HC Deb 14 April 1948 vol 449 cc1119-23

For Section four of the Forfeiture Act, 1870, there shall be substituted the following Section:

"Compensation to persons defrauded or injured by felony.

4. It shall he lawful for any such court as aforesaid, if it shall think fit, upon the application of any person aggrieved and immediately after the conviction of any person for felony or misdemeanour, to award any sum of money not exceeding two hundred pounds, by way of satisfaction or compensation for any loss of or damage to property or injury to the person suffered by the applicant through or by means of the said felony or misdemeanour, and the amount awarded for such satisfaction or compensation shall be deemed a judgment debt due to the person entitled to receive the same from the person so convicted and the order for payment of such amount may be enforced in such and the same manner as in the case of any costs ordered by the court to be paid under the last preceding Section of this Act."—[Mr. Renton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

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

May I point out that the marginal note is the same as the original marginal note to Section 4 of the Forfeiture Act, 1870, which can, however, be adjusted if this Clause is passed as it stands. The purpose of this Clause is to bring up to date the powers granted by Section 4 of the Forfeiture Act and slightly to widen those powers. As the law now stands, under Section 4 of the Forfeiture Act, 1870, any court convicting a person of felony may award up to £100 by way of compensation to the person aggrieved. This useful power saves the trouble of taking separate civil proceedings arising from the same subject matter as the crime, but it saves that only in certain rather limited cases. The jurisdiction is limited to £100, which used to be the jurisdiction of the county courts in civil cases.

The changes which I propose are simple, and there are four of them. The first change is to increase the £100 to £200, which is the ordinary limit of the county courts jurisdiction; the second change is to add "or misdemeanour" where that is proper, so that where the misdemeanour has been committed the court will have the same power as where a felony was committed. Hon. Members will know that felonies and misdemeanours are obsolete. The Clause allows compensation to be granted only for loss of property, but I suggest "loss of or damage to property" should be added, and while we are about it, we might as well include "or injury to the person." Compensation up to £200 will save, in ordinary minor cases, separate civil proceedings, and this is so more especially in regard to motoring offences. There are, fairly frequently, simple cases of motoring offences where the criminal court can dispose straight away of the subject of the small amount of damage or hospital expenses outstanding, and if this Clause is accepted this would become possible. I commend to the House this simple Amendment to an old provision.

Mr. Gage (Belfast, South)

I beg to second the Motion.

I certainly feel the greatest sympathy with what has just been said, because throughout this Bill I think the emphasis has been upon the prisoner rather than upon the person offended, and I am, therefore, glad now to see this new Clause being considered. Everyone is familiar with the cases of unfortunate people who have suffered serious loss through crime. I need not reiterate the type of case, but one can think of old ladies defrauded and left penniless by people who have got a considerable amount of money and who could readily make recompense to me people they have defrauded. Their case could be dealt with by the courts to which these people would normally have recourse, and they could get compensation if the person was worth his powder and shot.

Under the criminal law it is quite possible for the judge—and I would certainly have it left to the judge and not to the jury—to be seized of all the facts and to make up his mind on them. It is a question of the type of case in which a man who has got the money has been convicted of an offence in the committing of which he has caused serious injury or fraud to some unfortunate person. Nothing could be simpler than for him to make recompense. At the present time, as the House will know, it is possible for a court, if a man has got in his possession some article which has been stolen and which can be shown to have been stolen, to order him to hand it back to the person from whom he stole it. Therefore, it does not seem to me that the new Clause goes very much further than the present position.

Mr. Maude

Has this power ever been used since 1870? I have never heard of it being used. It is quite new to me. It is a thoroughly hopeless proposition, it seems to me, for a criminal judge to decide damages in a running-down action where someone is prosecuted for any injury on the road. I have never heard of it at all.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Younger)

I cannot directly answer that question at the moment. I may be able to get the information. I was under the impression that it had been used, though not very frequently. I understand that there was an accepted opinion that it was possible for it to be used in the case of courts of summary jurisdiction, but that, in fact, no court of summary jurisdiction had used it but it had been used by a superior court on occasion.

The hon. Members who moved and seconded the new Clause will he aware that, although no doubt there may be cases where the procedure they propose would be convenient, they are, nevertheless, raising quite a considerable issue by suggesting that this very much wider range of cases, each of a civil nature, should be tried by the criminal courts. As regards the first proposal, namely, increasing the amount which can be awarded, that, I think, is a very arguable point. The sum now proposed is probably not far short, in real terms, of the £100 provided at the time of the Forfeiture Act. If that stood alone, it is a thing that one might consider, but the other points are really much more important, particularly, the one which suggests that this should he extended not only to damage to property but also to personal injury.

I think that the moment one widens the provision to include personal injury, one compels a court which is primarily a criminal court to consider a large number of things which they should not consider in any detail, except in the criminal sense alone. It would not necessarily be any part of the evidence in the prosecution of the criminal offence to prove in detail what the personal injury suffered was. It would probably in many cases be necessary, following upon the conviction by the court to call fresh evidence which had not been before it in respect of the criminal offence. I think it is recognised that, whereas this provision for £100 in the case of the loss of property was put into the Forfeiture Act, what was being done was to whittle down the older penalty for felony. Since then the whole tendency has been to leave questions of compensation to the civil courts.

I think it would be inappropriate in very many cases that criminal court juries, already very heavily engaged in many cases, should at the end of each criminal hearing be compelled to go on to consider what might be quite a hotly-argued issue of a civil nature involving fresh evidence. I think—particularly in view of the reforms which we hope will be introduced shortly to make civil proceedings more accessible to those of limited means—that it is far more simple that these issues should continue to be dealt with, as they almost always have been in the past, by the civil courts. I recognise there might be a limited number of civil cases where it would be an additional expense for a petitioner to take the matter to a civil court, but I think this is in only limited classes of cases, and certainly the Clause as drafted would cover a very much wider field. I am afraid that the Government cannot commend the Clause to the House.

Mr. Renton

Might I ask one question? As the Measure is repealing Sections 6–30 of the Forfeiture Act, and as the hon. Gentleman appears to disagree with the procedure prescribed by Section 4, why does he take the trouble to leave Section 4 specifically on the Statute Book?

Question put, and negatived.

Further consideration of the Bill, as amended, adjourned.—[Mr. Wilkins.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), to be further considered Tomorrow.