HC Deb 15 June 1933 vol 279 cc369-78

Order for Second Beading read.

5.50 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a Bill to enable summonses issued by justices to be served by post, subject to certain safeguards, and also to facilitate the proof of service. At the present time it is generally necessary for a summons to be served upon the defendant personally or to be left with some person for him at his last or usual place of abode. Ordinarily, summonses issued by justices are served by the police, and it is necessary for a police officer to serve the defendant personally or to leave the summons at his abode. If the defendant does not appear in answer to the summons, it is necessary to prove before the court that the summons was served, and proof is given by the evidence of the police officer who served the summons, or more usually by the production of a declaration made before any justice of the peace in accordance with the provisions of Section 41 of the Summary Jurisdiction Act of 1879. The House will realise that that is a very costly form of procedure. Generally speaking, the law relating to the service of summonses is the same as it was so long ago as 1848. The House will realise that at that time the postal service was in its infancy, and it would have been impossible to carry out the service of summons by any other means than by hand. But to-day—so at any rate the Postmaster-General constantly informs us—the postal service is a highly developed organisatioh by which every letter posted in the country is delivered within a period of 24 hours.

Many of the cases dealt with by courts of summary jurisdiction are traffic cases, and in a large number of those cases the defendant obviously lives in a part of the country other than that in which the offence was committed. In these cases, before the summons can be delivered by a policeman, it has to be sent from one police district to another, and this procedure involves considerable expenditure of time of police officers, and in some cases the inevitable delay is disadvantageous to the defendant as it shortens the time available for the preparation of his defence.

The proposals contained in this Bill are substantially identical with the recommendations of the Magistrates' Association which were contained in their Annual Report of 1928. I should add that service of summons by post is not really a novel procedure. Bate summonses can already be served by post, and so can summonses issued under the Public Health Acts and under the Acts incorporated therewith. So we are not really doing anything particularly novel in moving the Second Reading of this Bill.

I will briefly deal with the Clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 authorises the service of summonses by post. It will be noticed that this manner of service is optional and not compulsory. It reads: Service of a summons issued by a justice of the peace in England may be effected by sending it by post to the defendant in a prepaid letter addressed to him at his last or usual place of abode. The proviso to Sub-section (1) sets out the safeguards, and says that the actual service shall not be deemed to have been effected unless it is in accordance with paragraphs (a) and (b). Sub-section (2) of Clause 1 makes provision to meet the cases where the original summons is deemed not to have been effected. Subsection (3) states that the Clause shall not apply to cases of witnesses who are summoned to appear to give evidence, and also to members of the Naval, Military, or Air Forces of the Crown for the maintenance of their wives and children. The Clause also does not apply to the service of summonses outside England. I hope that that will not be considered another injustice to Scotland. Clause 2 deals with proof of service of documents in proceedings before and on appeals from Justices. That in the main is an operative Clause. It also lays down the penalty for false statements. Clause 3 gives the short title, interpretation and date of commencement of the Bill.

The Bill will effect a great saving of the time of the police, enabling them to concentrate on more important duties, such as the prevention of crime. It may interest the House if I gave a few figures in connection with the present situation. In the Metropolitan Police district 194,000 summonses a year are served, and there are 143 officers permanently engaged in the service of summonses and the execution of warrants. Some 18,000 hours a year are spent by other officers on similar duties. During 1930 in England and Wales alone 508,000 summonses were issued in respect of summary offences and 14,000 in respect of indict able offences. The alterations in the law which the Bill proposes are supported by chief constables throughout the country. It is anticipated that the Bill will effect a very substantial economy and that this economy will be effected without detriment to the administration of justice. As far as I know, there is no opposition to this Bill. None has been represented to my right hon. Friend, and it is therefore hoped that without undue delay it will receive a Second Reading.

5.57 p.m.


I am sure that the House will be glad to have listened to the explanation of the hon. Gentleman on the provisions of this Bill. As he has rightly said there is no opposition to it. If there were, I should imagine that that side of the House would have been filled with members of the legal profession. We have yet to hear what any of them have to say on the Measure. Those who have looked at the provisions of this Bill inform me that it is a very necessary Measure. The fact that the Government are proposing it makes us a little doubtful and suspicious because we are doubtful and suspicious of everything they do, but in this connection very little criticism has been levelled against the Measure. The mere fact of the Magistrates' Association supporting the Bill is not in itself, in my view, a sufficient reason for supporting it. I believe, however, that from the point of view of defendants it will facilitate the procedure of the law, for any person who offends against the law desires the matter to be cleared up as speedily as possible. From that point of view, the Bill is very necessary and will be welcomed in many quarters.

