HC Deb 12 December 1928 vol 223 cc2131-4

I beg to Move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to assimilate the procedure in certain Crown proceedings in the High Court to the procedure in actions between subjects; to authorise certain Crown proceedings to be brought in county courts; to make the Crown liable to be sued in tort; to amend the Law with respect to limitation of liability and salvage in the case of Crown ships; and to make other provision with respect to the enforcement of rights by or against the Crown; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid. This Bill is the result of the deliberations of a Committee of extraordinary eminence, composed of the present Lord Chancellor, the present Lord Chief Justice, the Law Officers of the Crown, ex-Law Officers of the Crown and a large number of permanent civil servants and heads of Government Departments. The Committee to whom the most important question of how far the Crown should remain in a peculiar position under procedure of law, were unable or disinclined themselves to make any final decision, but they did unanimously draft a Bill, and expressed the opinion that if that Bill were introduced and passed, it would meet most of the difficulties which have been felt.

The Bill which I now ask leave to introduce, is the Bill of that Committee. My own share in any part of that Bill is confined to the fact that I happened to be a member of the Committee, but far more eminent persons than myself are responsible for its draft. The Bill meets with the support, in its main principles, of some of the most important bodies in this country. The Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the Corporation of the City of London, the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association, the Law Society, the City of London Solicitors' Company and the Bar Council have all expressed their approval of the principles embodied in the Bill. Therefore, I think I am right in saying that if a public demand of an informed kind is any justification for the introduction of a Bill, we have that demand in this case.

I do not think anyone would accuse me of being a person who is possessed of any reckless desire to introduce innovations into the law. It is my view that in regard to matters of law "Leave well alone," is an excellent maxim; but in this particular matter of Crown proceedings there is such a growing body of opinion that now that the State performs so many functions the subject ought to have the rights against a Government Department which he has against another subject, that if ever there was a case for an alteration in the law, it is the case here. This Bill, in accordance with that principle, first of all proceeds to abolish the old procedure of petitions of right, and the subject in future, as I understand the Measure, will proceed by ordinary writ of summons against the Crown or a Government Department, as he does against a fellow subject. Rights are also given to take action in the County Court in small matters in which a Government Department or the Crown are concerned.

4.0 p.m.

Another important matter arises. Under the present law, the Crown or a Government Department cannot be made responsible for wrongs done to the subject. If an agent acting for the Crown does a wrong to the subject, that subject is very often left without a remedy. This peculiar protection of a Government Department against actions at law is removed. Another anomaly was discovery. The right to obtain documents from Government Departments is at present a matter of right almost nonexistent. This Bill gives the subject the right of discovery, but at the same time is careful to guard against any improper use of discovery against the Crown in cases where the public interests demand that there should be no discovery. There are provisions dealing with salvage and with the Admiralty Courts and other particular provisions which will be discussed hereafter. I am aware that before this Bill reaches its final stage it will be necessary for the consent of the Crown to be obtained, but at the moment I am asking leave to introduce this Bill in order that the House may see the provisions which are contained in it. I am quite sure that whether this Government or any other Government has the honour of promoting and piloting this Bill through the House, sooner or later the great extension of national services is going to demand that a Government Department be placed in the same position as the subject in litigation, and I feel I need make no apology to the House for asking it to give me leave to introduce the Bill at the present time. I would say to my hon. Friends on these Benches that it is peculiarly important for those who wish to extend the powers and functions oaf the State, that the State in exercising those powers should do it in such a way that the subject cannot complain that they are tyrannical and improper. Therefore, from that point of view, even to those who do not contemplate any large extension of powers of the State, this Bill is important.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Henry Slesser, Mr. William Graham, Sir Ellis Hume-Williams, Sir Malcolm Macnaghten, Mr. Bevan, Mr. Harney, Mr. Withers, and Mr. Rye.