HC Deb 21 December 1927 vol 212 cc503-10

"D.—(1) The tribunal for the purposes of Part I of this Act shall be the County Court within the district of which the premises or any part thereof are situated acting under and in accordance with this Section:

Provided that—

  1. (a) if before commencing proceedings in the County Court the claimant or applicant and all persons affected agree that the claim or application should be heard by the High Court; or
  2. (b) if on an application being made to the High Court within the prescribed time the matter is transferred to the High Court in accordance with and subject to the provisions of Section 504 one hundred and twenty-six of the County Courts Act, 1888;
the High Court shall, in respect of the matter, be the tribunal for the purposes of Part I of this Act.

(2) Where proceedings are commenced in the County Court in respect of any claim or application under Part I of this Act and are not transferred to the High Court, the matter shall, unless the parties otherwise agree, or it is otherwise prescribed, stand referred for inquiry and report to such one of the panel of referees appointed by the Reference Committee hereinafter mentioned as may be selected by the County Court, as if with the consent of the parties the matter had been so referred to him in pursuance of Section six of the County Courts Act, 1919.

(3) The power of selecting a referee from the panel shall, unless any of the parties object, be exerciseable by the registrar of the County Court, and if there is such an objection by the Judge.

(4) In any proceedings before the referee not more than one expert witness on either side shall be heard unless the referee or the Judge of the County Court otherwise directs.

(5) County Court rules may be made for regulating proceedings under this Section and for enabling any party to apply to the County Court for directions as to the conduct of a reference under this Section, and those rules may fix the remuneration of referees and may provide for applying, subject to the necessary adaptations and exceptions, to costs of proceedings in County Courts under this Section, the provisions of Sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of Section five of the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919, relating to costs of proceedings under that Act.

(6) The Reference Committee for the purposes of this Act shall consist of the Lord Chief Justice of England, the Master of the Rolls, the president of the Law Society, and the president of the Surveyors' Institution, and the committee shall have power to appoint such persons as they think fit to be members of the panel of referees either generally or for particular localities, and to remove from the panel any person so appointed.

(7) Rules of the Supreme Court may be made regulating proceedings under this Act commenced in or transferred to the High Court and those rules may provide that on the hearing of a summons for directions, the Court or a Judge thereof may, without any application for the purpose being made by any party, order the matter to be referred for inquiry and report to such one of the said panel of referees as may be selected by the Court or a Judge thereof subject to such directions (if any) as the Court or Judge may think fit to give; and in any such case the referee so selected shall be deemed to be a special referee within the meaning of Section eighty-eight of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925.

(8) Nothing in this Act shall prevent an agreement being made for referring to arbitration under the Arbitration Act, 1889, any matter which under this Act is to be determined by the tribunal.

Such an agreement may be contained in the original lease or may be made in writing at any date subsequent to the date of the lease."

Lords Amendment read a Second time.


I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This is the Amendment which deals with the much debated subject of the tribunal, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with it at some length, I am told, in the observations which he made to the House on the Motion "That the Lords' Amendments be now considered." Everybody knows the difficulty which the House felt in arriving at a decision upon the question of the tribunal which shall be set up under this Bill. The alterations which are proposed to be made by the Amendments are familiar to hon. Members, and my right hon. Friend has explained his reasons for thinking that it is right that this House should agree with the Amendment which the Lords have made. Perhaps, in these circumstances, it will be better that hon. Members should make their criticism on the Amendment rather than that I should attempt to repeat what the Home Secretary has said.


The criticism which I have to make of this Amendment is not so much a criticism of the Amendment as a criticism of the Government, and, seeing the manner in which this Amendment has now come before us, I do not think that the matter can be disposed of quite so easily as the learned Gentleman suggests. The Amendment as it now stands is fairly satisfactory. I say "fairly satisfactory" because I would much rather have seen the County Court made the tribunal without any question in small cases, and the High Court made the tribunal in large cases, as was indeed proposed in another House, and it was, I believe, defeated by the casting vote of the Lord Chancellor. That has not been done, and the position in which we find ourselves is that at last, after all these endless labours in Committee, on Report, and on Third Reading—I remember the learned Gentleman was most indignant with me at suggesting that the Government were introducing an erroneous principle into our legislation, and that what they were doing was inadvisable—at last, the position which the Labour party and a number of Members on the other side of the House have taken up with regard to this tribunal, has been accepted by the Government themselves. I do ask, in order that all this trouble may be avoided on some subsequent occasion, that the Government will take this to heart, and that they will realise that the great feeling, both in this House and in another place, is that in ordinary questions of dispute on legal matters, the proper people to deal with them are the Courts of Law, and not special statutory tribunals.

I am aware of the gibe which is made against Judges and lawyers who take this point of view. It is said that we are asking that the Courts should perform their normal functions in order to increase costs and expenses, or some uncharitable suggestion of that sort. As a matter of fact, in my view, this manner of using the County Court will be very much cheaper to applicants than the proposal that was made. Under the proposal which was formerly before us, the surveyors who were to act as referees under would have to have been paid by the parties. As the matter now stands, cases will go in the ordinary way to the County Court, and that Court will refer it to a referee, and I take it the expenses in such a case will be met, not out of the pockets of the parties, but out of the ordinary expenses of maintaining the County Courts. So far as the question of expenses is concerned, there is nothing in it whatever, nor is there anything in the suggestion which is uncharitably made, and those of us who believe in maintaining the liberty of the subject and object to these statutory tribunals, see no actual prospect of more litigation than exists under the ordinary law.

