upon that it is quite unnecessary to waste any further time discussing it. I wish to make a few observations on the second clause, which the Attorney General, on behalf of the Government, has expressed his determination to oppose. I think there is in the existing state of the law, as administered in some ports of the Continent, in comparison with England, a real injustice towards British shipowners at the present time. Let me take for a moment, as an example, the case of a collision between a British ship and a French ship, tried in a French court. If the British ship was found to be in fault by the French tribunal, the result would be that the owner would have to pay according to the statutory limit laid down in British law—that is, he would have to pay £8 or £15 per ton as the case might be; if, on the other hand, the foreign ship was found to be at fault, the owner could escape liability altogether by abandoning the wreck. In the same litigation the plaintiff and the defendant are put upon an unequal footing.


It may not be a wreck.


There may be a case on the other side, but not infrequently there are cases in which the differentiation between a British and a foreign ship in a foreign port causes a real injustice to the British owner. The Attorney General says there may be cases in which there is equal injustice done to foreign shipowners. I do not think that is any real answer, because the point is this—that in foreign ports there is a different rule applied to British ships and to foreign ships. If a British ship and a French ship were in collision and were taken into a French port, in the case of the British ship the limit of £8 and £15 would be applied, while in the case of the French ship that limit would not be applied. I think the President of the Board of Trade will find that that is so.


I have no knowledge of it.

Sir R. T. REID

Then allow me to assume, for the purposes of my argument, that that is the case. What is the rule, as I understand it, that is laid down in the French court for differentiation? It is the rule of the flag, that is, the English law is applied to the French court in the case of an English vessel. Now, how can that be got rid of unless you alter the English law in the case of a collision with a foreign ship? If I am right in my view of the law as applied in French and other foreign ports, that seems to me to be a fair reason for considering whether, in the case of a collision between British and foreign ships, some different rule from the existing rule should be applied according to the English law. Let me turn now for a moment to the other side of the Channel, and take the English Court—I think the Scotch Court is exactly the same. In the English Court both the plaintiff and the defendant, in the case of a collision between a foreign and a British ship, are placed in exactly the same position. Both can claim the benefit of the limitation of £8 or £15 per ton, but neither can claim the benefit of the plea which applies to the French Court that by abandoning the ship you can get rid of any further liability. That is the rule at present existing. My hon. friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool has pointed out that there is some practical injustice in the way the rule is applied. He seemed to convey that you really got in English Courts no better remedy against the foreign shipowner than was represented by the value of the ship itself. That is, I suppose, because it is suggested that in some foreign ports they do not recognise the validity of English judgments, but are at liberty to overrule them, and see if they are founded upon their particular ideas of justice. That might open up the wider question of international relations, and whether or not justice is not very inadequately met by the manner in which foreign courts treat the judgments of the English courts. That point, however, I will pass over, for what is suggested is that the rule in the English courts ought to be altered. The foreign courts offer an unequal treatment to the British in case of a collision, because they say that the rule of the flag is to be applied to British ships, and therefore the only way to remedy this injustice lies in altering the British law so that it can no longer be quoted and enforced in foreign ports to the disadvantage of British shipowners. I think some proposal might be entertained for differentiating between a collision on the part of British and foreign ships on the one side, and between British ships on the other. That is substantially what is proposed by this Bill. The Attorney General has said that he does not want to have two plaintiffs brought into the same court in respect to similar facts, and have a different rule applied between them. Let me investigate that case for a moment. To introduce any such rule would not be a denial of reciprocity in any way towards foreign nations, because we should apply to foreign nations our laws in the same way as we apply them to our own ships. Where there is a collision between British and foreign ships the law for the British ships would be exactly the same as for the foreign ships, and it does not seem to me that it would make any difference at all if a foreign Court said the rule between the two is different. In other words it seems to me that it is more desirable in a case of litigation that you should have equality between the plaintiff and the defendant who are the two parties to the case, than you should have equality between the plaintiff in the one case and the plaintiff in the other. The difference between the laws of any two States may be such that you cannot have a common basis for treating all vessels. Are you going to say that there is to be equal treatment between the plaintiff and the defendant, or are you going to say that the plaintiff and the defendant are to be governed by different rules and justify that upon the ground that it would be unfair to have two plaintiffs in different cases dealt with by a different rule? For my part I think there is not necessarily in principle any objection to so modifying the English law as to take away from foreign Courts this power and place the parties upon equal footing. All I have to say upon this subject is that I do not think this is an enterprise which can safely be undertaken by a private Member's Bill. I think it is a matter of considerable difficulty, and I am not at all insensible to the consideration urged by the Attorney General that any such change might interfere with the commercial treaties subsisting between us and other countries. I do not think that a private Member could be or ought to be the reformer in a case of this kind. It seems to me that it is a matter for the Government, and, if I might suggest to the Government, it is one—and not the only one—in which some arrangement might be made between this country and foreign nations. I will give only one illustration. Take the case of a collision on the high seas between an English and a French ship. What rule is to prevail? The rules are different, and if the English courts get control one rule of law is applied. Not only this, but in English courts we have the most scrupulous administration of justice towards foreign nations in all cases of collisions. Therefore I cannot help thinking that not only in this particular matter, but also in regard to collisions on the high seas, a general rule might well be made the subject of some international arrangement; and if that is found to be practicable some method might be devised by which independent tribunals should be assented to by all nations, to prevent the injustice and the hardships which not infrequently occur between British and foreign ships in collision. I agree with the Second Reading of this Bill, but I also agree that, in my opinion, it would not be prudent for a private Member to persist in pressing the second clause in this Bill in its present form. At the same time, I think the subject is not one which can be dismissed quite so summarily as it has been by the Attorney General.

