HC Deb 04 December 1953 vol 521 cc1544-68

Order for Second Reading read.

2.27 p.m.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

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

The purpose of this short Measure is to amend the law relating to the limitation of actions, its aims being principally revision of the law to introduce a measure of uniformity and simplicity, and also the removal of certain obvious injustices. I recognise that there may well be certain points upon which all Members are not agreed. It is right and proper that those cases should be fully thrashed out during the Committee stage.

I express the confident hope that the Measure will command general support because it provides a long-needed remedy for a most unsatisfactory situation. I am glad to know that it commands a large measure of trade union support and that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) will second this Motion. I understand that the Bill commands the full support of the Law Society and other interested bodies.

I also express the hope that the Government will see fit to lend their support and encouragement to this much needed legislation. In its main provisions the Bill follows precisely the recommendations of the committee which eat under the chairmanship of the then Lord Justice Tucker. There is only one comparatively minor point upon which the provisions vary from the recommendations of the Tucker committee.

Clause 1 deals with the repeal of certain enactments prescribing exceptional privileges and periods in which an action may be brought. First, there is the Public Authorities Protection Act, 1893, as amended by Section 21 of the Limitation Act, 1939. The two Measures together gave a very wide degree of protection to public authorities. I feel very strongly that that measure of protection is not called for today. The situation in 1953 is very different from what it was in 1893. Public authorities today impinge upon an immensely wider field of our national life than they did in 1893. I am strongly of the opinion that it would be most unjust to continue that limitation upon the remedies and rights open to individuals.

It is not desirable at the moment to go into any detail or to produce too many cases, but I wish particularly to cite an instance relating to hospital treatment. Paragraph 12 of the Tucker Committee Report refers to the case of Freeborn v. Leeming. A medical officer of health negligently diagnosed a complaint. It was not until some time had passed that the error in diagnosis was discovered, and by that time the plantiff's right of action had become statute-barred. That is, clearly, an instance of an injustice.

A case was brought to my attention yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers). It concerned a constituent of his, a Mr. Keene, who had been employed by the Buckinghamshire County Council. Mr. Keene had the misfortune to catch his foot in an obstruction and fall down a whole flight of stairs. By the time the full extent of the injury which he had suffered was discovered, his right of action had become barred. It is only fair to point out that in that case the only party to benefit from the protection, which was designed for the public authority, was an insurance company. Today, Mr. Keene—I believe he represents many other very unfortunate people—with a wife and children to support, has been able to obtain only an ex-gratia payment of, I believe, £1,000, and he has no means of earning the support which he and his family must have. The Bill will remedy that situation.

The continuation of this protection is something of a slight upon local authorities. It suggests that they are not as competent as other enterprises are to keep proper records. I believe that to be untrue. I am sure that the Measure will not inflict any great inconvenience, let alone hardship or difficulty, upon local authorities.

Paragraph 15 of the Tucker Committee Report gives details of the experience of the Scottish Motor Traction Co. Ltd., a very large private enterprise concern. Under Scots law there is a very much longer period during which action can be brought. The Report quotes the experi- ence of the company over a period of five years. It says: …approximately 10 per cent. of actions brought against the Company were raised within nine months of the accident, 50 per cent. between nine months and one year, 30 per cent. between one and two years, 9 per cent. between two and three years, and only one per cent. after more than three years. I do not think it can be claimed on behalf of local authorities that the Bill will impose any undue difficulties upon them.

I would also draw attention to the extreme difficulty of ascertaining precisely what the present law is. Hon. and learned Members will I have more experience of this and will be far better qualified than I am to speak about it in detail. It will no doubt be sufficient if I call attention to the decision in 1916 in the case of Bradford Corporation versus Myers. Coke was negligently unloaded and damage was caused to property. The decision was that, while the Corporation had the duty to supply gas, it had only powers to sell coke and. therefore, the Corporation was not entitled to the protection of the Public Authorities Protection Act. There are many marginal cases which can be cited to show how very difficult it is to say in a certain case where a public authority stands. As I said at the beginning, the main object of the Bill is to simplify the law and to provide a measure of much needed uniformity.

