HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1844-6
Mr. Grimston (Westbury)

I beg to move, in page 48, line 26, to leave out Subsection (3).

That Subsection states: Any power given to a court by this Section may be exercised by any judge of the court otherwise than in open court. The effect of that is to facilitate the granting of dispensations in unimportant, small matters. It gives the power to county court judges, whereas, before, it was given only to High Court judges. We think that it would be well if the county court judge exercised this power in open court rather than by his own fireside, as it were. There might be some appearance of hole-in-the-corner business in the disposition of these matters if the Bill were not amended. It is not a large point, but I suggest it is worthy of consideration.

Mr. Ede

The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) has correctly stated the position under the existing law. If there is an application to a judge of the High Court, he can hear the application in chambers if he thinks fit and if it is convenient to the parties. We are of opinion that the same conditions should be available to the county court judge. In country areas particularly, he may not be in the neighbourhood of the constituency where the application is made. These are trivial matters with which he must deal. We feel that it should be possible to get decisions quickly. It is entirely for the convenience of all the parties concerned and, as we have brought in the county court judges, it would be desirable to extend to them the same facilities for the quick discharge of the business before them as we have given hitherto to High Court judges.

Mr. C. Williams

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but I would like to know whether the announcement will be made in public as in an ordinary court. This point might present difficulty. If the legal interpretation of what the Minister said is that it will be a public announcement in exactly the same way as an announcement in any other form of court, then it seems that his position is strong.

Mr. Ede

We place the county court judge in exactly the same position as the High Court judge. Whatever the High Court judge can do, the county court judge can do. Whatever publication was given to the decision of the High Court judge will be given to the decision of the county county judge.

Mr. Williams

What about publicity? I am a layman and I do not understand legal language. Do I understand that the announcement will be made where there are representatives of both sides present? Will it be done as it was done in the previous cases?

Mr. Ede

Everything will be on exactly the same lines.

Mr. Williams

Will it be done in chambers, for instance?

Mr. Ede

This allows application to be made to a county court judge in chambers in the same way as application can be made to a High Court judge. There might be some election carried on during the county court vacation. These are only trivial matters, and it is desirable that the county court judge should settle them reasonably quickly. The county court will exercise the same powers in the same way as they have been exercised by the High Court judge.

Mr. Williams

If it is done in chambers, I am not sure that that is a sufficiently public place. I will not pursue the matter further, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will look into it to see whether the announcement can be published in a place where both people are represented.

Mr. Ede

This has been the law of the land for a great many years without, as far as I know, any objection to it. I have known the most trivial cases concerning some slip on the part of an election agent, which was not at all blameworthy but which involved the man going to court. If the court does not happen to have been sitting, he has gone to a judge in chambers. The same procedure will be followed by the county court.

Mr. Scollan

Will the Lord Advocate tell us what difference this provision will make in Scottish electoral law?

The Lord Advocate (Mr. Wheatley)

Power is being given to the sheriff to operate, in the sheriff court, powers which previously were only operable in the court of session. There is no other difference as between Scotland and England, subject to the reservations contained in the Clause. In any judgment given in the sheriff court, whether the case was heard in open court or in chambers, the method of reporting the judgment would be exactly the same. In the sheriff court in Scotland it will be an interlocutory judgment by the sheriff as distinct from a judgment given in the court of session. If the case is heard in open court in the court of session, the judgment will be given in open court, but if it is heard in chambers in the court of session, a written judgment will be given.

Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)

I think that the Home Secretary failed in one way to state the full strength of his case, because at any rate some of these applications—those under Subsection (1, d)—relate to false statements made by political opponents at elections. Some of these applications are made in chambers in order to avoid the possibility that somebody may aggravate the offence which he has already committed by creating a lot of prejudice in open court. It is for the same sort of reason that applications in the King's Bench Division for an interlocutory injunction restraining the publication of a libel pending suit, is made in chambers and not in public. There is a very good reason, in many of these instances which are mentioned, for the matters to be heard in chambers as has hitherto been the case.

Mr. Grimston

The Home Secretary has made out an entirely reasonable case, buttressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.