MR. MACIVER (Liverpool)

While my right hon. friend was speaking it did occur to me that I never heard more complete nonsense than was contained in a large part of his speech. I refer more particularly to what he said in reference to the second clause of the Bill. I do not mean any disrespect, for his speech was admirable as regards his law, but wrong as regards his facts. In this respect it was absurdly and grotesquely wrong. On his estimate of the value of shipping property the right hon. Gentleman's argument against the second clause of the Bill largely depended, and his figures ought to have been at least somewhere near the mark. But he spoke of vessels of 2,000 tons as if they were worth from £40,000 to £50,000 apiece, and he spoke also of a certain class of steamers as if they were worth £40 or £50 a ton. I should like him to name one such vessel worth anything approaching to any of those figures. He seems to forget that the limitation of liability applies to the gross tonnage and not to the net, and that the figures were overstated at least ten times. Perhaps I am rather putting the cart before the horse in taking the second clause first, but what I do wish to impress upon the House is, that in many ways British shipowners are at a disadvantage in competition with foreign owners, and all that we ask is that we should be allowed to compete on equal terms. The second clause in the Bill may not be the best that could he devised, but I think it is capable of amendment. I do, however, contend that the general spirit and intention of that clause is a step in the right direction, for it would remove many disadvantages from which shipowners are now suffering. This is only one of many measures which I hope will be brought forward in this House to help British shipping, although I do not look forward with much hope to any Government doing anything in this direction. The present Government is like former Governments when we desire to have anything done in the interests of British shipping. The time may come when the Government will be compelled to take up the suggestions which have been put forward for the protection of British shipping. No doubt we still have a great preponderance of British ships as compared with foreign ships, but I can look back to the time when that preponderance was much greater than it is to-day. In ports where formerly you only saw occasionally a foreign flag, you can now see in our docks foreign vessels in much greater number, and some of them are very fine foreign steamers indeed. A few years ago that was not so, and this is no idle statement that I am making. One of my hon. friends has spoken of the transfer of British shipping to foreign flags. The second clause in the Bill, however small a step it may be, is, at all events, a step in the direction of lessening the disadvantage at which British owners are placed. We ask to be placed on equal terms with foreigners, and we ask for nothing more. In some degree, by our legislation, we have so advanced the foreigner that he is able to compete with us upon unfair terms, and I do not think that is a desirable state of things. As regards the first clause in the Bill, it is scarcely necessary for me to say anything, and I propose only saying a word or two about it. The Limitation of Liability Act was passed about the year 1862 or 1863, and at that time I was the chairman of the local Steamship Owners' Association. At that time it was felt that the state of the law was a positive disadvantage to the owner of a fine ship, as compared with the owner of an inferior one. The position in the previous state of the law was this, that the cheapest thing you could throw together was liable only up to her value, and the building of the better and more costly ships was discouraged, because they not merely had to face the competition, but just in proportion as more money was spent on a ship so was the liability for loss of cargo increased. Therefore it was felt that some sort of limitation of liability was necessary, and in those days £8 a ton was a fair average value for an ordinary cargo, and £15 a ton was deemed to be a fair average value for a good passenger steamer. The Attorney General quoted the Report of a Commission which entirely bears out what I have been saying. I remember from my own individual knowledge that as far as Liverpool was concerned the limitation of liability was a very real inducement to shipowners in the direction of building fine vessels and decreasing the number of inferior vessels. On these matters common law is not always common sense, and in the old days of 1862 or 1863 when the Limitation of Liability Act was enacted, the idea was that collisions of all sorts were to be included. It was intended in those days to mean collisions with piers or docks as well as with other ships. There is another instance which I want to put forward to show that the law is not always common sense, and it is this, that the original intention of the Act was a general limitation of liability to those things which I have mentioned, and to which it was intended at first that the limitation should extend. I wish to say emphatically that I regard the second clause as the more important of the two, and I hope the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool will not relax his endeavours to get the injustices to which British shipowners are subject in competition with foreigners removed. I beg to support the Second Reading of the Bill.


said that in consideration of the promise given by the Government to accept Cause 1 he would abandon the second clause, not on its merits, but to leave it in the hands of the Government, who he hoped would remedy the grievance. The promoters would also accept a clause giving the dock companies a measure of protection similar to that given to the shipowners.