The object of Clause 2 is to alter the period within which action for damages can be brought in cases of negligence, nuisance and breach of duty. All such actions where damages consist of personal injuries must, under the provisions of the Bill, be brought within three years, with very minor exceptions, regardless of who the defendant is. There is special provision to take care of cases of disability.

Clause 3 simply contains a parallel amendment to the Fatal Accident Act, 1846, and provides that an action can be brought within three years after death has taken place.

Clause 4 seeks to amend a provision of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1934, which provided for survival of a cause of action in tort against a deceased person. Under the Bill, the Act is affected only by the repeal of the requirement that the cause of action should have arisen within six months before death.

Clause 5 (1) seeks to bind the Crown, and I shall leave my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General to deal with that matter when he intervenes.

Clause 5 (2) amends the law relating to shipping. Where damage is done to or by ships, including Her Majesty's ships, the Bill seeks to provide that the action must be brought within two years. I should explain that the period of two years where shipping is concerned is one which was fixed originally in the Maritime Conventions Act, 1911, and is based on substantial reasons, and could not therefore be altered without great difficulty; in fact, it would be most undesirable to do so. We think this measure of uniformity should now apply to all ships, owned by Her Majesty or otherwise, and that they should be subject to this two year period.

The other exception to the period of three years for personal injuries is in regard to claims for loss or damage of registered packets against the Postmaster-General. In view of the immense volume of this traffic, I am sure the House will agree that it would be most unreasonable to place upon the Post Office the burden of having to answer over such a long period as three years. Clause 6 deals with the law in Scotland, and on that subject I shall find myself in some difficulty, but I am quite sure that there are others who can explain the law of Scotland much better than I can.

In conclusion, I should like to sum up by saying that the main purpose of this Bill is simplicity, uniformity and the removal of some obvious injustices. It does go a long way towards giving back to the individual rights which I think may have been properly modified at the time, but which, at the moment, are wrongly withheld from him. I very much hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading, and that, in doing so, it will recognise that it seeks to restore to the individual—and this House is always rightly jealous of the rights of the individual—though in a small field, something of importance to him concerning those rights.

2.43 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I am sure that the whole House will extend its congratulations to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), not only on bringing this very useful Bill before the House, but on the way in which he introduced it. I may say that, in introducing it, he put forward as a firm recommendation for it the fact that it received the support of the Law Society. May I add a greater recommendation in the fact that it receives the support of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and I want to suggest that that support is far more important than that of the Law Society, because lawyers were made to serve the engineers and their fellow citizens, whereas the latter are not there to provide fees for lawyers. I think that that is a fair observation to make at the outset.

I sometimes think that this House does not appreciate either the magnitude or the complexity of the industrial accident rate. The legal adviser to my own trade union has said: The position regarding the periods of limitation is confusing, not only as far as public authorities are concerned but in connection with other defendants, and depending upon the circumstances of a particular case. If, therefore, I cannot lend my voice in the quotation of cases from the rather distant past, perhaps I can tell of cases within my own experience.

I remember that I once worked at the bench with a chap to whom I said good-bye one evening only to hear, next morning, that he was dead. Actually, it was his birthday, and after having celebrated it, he went to bed with his wife and passed out during the night. He had had a great celebration. Next day, as the shop steward concerned, I went round to his home to get the permission of the widow to sell his tools, which is the custom in the trade, in order to bring in as much money as possible for the widow. One could not understand this case, because the man was a national athlete and a champion in his own field, though I will not mention his name.

The widow remembered that her husband had had a blow on the head three years before, when working with a sub-contractor for a local authority. I remember discussing this matter with her and I took time off to go to the inquest and I spoke to the doctor. Those hon. Members who are familiar with medical terms will understand when I say that it was decided that the blow on the head had produced a "subanachroid which was traumatic in origin." Medical hon. Members will know what that means.

We found that there happened to be a record of the accident three years before, and we put forward a claim and, though it was a rare case, obtained between £900 and £1,000. I suggest that that is a good case with which to illustrate this dilemma, and, since that time, I have considered many other cases. Although people generally do not associate shop stewards with anything but engineering strikes, it is the fact that shop stewards fulfil a multitude of duties, which sometimes are voluntary duties, and which ought to receive more thanks than curses from the public. I think the case I have quoted is as good as any I could put forward.

