HC Deb 26 April 1934 vol 288 cc2000-4

As amended (in the Standing Committee) considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

9.36 p.m.


I do not think that the House ought to let this Bill pass the Third Reading without appreciating what the Government have done with regard to it. The Bill has many useful features, and clears up many anomalies in the administration of county courts, but it has two features which, in our view, are extremely unsatisfactory. One is that the Bill, with the exception of minor Amendments, of which the Attorney-General has been good enough to let me have a list, does not extend the present county court jurisdiction, which is a very restricted one, and the Government have declined to accept any Amendment to increase it. The present jurisdiction has been the same for the most part since 1888, in some oases since the 'sixties and in other cases since 1903; and we on these benches thought that the time bad come, in view of the increased value of money, to double the jurisdiction. Therefore, in Committee we proposed that the jurisdiction, where it was £100 should he increased to £200; where, as in Admiralty matters, it was £300, it should be increased to £600; and in other cases where the jurisdiction was limited to £500, it might properly be increased to £1,000.

The Government, however, declined to accept any of these Amendments. I am not entitled to speak at length with regard to them, but I want to express the strong view of those of us who sit on these benches that the Government in this Bill have lost an opportunity of making litigation cheaper and making it more easily available, particularly to people in the provinces. A good many cases at present have to be brought to London to be tried in the High Court which might quite well and properly be tried in the provinces. That is particularly the case now that certain assize towns have been done away with. That is one good reason why, in our view, the facilities of county courts should be extended. Another matter in regard to which the Bill makes an alteration of the present law is in connection with juries. There have been for many years past, particularly under this Government, considerable encroachments on the law regarding trial by jury. In county courts one used to be entitled to a jury as a right by the mere payment of the fees, which were small. In 1925 that law was altered, and it was decided that there should be no right to trial by jury in equity cases, or where the claim did not exceed £5, and in regard to certain cases which are preserved in the present Bill. Since 1925 the law has been that if a party applies for a case other than those exempted to be tried by jury, unless the court is satisfied it is a case which is more fit to be tried without a jury, the court is bound to permit a jury to try the case. The Government propose in this Bill that all cases, with certain ex- ceptions, shall be tried without a jury unless the court, on application, otherwise orders.

I understand that it was suggested that this is analogous to the procedure in the High Court. That is not so, however, because in the High Court an order has to be made by the Master or the Registrar as to the mode of trial, whereas in the county court the trial will be without a jury unless the court otherwise orders, except in the cases which are exempted. There is a disinclination on the part of many judges to try cases with a jury in a great majority of instances. No guidance is afforded in the Bill as to the grounds on which any decision whether a case should be tried by a jury should be based, and in our view this Bill is really the deathknell of juries in civil cases in county courts—one of the rights that were given by Magna Charta. It is a remarkable fact that we on these benches, together on some occasions with those on the Liberal benches, should be the upholders of these traditional rights of Englishmen which the National Government are day by day in one direction and another taking from us.

We recognise that the Bill in many small matters effects an improvement in the administration of county courts. We further recognise—perhaps the Attorney-General will confirm this—that it is not intended that the Bill should come into law yet. I understand the Government intend that there shall be a Consolidation Bill in relation to county courts, and that the provisions of the present Bill will be included. I should like to ask the Attorney-General whether there is any hope of the jurisdiction being increased in the way that we ask when the Consolidation Bill comes before the House. Failing that being the case, I imagine that we on these benches would desire to move Amendments to it. Bearing in mind that the Consolidation Bill is coming before the House, and that it is not intended that the present Bill shall have effect at present, although we feel strongly on these matters, we do not propose to divide the House on the Third Reading.

9.42 p.m.


The hon. Gentleman asks me if he is right in thinking that this Bill will not come into opera- tion, but will be postponed until it is embodied in the Consolidation Bill. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right on that point. May I refer to the two points to which he takes exception. He complains that, broadly speaking, the jurisdiction of county courts has not been enlarged by doubling the amounts which represent the limit of the county court jurisdiction. As I tried to explain in Committee upstairs, there is a great deal more involved than merely considering whether more actions can be tried by the county court judge. If he tries a large number of what are at present called High Court cases, that is to say, cases up to £150 or £200, it will take up the time of the court to a disproportionate extent, and will prevent the small litigant with his £10, £15 or £20 case having it tried quickly and expeditiously. The county court is not intended under its existing organisation and with its existing personnel for the trial of more substantial cases than personal actions in which the amount involved does not exceed £100. If ever it is decided to give it enlarged jurisdiction, there will have to be a radical alteration of the relations between the High Court and the county court, and that was not possible within the time available in this Session or within the scope of this Bill.

The other point to which the hon. and gallant Member alluded was the very slight alteration in reference to the right of a litigant to have a jury. Now the law will be precisely the same in the county court as in the High Court. The hon. and gallant Member shakes his head. He will forgive me if I still remain of the opinion which I expressed. The fact is that here, again, we have taken into consideration the interests of litigants. Trial by jury undoubtedly takes a longer time than trial by a judge, and if, as he proposed in his Amendment in Committee, we had ordered that every case was to be tried by a jury unless otherwise ordered by the judge, it would have meant that in every case an application would have had to be made by a solicitor for the trial to be by the judge when the clients so desired it. I persuaded him—and I dare say there are other hon. Members on both sides of the House who will confirm me—that in general the litigant in the county court would prefer his case to be tried quickly and expeditiously by the judge, who generally has, to an extraordinary extent, the confidence of litigants in the county court, than tried by eight jurymen, with a great deal of additional expense and uncertainty.

The hon. and gallant Member tempts me to say something about the people who are engaged in filching the rights of the subject, but even with the spectacle of the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) sitting so invitingly in front of him, I am not going to indulge in any observations about people who interfere with the rights of the subject. I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for the other observations he made. In general, I think that he and I are agreed that this is a good Bill—he has his opinion of the two points he has mentioned—and a useful Bill, which effects useful, minor changes in the law of the county court.