HC Deb 07 February 1947 vol 432 cc2099-106

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

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

The purpose of this Bill is to secure that, at all events in the two highest courts in the land, justice should not be delayed or tarried because there is an inadequate number of judges to man the courts. It is not, of course, desirable to appoint more judges than are required, but still less is it desirable that litigants should be kept waiting for cases to be heard, and of the two evils, if indeed both be evils, it is better to have judges whose time on occasion is not fully occupied than to have litigants who are kept waiting in court because their cases are not reached on the days on which they are listed, and still less litigants whose cases cannot be listed at all because there is an inadequate number of judges to try their cases. It is to deal with the latter position, at all events in the House of Lords and in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, that this Bill is presented.

The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are judges whose duty it is to sit in the House of Lords when the House of Lords is acting as Supreme Court of Appeal, and also to sit in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council when that Committee hears appeals from the Dominions, from India, or from the Colonies. Under the existing legislation, there are seven of them. They are, it is true, not the only judges who are entitled to sit on those tribunals. There is always a fluctuating number of others entitled, but not obliged, to sit. At present there is the Lord Chancellor, five ex-Lord Chancellors, two ex-Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, one ex-Lord Justice Clerk, and then, of course, there is the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, and Lord Justice Lawrence—Lord Oaksey, I should now call him—and in addition, in certain cases in the Privy Council, two Indian judges whose duty it is to sit for those cases and the Lords Justices. But although theoretically it would consequently appear that there is a considerable body of assistance available to the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, in practice that is not the case, and they are usually, in existing circumstances, able to obtain very little help. The Lord Chancellor sits whenever he is able to do so, but his other public duties as a Cabinet Minister make it impossible for him to sit with any great frequency. Of the rest, the five ex-Lord Chancellors, the two ex-Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, and the ex-Lord Justice Clerk, none of whom is obliged to sit, all but one are now precluded by age or infirmity from sitting, although it is hoped that one of them may be able to sit occasionally in the future. The only exception amongst that group is Lord Simon, who, of course, as one would expect, is rendering the most important and invaluable assistance.

Of the remainder, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, and Lord Justice Lawrence are normally fully occupied with the duties of their own courts, and in the result, the seven Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, with Lord Simon and possibly occasional assistance from one other of the ex-judges, have to do all the work of the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee, except to the extent that the two Indian judges are able to help in certain appeals, and that the Lord Justices of Appeal are able to help when the Court of Appeal is not demanding their attendance, as it generally does, in cases in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The result is that the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary at present have a quite impossible task.

The House of Lords ought never to sit as a Court of Appeal with less than five judges present. On occasion it has to have seven, when a case of particular importance has to be tried. In the Judicial Committee, the Dominions insist that their cases should be heard by a board consist- ing entirely of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. That Committee, sometimes five and sometimes seven, cannot be manned in that way at the same time as the House of Lords. Other appeals to the Judicial Committee require a board sometimes of three, sometimes of five, and sometimes of seven, according to the importance of the case to be tried, and at least some of those must always be Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Quite obviously, therefore, it is not possible at present always to have the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee sitting simultaneously. Last month there was a Dominion Appeal in the Judicial Committee, where it went on for 10 days, during which time the House of Lords was unable to set at all as an appellate tribunal. There is another appeal coming on, but it has not been possible to list it until April, although it is long overdue. It is likely to last three weeks, and during that period it is likely that the House of Lords will be prevented from sitting as an appellate tribunal. The result is that in the House of Lords and in the Privy Council there are appreciable arrears of work. The House of Lords has enough work to keep it busy until Easter, and the Judicial Committee have a long list, there being 43 appeals from India alone. In both cases, it is most undesirable to delay the hearing of cases which are necessarily important when they get to the final tribunal, and it is particularly undesirable in the case of the Judicial Committee where at this time, we want to ensure that the procedure by way of appeal to the Privy Council, is not open to criticism of any kind. The increase which it is proposed will enable but only just enable—

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

Before the Attorney-General passes from that question about the delay in the taking of cases, could he give the House—for I think it might shorten the proceedings on the Bill if he did so—the approximate length of time in each of the two courts concerned, between the setting down of a case and the actual hearing?