5.59 p.m.


I am surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that this Bill has been received with approbation, because, speaking as a magistrate who has spent a considerable part of his time in the administration of summary jurisdiction, I view the service of a summons by post with considerable distrust and doubt. I appreciate that we are saving expenditure on the police, and I rather think that that is the sole reason for this proposal. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider carefully before we take the next stage of the Bill the difficulties which are likely to arise when it is put into operation. As we have been told, every summons under the Summary Jurisdiction Act has to be served at present by a police constable. When the summons is granted to a police constable in the place where the alleged offence was committed it is sent to a police officer in the place where the defendant resides. That officer serves the summons personally on the defendant, and returns a declaration to the police constable to whom the summons was granted that it has been duly served. I am not prepared, because my experience is too limited for that purpose, to tell the House what proportion of defendants do not appear in court, but they constitute a very considerable number. When there is a failure to appear on the part of a defendant the declaration is put in evidence as proof of the service of the summons upon him. If the case is of minor importance the bench may then say that they will decide it in the absence of the defendant. If, on the other hand, it is a case of importance the bench will say that the defendant must appear, and they will issue a warrant for his arrest or to secure his attendance the following week.

The sole purpose of making the change proposed is that it will save what the right hon. Gentleman represented to be a considerable expense, but I suggest that the saving will not by any means be so important as he indicated. I recognise that the Bill is a permissive one, but that makes no difference from the point of view of the prosecutor. What is to happen, from the point of view of the prosecutor, where the summons has been served by post? As the law stands at present the prosecutor goes to court well knowing that in 99 cases out of 100 the case will be dealt with that day. Now the summons may be served by post, but I would draw attention to this proviso: Provided that, notwithstanding that a summons has been sent by post in manner authorised by this Sub-section, service shall be deemed not to have been effected unless either—

  1. (a) the defendant appears, either in person or by counsel or solicitor, in manner required by the summons; or
  2. (b) it is proved to the satisfaction of the justices that the summons came to the knowledge of the defendant."
If the defendant appears in person or is legally represented, of course there is a saving, and the case will be proceeded with; but in the other case the question will arise of proving to the satisfaction of the justices that the summons had come to the knowledge of the defendant and I suggest that it may be almost impossible to do that in many cases. I fear that what will happen will be that in a larger number of cases than at present the defendant will not appear at all, but the prosecutor—and it must be remembered that for the most part these are poor people—will have to be in attendance at the court, because he will not know whether the defendant is going to appear and will not know that the case cannot be proceeded with. In numerous cases, therefore, he will be put to the trouble of having to attend a second time with his witnesses.

I have no desire to oppose this Measure, the second part of which is useful, and it may be possible to make it into a useful Measure, but I would impress upon the Home Office with all the force that I can, speaking as one who is used to procedure in the courts, that as the Bill stands at present it would put prosecutors and their advisers to the very greatest difficulties and would add enormously to the costs falling upon a large number of very poor persons. The number of cases in which the defendant does not appear is a very considerable proportion indeed, and it is very likely that the number will increase, because defendants will not take the trouble to comply with a summons received by post, and the confusion that will follow may be very great. I rather gathered that the right hon. Gentleman stated that the Magistrates' Association was in favour of the Bill. I was not aware of that, but I do know that the magistrates' clerks in my part of the country have raised this question with me and asked me to bring it before the House, and that is one of the reasons why I have pointed out the possibilities of what may happen, and why they think that instead of assisting police court procedure it may very well have an opposite effect.

6.6 p.m.


I am rather glad that the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) spoke as he did, because I feel that his contentions are perefectly correct, and that a good deal of feeling will be raised over the advisability, or, rather, the inadvisability, of carrying the Measure in its present form. On the face of it, it looks a harmless method of saving expense, if we think only of saving the time of police officers, and one is anxious to prevent unnecessary expenditure if that can be done without detriment to those who come within the purview of this Bill. But in my view the Bill as it stands will not be acceptable to a large number of people who have experience of the working of the courts of summary jurisdiction. I, too, have had a similar experience to that of my hon. and learned Friend in that a magistrate's clerk with considerable knowledge has expressed to me the view that this Bill will not only not result in a saving of expense, but may possibly create a considerable amount of additional expenditure. Obviously no one desires to do anything which menaces the liberty of the subject. Reading the Bill casually, one would imagine that that consideration is not pertinent here, but the truth of the matter is that it really is very pertinent, because as the Bill stands at present there is the possibility of persons being convicted of offences without their knowledge. It may be that that will not happen in very many cases, but if service of a summons by post is to be allowed and such proof of service as may be adduced in accordance with this Bill in the course of a case is accepted, there is always the possibility of the summons coming into the hands of somebody who may not be the actual person to be charged, and I think it is quite possible that a person may be sent to prison without his ever having had knowledge of the summons having been issued against him.