The public are unaware how many of these accidents there are. Within the last two days, I have received from Sir George Barnett, the Chief Inspector of Factories, the latest statistics, because we had been inquiring whether it was possible to make regulations arising out of the accidents which occurred to men working on and repairing machines. The report shows nearly half a million accidents notified in 1950, 1951 and 1952, and shows that 13,000 of these accidents were due to operative machinery in the machine-making or repairing trades. This figure certainly does illustrate the degree of risk of accident to men engaged in engineering.

What is the reason for all this delay in staking a legal claim? Speaking from a long experience, the pattern followed is something like this. There is often a failure to report the accident at the time, because the man may be bruised or he may have a break-down and he may forget, and there is thus a delay in commencing an action for damages, though it may be that there is a friendly atmosphere between the man and the employer or the man and his foreman. The correspondence in these cases sometimes indicates a very friendly atmosphere. When these accidents take place, the people concerned do not always think about actions, and we very often find that when the matter is handed over to a solicitor they are out of time and there is often a denial or repudiation of liability.

This sort of abuse is not confined to private employers, because the Crown is also being indicted here. There is no question about that. I was speaking yesterday to one of my hon. and learned Friends who has very great experience, and he mentioned a case in connection with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and it certainly applies also to the local authorities. I think I am sufficiently well known in this House as a champion of the local authorities for hon. Members to recognise that I would not permit any abuse of their powers.

Broadly speaking, some local authorities have special powers, through Private Act, by means of which they can undertake their own insurance, and it was significant that, when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) moved the Second Reading of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, he asked for general powers for local authorities to insure. It was almost a condition of acceptance by the Government that the Clause should be dropped. I seconded the Bill, and the Clause was removed from it.

I am not trying to make a political point, but the argument used by the hon. Members who opposed the Clause was that it contained a risk that ought not to fall on local government funds but upon the broader resources of insurance companies over the widest possible field. In effect, it was a private enterprise risk of the insurance companies. Therefore, I can only imagine that the insurance companies stimulated the local authorities to raise objection to that Bill and this Bill.

I cannot see that any considerable local government funds are in jeopardy. There is Municipal Mutual Insurance, Limited, that undertakes special risks of this 6ort and claims to be a non-profit-making company and there are other insurance companies. Even the great provincial cities themselves which have Private Acts do not, in the main, put all their risks with one insurance company, but spread them. The local authorities have very little case in this matter.

It is necessary not that working men who are exposed to risks shall become lawyers, but that we shall bring home to those who take risks in mines and factories that there is a stated or common period, and that it shall pass into the consciousness of people lower down the scale, like shop stewards and branch secretaries, that accidents claims have to be taken up within that period.

I am anxious that the Bill shall go through today, and I do not want to delay the House, which has taken a long time this morning considering the protection of birds. That is one of the quirks of the English character. We have about seven societies that look after animals—and I yield to no one in my admiration of them—but have only one society that looks after children. The civilisation of this country depends not on what it does in first-class things but in second-class things, the protection of children and animals, and of others who cannot defend themselves. Although the Bill is not in that tradition it does remove defects in the law which affect working men and women who have to do the hazardous, dirty and sometimes dangerous jobs that keep our society together. As such, it is to becommended to the House.

2.54 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I support the Bill, and hope to do so briefly because other Members wish to speak and we want to get the Bill through today. The Bill decreases the period of limitation in regard to actions for personal injuries but lengthens it against public authorities. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) referred to public authorities' spreading their risks by insuring, which is a very wise precaution. No criticism can be levelled against the insurance companies which carry those risks, but it is probably wrong that insurance companies should take upon themselves advantages and privileges which were originally in old Acts, when conditions were wholly different from what they are today, and they would probably be the first to agree with that observation.

I hope—and I give this word of caution—that because we are extending the period of three years in the case of actions referred to in Clause 1 of the Bill it will not be thought that actions of that kind should be slowed down and not com- menced within a proper time, because if an action waits until three years is nearly up, we are going to have in any case a very slow action.

Probably one of the best reasons that the Bill should be passed in this form is this. Among the various Acts passed since the war are Acts which give public authorities very large trading powers. I am not going into the merits and demerits of nationalisation; but those public authorities have very large trading powers to run motor vehicles, to supply gas and electricity, etc., and it is not always easy, without considering every individual case, to know what the period of limitation is in respect of that public authority.