The Attorney-General

I can give only very approximate figures, and I have no actual information before me, but I should say that in the House of Lords it probably takes about six months under existing conditions and rather longer in the case of the Privy Council. There are, as I say, 43 appeals from India waiting and there is a Dominion appeal which is long overdue, but which we cannot list until April, so that the delay is probably longer in that case.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

I do not know whether the information I have here will help the Attorney-General, but last year the House of Lords heard 32 appeals and there are at present 48 appeals in the list waiting to be heard. In no year in the past five years have more than 36 appeals been heard, and, therefore, it looks as though at least a period of 12 months would be likely to elapse in the ordinary way before an appeal is heard.

The Attorney-General

Possibly from the time that leave to appeal is granted, but I do not think that the delay is quite so long after the case has been set down. I think that the work which the House of Lords has at present before it, will probably finish, in the ordinary course, somewhere about the end of April or May. But even that is too long, because other cases are coming in all the time, and are being set down.

The addition of two Lords of Appeal in Ordinary is a modest proposal, but it would just enable the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee to sit simultaneously, and make it possible, at least on some occasions, for the Judicial Committee to sit in two divisions at the same time. That would enable these courts to tackle a considerable body of appeals with greater expedition. On the other hand, it will not result in any excessive margin of judicial strength, nor necessarily any permanent increase in the number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. The distinguished holders of these high judicial offices are not, as a rule, young men, and even if the two Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are appointed in accordance with the proposal in this Bill, it is not unlikely that some of the existing Lords of Appeal will retire in the course of the next year or two. If they do, under the provisions of this Bill further appointments to bring the total to nine will be made only if the state of business justifies that course. I commend this Bill to the House as improving the efficiency of our judicial machine.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Peake

I think it is the general desire that we should not take up a great deal of Parliamentary time upon this or the two succeeding Bills which are down for Second Reading today, and it was with that object in mind that I interrupted the Attorney-General in regard to what I think is a vital factor of the Measure now before the House. It is of the first importance that justice should be expeditiously administered, and there are many cases in which a very long delay in arriving at a final decision, of itself inflicts great injustice upon one or other of the parties concerned. There is, at present, a long list of cases awaiting final decision in the two highest tribunals of the land. Therefore, we on the Opposition side of the House give our blessing to this Bill. We think it necessary, and we will not delay its progress to the Statute Book.

11.17 a.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

For the same reason, I do not intend to take up the time of the House because we want to get on to more important Business. I welcome this Bill, in so far as it will lessen the period of appeals to the Privy Council. Nothing brings the administration of justice into greater disrepute than delayed justice, so much so, that for 100 years it has been said that one of the curses of man is a Lords' appeal. Time and again, we have had Commissions reporting on improving our methods of justice. I suggest that the Government instead of introducing the piecemeal legislation which we get from time to time should ask the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General to undertake a comprehensive review of the whole situation. First I would say that the administration of justice is much too expensive to the litigant. That is not fair. What is more, the high expenditure to the litigant often means a denial of justice, because he cannot afford it. It is not realised by the House that the administration of justice in this country costs the State nothing. As a matter of fact, the State makes a profit out of the fees charged, and that is not right. Secondly, I think there are too many appeals and they might be shortened. It is very pleasant for us, as lawyers, judges and so on, to argue and settle the niceties of the law, but what the litigant wants is certainty and finality. Thirdly, there ought to be an extension of the number of judges to bring the administration of justice to the door of the people. I hope that we will allow this Bill to go through without any controversy, but the time has come when the Lord Chancellor and the Attor- ney-General should set about a complete review of our whole administration.

11.19 a.m.

Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)

The right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) said a great deal—though I think it was slightly out of Order—of what I was going to say. It saves me, at least, from being pulled up by you, Mr. Speaker, if I say that I confirm what he has said. In the normal way, I would not object to this Bill. I agree that the administration of justice should be speeded up, but in this case I do think that the Government bringing in this Bill at this moment is, in fact, creating a reactionary measure. Without some steps taken by the Government to reduce the cost of litigation, I think that this can only have a depressing effect upon the minds of the public because, as many of my legal hearers will no doubt agree, the possibility of appeal to the House of Lords is in fact very often used by a rich litigant as a weapon to stop a poorer litigant from taking his remedy in the courts. If the Attorney-General will this morning assure the House that the Government will take steps to set up a committee to go into this matter, then I welcome this Bill. Otherwise, I fear it will be just one more weapon in the hands of the rich litigant at the expense of his poorer fellow.