If I wished to increase litigation, I should send every case to special statutory tribunals. I should have a shoemaker to adjudicate on disputes about boots, and a plumber to adjudicate on disputes about pipes, and so on. I should have a special tribunal in every sort of case. That would immensely increase the cost of litigation. The ungenerous suggestion has been made that, in objecting to these special statutory bodies, we are moved by personal consideration. As a matter of fact, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Peckham (Mr. Dalton) originally suggested this. It is a matter of great importance. The Government have suffered a very crushing defeat. They have stood from first to last for this vicious bureaucratic system, but they have been completely vanquished, and now they come forward with a Measure which my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham advocated on Second Reading. As the Labour party has triumphed in so many matters in this Measure, so they have triumphed in this respect.


I cannot help thinking, as a backer of the Bill and as a believer in the principles of the Bill, that the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken has been ringing the bells to-day, but I fear that he will be wringing his hands to-morrow. If he desires the expense of the administration of this Bill—


Are you speaking feelingly?

8.0 p.m.


As a matter of fact, it is recognised that I am, or have been, a member of the professional body from whom these referees may be chosen. I am only one in this House, but my hon. and learned Friend has a lot of friends in the House. I am not saying a word about this particular change in the tribunal from the personal standpoint; I cannot do so, because the members of the profession to which I belong will still receive their fees, so that it is no personal matter at all. If I were going to object to this Amendment to the extent of voting against it, I should say I did so because I thought it is going to bring a much more expensive, and a much slower method of dealing with these matters into play. What are the facts? All questions of fact, as well as of law, may in future go to the County Court. They will have to go to the County Court, and second trials will have to take place if there is any disagreement between the parties as to the report of the referee who has held the inquiry. It is only when both parties are agreed that the County Court can give a decision in the terms of the report, and, if there has been any difference of opinion between them, there will have to be an inquiry.

Practically the whole of the points to be referred to the tribunal deal with structural alterations, the rent to be charged and matters of that kind, and for the future the tribunals to settle all these is to be the County Court. In many cases, the points will be hypothetical and contingent. And the parties will have a right to go back to the tribunal to have a further hearing. That involves the greatest possible complication. The idea that the Government had and expressed when they brought in this Bill was that there must be an inexpensive method of settling small points which dealt with the facts alone and not with questions of law. I am not going to vote against this New Clause; but I think that what has been done as a result of the insistence of the legal element in this House and the other House will have a prejudicial effect both as regards rapidity of hearing and the expense of the working of this Bill.


I want to say a few words in support of the hon. Member who has just sat down—[HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed!"] Those who cry "Agreed" are those who have taken a part in the beginning in the defence of the tenant. I think they have made a mistake; I am not sure that, by agreeing to the provision which is now proposed, we are not going to lose three-fourths of the benefit of this Bill for the tenant. The whole point which was made for the efficiency of this Measure was that the tribunal should be accessible, rapid and cheap.

As far as I understood the Bill as we had it before this House originally, the tribunal was to be selected from a panel of professional men, and you had an appeal from it on points of law. Now you have got, first of all, a possibility that, by direction, a case may be taken to the High Court. Then you come back to the County Court. Then you are referred to your professional arbitrator or referee, and, when he has finished, you come to the County Court. Its decision may be argued again in the High Court on a question of law, but not on a question of fact. Therefore, you have the possibility of four arguments on a particular case. How that is to lead to cheapness of procedure I cannot tell. I only fear that the well-known subserviency of hon. Members above the Gangway to their own Front Bench has led them into the mistake of following the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for South-East Leeds too blindly. I am only concerned for the efficiency of this Bill, and that, when it becomes an Act of Parliament, it should be of some service to the people whom we desire that it shall serve.


I should like to state the case from the point of view of the Town Tenants' League, which has been responsible for the agitation on this question for many years. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir P. Pilditch) said he had been all through in favour of this Bill. Some of us have our doubts about that; but I can say that I have been a consistent supporter of the Bill. In the Town Tenants Bill which was introduced in this House, time and time again a provision was made that should any question arise between landlord and tenant as to compensation or otherwise it should be referred to and determined by a tribunal consisting of the Judge of the County Court in the district in which the case arose and members of the Surveyors' Institute selected from a panel of qualified surveyors.

The reason I am quoting that is that the Clause in that Bill was decided by the council of the Town Tenants' League, who claim to represent something like 300,000 of the shopkeepers in this country. That is their considered opinion. No one can take exception to this Amendment to give effect to the same thing in this Bill. When the tribunal, as suggested in the Bill in the first place, was put before us, we did not object to it because we were happy indeed to receive that part of the Bill and we felt that when the tribunal was set up we would get justice; but nevertheless we do approve of this new Clause. We are satisfied that the tenants will get a fair hearing before the County Court Judges, and I disagree with what has been said as to the procedure being more expensive. If a tenant has a good case and can prove it before the County Court Judge, it will not be expensive for him. It is provided that a case can be dealt with by the Registrar like a small debt case. As far as the smaller tenants are concerned, whether it is the tribunal as first set up or the County Court which will hear their cases, it will cost money. Organisations such as the Town Tenants' League will have to find funds to get legal advisers to help the smaller tenants, and that will be done. I support the Amendment.

Subsequent Lords Amendments to page 22, line 25, agreed to.