We shall now know, if this Bill is passed, what it is in respect of everyone. Apart from the rather unimportant exceptions referred to in Clause 5, it will be three years, whether it be the National Coal Board, a private individual or a corporation covered by the insurance companies. That is going to be a very great help to the individuals of this country who cannot be expected to know all the Sections of very long Acts and the special periods of limitations in regard to public authorities. It will also be of very great assistance to individuals in this country who, surprising as it may seem, find it difficult to get an action commenced within one year.

There are often a number of reasons why a matter does not come to the notice of those who can deal with it for quite a long time, and then various negotiations take place—perhaps holidays intervene—and a year can slip by very quickly, and we find that somebody loses his undoubted right because a year and a day have gone by. It is because this Bill gives the people of this country the right to which they think they are entitled and because it makes the legal position clear that I give this Bill my wholehearted support.

2.58 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

This is an excellent Bill and the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), who introduced it, is to be congratulated on being able to move a Bill to put into effect many of the recommendations of the Tucker Committee with regard to the limitation period in bringing actions.

As the Tucker Committee Report has said, the special period of limitation which is given to public authorities, and under the Fatal Accidents Act and the Law Reform Act, does curtail the liberty of the individual. It is really a case of balancing this deprivation of liberty against the difficulties that public authorities would have if a claim is made against them after a certain period.

When it is remembered that public authorities are often in a much better position than commercial firms and individuals in the staff they keep with regard to records and matters of that kind, that difficulty, obviously, has disappeared. There is, of course, the further point that arises in this respect, which the mover of the Motion mentioned, that we have the extraordinary difficulty in law of making a distinction between acts done in pursuance of duties and acts done in pursuance of incidental powers.

Clearly, the most important point must be to consider those instances where an injustice has resulted because the writ was not issued in time. A number of cases have already been referred to. I should like to mention a comparatively recent case in the House of Lords in which a number of visitors went to an exhibition in a school, the floor collapsed, and the result was that some of them suffered serious injuries; but the victims could not recover in what was clearly a case of negligence because the writ was issued 22 months after the accident occurred.

There are obvious disparities, as has been mentioned, in the limitation power of three years under such Acts as the Transport and Coal Acts and a limitation of one year where a hospital is concerned. Apparently in certain cases, the Treasury solicitor uses his discretion as to whether or not he should put forward a plea that the claim is statute barred when the period of limitation has passed.

I understand, further, that the Ministry of Health has instructions about cases brought against hospitals that the statute should not be pleaded. When it is remembered that there are judicial utterances which say that it is wrong on the part of the authority not to plead the statute and that they are in duty bound to do so, and when we get authorities, such as I have mentioned, which exercise their discretion, it is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is wrong in cases of that kind that the individual in some cases may be able to recover and in others he is statute barred with regard to his claim.

Furthermore, it has to be remembered that there has been a vast expansion of activities in these newly created organisations. It is desirable that the period of limitation should be uniform and not haphazard. The real problem is to find the right balance and the proper period of time. I welcome the Bill in its attempt to do so. It cuts down the limitation period of six years that formerly existed in some cases and seeks to enact a general period of three years. I think that that is the appropriate period.

But there is one criticism which I desire to make. The Tucker Report recommended that on an application being made to the court in which an action is to be brought the judge of that court should have discretion to grant leave to bring the action if the period of limitation had expired, but a period of not longer than six years.

I have in mind a dreadful case that occurred in my own constituency fairly recently, in which a young man received very serious injuries from what he alleged was negligent treatment on the part of a hospital, had further treatment passing from hospital to hospital, and a number of years passed before, from any reasonable point of view, he could possibly consider bringing legal action. In a case of that kind it ought to be open to the person to make an application to the judge and, if he showed good reason, the judge should have the power to grant an extension of the time in which he could bring his action.

I hope that this is a matter which will be considered. It appears to me to be the only defect in this otherwise very admirable Bill. As I have said, I think it is an excellent Bill and remedies a state of affairs which ought to have been remedied before. I hope that it has a speedy and successful passage to the Statute Book.

3.4 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Bucks, South)

I think that this is an excellent Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing it. It is just 50 years this year since the Public Authorities Protection Act was passed into law. I find it very difficult to understand why such a law ever commended itself to Parliament and I think that the passage of time since 1893 has merely marked and emphasised the inequity of that Act.