If on the other hand the summons is sent by post to a defendant, he may decide, when he gets it, that it is not advisable for him to appear in court at all, and may find it is a very suitable opportunity to evade attendance. In such a case what can the court do? The man does not write to them, he does not send a solicitor to the court, he merely ignores the summons which has come. The court may then decide to issue a fresh summons, and again it is served by post, and thus there is an opportunity given to the individual to escape service altogether. The cost of eventually tracing that individual will be very much greater than any expense which may have been saved by sending the summons by post instead of serving it upon him personally in the first instance. What is to happen in the case of bastardy summonses or maintenance summonses? Is the court to have complete discretion as to whether a summons is to be served by post in such cases? The individual concerned is involved in a very serious proceeding, and it may very well be that an order will be made against him without his knowledge and without his having any opportunity to defend the proceedings. Another question is, Who is to send the letter? Is it to be sent by the magistrate's clerk; is it to be sent by a police officer? A million or so summonses, possibly more, are served each year, and if they are sent by post it may lead to a considerable amount of evasion and a considerable measure of expense may be involved ultimately.

It might facilitate matters if, at a later stage, the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this Bill would make it clear as to what type of summons this Bill is to apply. It may be possible by amendments to bring about the happy consumation which he thinks has already been achieved of everybody being in favour of the Bill, but as it stands I do not think the majority of people who have experience of the procedure in the courts can possibly accept it. Take the case of a person who is charged with a traffic offence—cases which are increasing in number day by day. There is nothing to prevent such a person from giving a name and an address which are not his own. If he gets to know that the way in which a summons can be served upon him, in the first instance, at any rate is by post, it may be that he will take steps to ensure that he is not discovered, and if he is ultimately discovered it will be only after a considerable waste of time and expense. The Measure may work at first, for a month or so, but as soon as the procedure becomes known, people, with their ordinary human failings, will be quick to take advantage of the fact that a summons cannot be served, or will not be served, in the manner which is customary now, and which, in the majority of cases, they could not evade. In view of these considerations and the points raised by my hon. and learned Friend—and I am sure there must be many others which those who have experience in the courts could bring forward—I hope the Government will consider the question of amending the Bill very considerably, so that it may possibly meet the only object with which it could have been promoted, and that is to save some expense.

6.15 p.m.


The hon. and learned Baronet the Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) said that the defendants would not appear, that they did not appear at the present time in many cases and that they would be less likely to appear in the future; therefore prosecutors would be subjected to greater annoyance and to considerable expense. His experience in this matter is very great and much greater than my own, and the Government are not prepared to ignore his great experience in this matter. I must, however, point out to him, although he admitted it himself, that this procedure is purely permissive, and that if it were found that advantage was taken of the serving of the summonses by post, common sense would ensure that this form of service would be discontinued. The suggestion has been made that this Bill should be considered by a Committee of the whole House, but I think that the House would wish that the Bill should be sent to a Standing Committee to be dealt with in the normal way. I believe that the hon. and learned Baronet said that he did not know that the Magistrates' Association had supported this proposal.


I said that I was not aware of it.


I thought that he went on to say that the magistrates in his own constituency did not support it.


They were the magistrates' clerks of two or three petty sessional divisions.


I did not make my observations without knowledge of the facts, and I think that the hon. and learned Baronet would be interested to know that, in the annual report of the Magistrates' Association for 1928, these words are used: Service of Summonses by Post.—We have considered the present methods of serving summonses, and it is recommended that in addition to other modes of service any summons may be served by post, provided that no hearing shall take place upon a summons so served unless either the defendant appears in person, or by counsel or solicitor, or a letter is received in answer to the summons purporting to be signed by the person to whom it is addressed. It is further recommended that Section 41 of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, should be extended so as to permit the service of a summons, etc., being proved by a certificate signed by the person effecting the service. A wilfully untrue statement in such a certificate should be an offence punishable on summary conviction. It will be observed that we are not departing one iota from the recommendation made by the Magistrates' Association. I want to make it quite clear that, in asking the House to agree to the Second Reading of this Bill, it was not the desire of the Government to have the Bill discussed by a Committee of the whole House, but that it should go upstairs, in the normal way, where every consideration will be given to the suggestions that have been made.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.

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