HC Deb 25 March 1907 vol 171 cc1528-30
The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. Thomas Shaw,) Hawick Burghs

I ask leave to introduce a Bill to regulate and amend the laws and practice relating to the civil procedure on Sheriff Courts in Scotland and for other purposes. These courts are substantially equivalent to the county court system in England. This Bill has been necessitated by the complexity of legislation on the subject for many years past. There are no fewer than five statutes on the subject, containing many provisions which overlap and in some respects conflict one with another. The need for consolidation and regulation is made perfectly manifest by the report of the Departmental Committee which reported on the subject in 1904. I have availed myself to the fullest extent of the labours of that Committee, and also of the labours of other professional bodies which have been agitating the subject for several years past. The Scottish Members will be aware that in 1867 there was established a Debts Recovery Court. That has never been a satisfactory institution, and we propose under this Bill to abolish it. In lieu of it, however, there are certain other provisions in the Bill which will cover the ground in a more effective manner. My second observation is with regard to one of the most useful courts in Scotland—humble though it be—called the Small Debt Court. Upon that court the Departmental Committee reported that there was a strong consensus of opinion in favour of its utility and Popularity "in cases involving small sums". The Report stated— Litigants any its means able to obtain a decision with great expedition, and at a very small cost. It is essentially the poor man's court, and has, from his point of view, very great advantages. I have taken advantage of the recommendations of the Committee's report, and I have, with the approbation of the public and professional bodies, raised the limit of the jurisdiction from £12 to,£20, to be sued for at the cost of a few shillings. In the third place, I fear have made a large invasion into the right of appeal in the Supreme Courts in Scotland. As the House is aware, the cost of litigation in Scotland is in many cases altogether out of proportion to the sum sued for. I made an effort last year in connection with the Workmen's Compensation Act to remedy that grievance, and I now make a second effort under this Bill. I have raised the limit of a possible appeal from the Sheriff Court from £25 to £50, and up to that sum appeals will be altogether excluded, except upon special and particular reserved points of law. With regard to the jurisdiction of the Sheriff Court, then, I propose to extend and amend it very largely by enabling the Sheriff to dispose of cases of separation and aliment, control and custody of children, and so on, as recommended by the Committee. I have to make another explanation to the House, which is somewhat of a personal character. The House will remember I took some share in the discussion of the Workmen's Compensation Act of last year, and introduced amending provisions for the purpose of allowing actions brought under the Employers' Liability Act, or, alternatively, at common law, in the Sheriff Court to be kept there, and finally decided there. An objection was raised by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs and also by some Labour Members, that thereby jury trials in the Supreme Court were abolished, and that no jury trial was established, as in the County Court in England. I made no pledge on the subject at that time, but I said that I would thoroughly consider the whole question. I have done so, and I have now to announce to the House that I propose to institute, as in England, a system of jury trials in the Sheriff Courts. The jury is constituted in a simple way. The jurymen are paid the usual small fee, and the whole proceedings are made optional, as in England, upon the choice of the litigants. In many cases in England the parties do not choose juries, being satisfied with the County Court Judge. I have left the same option to operate in Scotland and I am hopeful that that improvment will do away with the last shred of regret as to loss of the jury system applicable to these comparatively small cases. The legal costs will thereby be reduced to about a seventh of their normal amount under the system prior to last year. We have been encumbered with these Acts of Parliament in Scotland in this way, that the whole procedure, which ought to be of an elastic character, has been put into clauses of Acts of Parliament. I propose to undo the whole of that system and place the whole body of Sheriff Court procedure in a schedule to the Act so as to make a long catalogue of the ordinary acts of process in the Sheriff Court. The schedule will be amended by the process known in Scotland as Acts of Sederunt. In that way progress and development on the lines of this statute will be greatly facilitated. The statute is long, but it is nothing in comparison to the labyrinth of legislative provisions which exist at present. The Bill is substantially a code for the whole Scottish Sheriff Court civil procedure, and I ask the House to permit me to introduce it.

Motion made, and Question "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate and amend the Laws and practice relating to the civil procedure in Sheriff Courts in Scotland, and for other purposes"—put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by the Lord Advocate and Mr. Solicitor-General for Scotland.