I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question again proposed.

*MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)

As the second clause is now practically gone I need not again discuss the very subtle points connected with this clause of which we have heard so much. The statement of the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool has removed any difficulty which I might have felt in supporting this Bill. There is one point which I think goes to the root of the whole question. It is that if the hon. Member for the Exchange Division at any future time desires to obtain any remedy for the grievances under which British shipowners suffer he will not achieve the object he has in view, unless he considers a little more carefully the form his remedy is to take. I understand the difficulty is that the French Court administers the law of the flag of the vessel which comes before it; that is to say, that it deals with the British vessel before it according to the law of the British flag. Therefore, if the British vessel is found in fault it is required to pay compensation upon the British scale of £8 or £15 per ton; while if the vessel was under the French flag it would be dealt with according to the French law, and the French owner could escape liability by abandoning his vessel. The Bill of the hon. Member for the Exchange Division proposes to remove that grievance.


I do not desire to interrupt the hon. Member, but it was a great surprise to me to hear the statement by the hon. Member for Dumfries that the law of any foreign country applies the law of the flag, and allows the owner to escape by abandoning the vessel. I am perfectly certain that in the United States and other countries where the law of the flag applies they do not adopt the abandonment rule, which I do not think can be applied as a general rule.


I was very much surprised myself, but I have been assured on very good authority that such is the case. The Bill itself is based upon the assumption that this is the law. The view of the hon. Member for the Kirkdale Division of Liverpool is that the grievance of which he complains will be removed if the British law is altered, because then the British law of the flag will still be administered in France, but the British law, if this Bill was passed, would not impose the law of £8 per ton, but a law allowing the British shipowner to abandon his vessel if it was not worth £8 a ton, and the hon. Member supposes that this Bill would have that effect. At the same time it does not follow that the change which the hon. Member proposes would be accepted in France. On the contrary, they might say that the law of the flag we will apply will be the law which the British apply between British ships, and the hon. Member does not propose to alter the law as between British ships. Supposing the Bill was to pass, it is at least quite possible that the French Court will hold that the law of England has not been changed, and they will administer the law as it was before. Admitting that there is a grievance in the case, I entirely agree that that grievance is one which deserves the attention of the Government, and it is one which the Government should try to deal with. I do not feel very sanguine about it, because I see the greatest difficulty in proceeding in the direction indicated in this Bill; but, on the other hand, if the Government approached foreign Powers with the view of bringing about unanimity on this subject they would meet with our hearty sympathy and support. But we cannot be very sanguine as to the introduction of a reform of a matter which is so great, and which has been so long established between England and Continental countries. At the same time if the Government can see the least prospect of accomplishing this they will be attempting to do a thing which will be a great convenience to our shipping everywhere, and they will remove what is admitted to be a grievance from which British shipowners suffer. Our course with regard to this Bill is quite clear, and we ask the Government to acquiesce in the views we have expressed.

MR. FIELD (Dublin, St. Patrick)

I do not propose to intervene at any length in this discussion, but I am very glad that the promoters of the Bill have recognised the justice of including the injury done in the case of damage to property in docks. There is one matter which I think ought to be brought before the House, and it is that this Bill appears to me to mean a limiting of the liability of shipowners. I submit that, in some respects, the liability of shipowners ought to be extended instead of being further limited. As far as I understand it, they are the only class of traders which are exempted from this liability. The shipowners as carriers oblige the consigners, more particularly of live stock, to sign consignment notes which practically contract the consigners out of any chance of obtaining a verdict in their favour in case of an action for any injury to their goods which may occur during transit. In this connection we have the opinion of the learned judge in Dublin who tried a case—


The hon. Member will not be in order in discussing the question of liability under special contracts.


I bow respectfully to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I understand that this Bill is intended to limit the liability of shipowners, and I was submitting that as carriers their liability ought to be the same as in the case of railways. I would suggest to the promoters of this Bill that this point should be considered in Committee because it is most important that consigners should be protected in some way or other. I have no intention of occupying the time of the House further, and I merely bring this point before the House in order that it may be considered by the promoters of the Bill, and I will briefly state the reasons why. This question of the advisability of extending the liability of shipowners instead of limiting it is one which I trust will be fully considered by the promoters of the Bill, because it is one of the utmost importance to that very large class of people who are interested in the carrying of live stock.