11.21 a.m.

Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)

In view of what has just been said, I should like to assert, in very few words, that I, and I am sure those associated with me, give the strongest support to this Bill. It is true that consideration must be, and, I am sure, will be given to the costs of appeal, but one of the things which one litigant can hold over another is the trouble which will arise from the law's delays when there are such delays. I therefore, welcome the fact that a step of some consequence is now being taken to reduce delays. The highest tribunal in our land is greatly respected—and rightly so—both for its learning and its integrity, and I can go even further in speaking for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council because its efficiency is really of great importance to the maintenance of the foundations of our civilisation. I hope that full consideration will be given to the possibility of that Committee going on circuit in the Dominions because not only is it important, as my right hon. Friend has said, to bring justice to the people, but we must also remember that, in view of the improved conditions of transport it is now possible to bring justice to the various parts of our Commonwealth.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

While I do not think that the question of the cost of litigation can properly arise from the provision or object of this Bill, what does arise is the fact that if you have a court to which people are given access, then it should be efficiently manned, and there should be as little delay as possible in the parties being able to have recourse to it and having their cases heard. This Bill is designed to prevent delay, and therefore should receive general assent. There is one matter of real importance to which I wish to refer although I do not know whether it is a matter that can be remedied without undue difficulty or whether some important constitutional change would have to be made to meet it. I am speaking from my own experience in practising before the House of Lords, and the fact is that, unfortunately, that body sits as a juridical court at times only when its House is not meeting as one of the divisions of Parliament, or during the time when the House in is Recess. The result is that very often an appeal heard say on Monday morning, and perhaps again on Tuesday morning, may then be adjourned until Friday.

I am not complaining of this but merely commenting on it because it means that it is inevitable that where there are only short sessions for the hearing of appeals the process extends over a very much longer period than if there were continuity of hearing the Appeal from day to day. I am not sufficiently conversant with the reasons for this and no doubt good reasons exist, but I am wondering whether the learned Attorney-General could tell the House why these adjournments are, if they are, essential and whether it is not possible by some means whether by arrangement by the House of Lords itself or otherwise, to carry on the judicial work of the House of Lords exactly in the same way say as in the other courts, proceeding from day to day. That would clearly be a very important element in eliminating the delay to which reference has been made by the learned Attorney-General. Of course, it would not remedy the inability with the present number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary to have more than one judicial tribunal of the House sitting. It is quite true that the Lord Chancellor himself has duties which are such that he may quite often not be available and of the other ex-officio members who can sit on the final Court of Appeal in the House of Lords there are in fact very few available and certainly not constantly available. But for the truly herculean efforts of Lord Simon, who sits so very often, the position would be that apart from the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary there would be little or no other judicial assistance at the disposal of their Lordships' House.

It is quite clear that the appointment of two further law lords is not only justified by the circumstances of the judicial business of the House of Lords but demanded, but what I would like the Attorney-General to tell this House is whether, assuming these two law lords are appointed and we thereby have what is equivalent to ten, including the Lord Chancellor it would then be possible to constitute two tribunals of five law lords each in order to help to remedy the delay which there is admittedly at the present time. The figures show that in 1942 36 appeals were heard by the House of Lords, and in the following years up to 1946 the numbers were 34, 16, 28, and 32 respectively. As there are now 48 appeals waiting to be heard it is obvious that it will take a substantial time—an unjustifiable time—before they are heard.

To summarise that, I make the two points, that first it is essential to constitute two courts in the House of Lords, and, secondly, if it can possibly be achieved, to have the hearing of appeals running from day to day instead of with the intervals to which I have referred and which, although they may have been necessary in the past, should be ended if that is at all practicable. In that way, delay in hearing appeals would be eliminated and this Bill would certainly be justified.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.[Mr. Simmons.]