I am delighted to see this very overdue Bill introduced into the House. I have not the least doubt that it will be passed into law, and therefore I shall not take the time of the House this afternoon indiscussing the technicalities and the inequities which have arisen, and which still arise, under a law which. I hope, will very soon disappear.

But if I may add one only to the illustrations that have been given, I will do so very shortly. Take, for example, the case of the joint tortfeasor, a man who, together with another man, commits a civil wrong for which he is liable. If he commits a wrong together with a public authority, and if the plaintiff, over whose actions the joint tortfeasor has no control, delays for over a year in bringing his action, he can recover the whole of the damages against the man who is not a public authority—indeed, he cannot recover any damages against the person who is a public authority, and so he must go against the man who is not a public authority; that man is then barred from recovering his proper contribution against the public authority who was jointly responsible with him.

In that event one has the perfectly outrageous case of a man who has no control whatever over the plaintiff's delay and who suffers that very harsh detriment by it. This is only one of a great number of instances that any practitioner in the law could give of the hopeless inequities which have arisen out of the operation of the Act. I am delighted to see it abolished.

I add only one or two words of detailed criticism about the Bill. I should like to see the three years' limitation period equally applied to claims in respect of a registered postal package. I see no reason why an exception should be made in this case. There are strong reasons why it should not be made. Let us have uniformity on these limitation periods, so that people know whether they are. It is true that there is a considerable traffic through the post of registered packets, and it would be unreasonable if the Postmaster-General had to deal with stale claims without notice. But why should it not be required that a person making a claim in respect of a registered postal packet must give notice of his claim within the year, so that inquiries could be made, although his action should be perfectly competent if the writ was issued within the ordinary period of three years?

Under Section 9 (5) of the Crown Proceedings Act, the Post Office has power to make regulations specifying the conditions which must be complied with in order that action should be brought in respect of a registered postal package, and I see no reason why, either under that subsection or otherwise, the Post Office should not make such a provision as I have suggested.

In Clause 2 (2) of the Bill, which deals with infants, I would suggest a point which we might consider in Committee and which other hon. Members might care to have the opportunity of turning over in their minds meanwhile. That is, that the question of custody should be defined in the Bill. For a child under the age of 21, the limitation period does not in most cases start until he reaches the age of 21, but if he is in the custody of a parent a child loses his right of action at the end of the three years just as though he were a grown-up. There is no definition in the Limitation Act, 1939, of what is meant by "custody of a parent," and considerable difficulty has been experienced by the courts in this respect.

Quite recently, in the case of Mancini v. the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, a case reported in "The Times" a few weeks ago, this very point was discussed and raised great difficulty. Of course, it is not a matter of small importance if a child, while not under the effectual control of a parent, loses its rights of action while it is still, say, only four years of age.

Finally, there is the question of transitional proceedings. The last words of this Bill say that it will not apply to causes of action which arise before the passing of the Bill. I cannot see why it should not. As I said in opening, and as others have said during this debate, the Public Authorities Protection Act was a quite monstrous provision, and I do not see why we should not remedy its injustices as quickly as possible.

I cannot see that any disadvantage would follow from our saying that this Bill would apply in its full effect as soon as it was passed, even though the cause of action arose before the passing of the Bill. It might perhaps be preferable to say where the period of limitation was six years before the passing of this Bill that this period should not be cut down, but where it was one year under the Public Authorities Protection Act or Section 21 of the Limitation Act, then I say that this Bill should come into effect as soon as it is passed even in relation to matters which occurred before that.

3.11 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and wish him every success in the various stages of the Bill. I support this Bill because it is well grounded in the Tucker Committee, well grounded in the Law Society, and well grounded in the opinion of the trade unions of this country. The trade unions have been waiting for some time for the arrival of this amending Measure from the Government of the day, and I judge by the smiles of the Attorney-General that there will be Government support for this Bill, or at any rate its principle.

The only point that I desire to put is that this existing limitation has been a very real hardship and injustice for the man in the workshop. It is not easy to appreciate the fact that the man in the workshop is not always familiar with the action that he should take to defend his interests when he sustains an injury. That is due partly to the ignorance of the man himself of the processes he ought to follow in order to protect his interests; and partly—and in this case it is the more common form—because the workman does not appreciate the seriousness of the injury which he has sustained.

Were it not for the work of the trade unions through their various officers, who are continuously urging upon all their members the importance of reporting any accident however trivial, or injury arising from it, the number of cases would be much smaller. Even so, a large number of cases go by default as action has not been taken within the prescribed period that now exists.

In our country the period is 12 months, but in the case of Scotland the limitation is as small as six months, and the figures which the Tucker Committee's Report quotes are conclusive as to the importance of this Bill. For example, 30 per cent. of these cases are taken within a period between 12 months and two years. As a matter of common justice, and of the liberty of the subject, this Bill ought to carry with it the unanimous support of the whole House and the Government.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) on his introduction of this Bill. One of its main benefits will undoubtedly be uniformity in the periods of limitation, but I am concerned that Clause 2 may nullify that benefit. This Clause reduces the period of limitation to three years only in the case of personal injury. The period of limitation differs not according to the status of the defendant, whether it be a public authority or a private individual; not according to the cause of action, but merely according to the damage suffered. I so wholeheartedly support the principle of this Bill in bringing uniformity to the period of limitation that I am concerned that this further distinction may damage that benefit.

From the Tucker Report I have endeavoured to find some good and logical reason why we should distinguish actions in which damages for personal injuries are claimed from all other actions for damages. I can only find that all the reasons which are put forward, either for reducing the periods of limitation for an action against a private individual from six years to three years, or for increasing the period from one year to three years in the case of public authorities, seem just as valid in cases concerning injury to property as in cases involving injury to the person.

Paragraph 16 of the Tucker Report says: The evidence we have heard relates almost entirely to claims for personal injuries and there can be no doubt that it is with regard to this class of case that public authorities are mainly apprehensive. While it is no doubt desirable that all actions should be brought and tried as speedily as possible, we feel that this applies particularly to personal injury cases. If we then endeavour to find in the Report some good reason for the statement that it should apply particularly to personal injury cases, we find, in paragraph 22, this statement: These,"— referring to personal injury cases— whether founded on contract or tort, ought generally to be brought within two years"— the Bill proposes three years— from the accrual of the cause of action, having regard to the desirability of such actions being brought to trial quickly, whilst evidence is fresh in the minds of the parties and witnesses. Surely that desirability applies to every type of action. It applies not only to personal injury claims but to any action in tort or contract.

This distinction drawn by the Bill in Clause 2 seems only to add some confusion to the law in the most simple type of case which comes before the court, namely, the ordinary running-down action. Why should there be a different period of limitation when one is claiming damages for a person who is injured in a road accident from the one which is applied in claiming damages for the destruction of a motor car? The same principle seems to apply to each. Why not apply this uniformity of the three years' period of limitation to all torts?

I quote again from the Tucker Report, which says, We have given careful consideration to suggestions that have been made to us that the period of limitation in the case of all torts should be reduced to three years. On the whole, we have come to the conclusion that such a change is undesirable. But then the Report gives no solid reasons why it should be undesirable. It goes on to say, No specific instance has been brought to our notice of any hardship or injustice arising under the present law in cases other than actions for personal injuries…. The Report goes on to state that in the case of contract those engaged in commerce and banking feel that the six years' period should be retained. But there is very little solid reason for retaining that six years' period either in the case of contract or in the case of tort.

I feel that the whole purpose of this Bill in bringing uniformity to the period of limitation may be destroyed if we draw this new distinction between claims for personal injuries and any other claims. The definition of personal injuries in Clause 2 of the Bill excludes such actions or such injuries as trespass to the person, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution or defamation of character. Surely those are actions which come within the principle laid down in the Tucker Report that an action should be brought to trial quickly whilst evidence is fresh in the minds of the parties and witnesses.

This Bill is undoubtedly of great value in making the periods of limitation uniform, but I trust that there will be further consideration at a later stage of the question of not creating any further distinction between actions claiming personal injuries—the period being limited to three years—and all other actions on contract and tort, which the Bill leaves to a period of limitation of six years.

3.23 p.m.

Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

The introduction of this Bill is a matter of great personal satisfaction to me. I argued this matter on the Second Reading and Committee stage of the Air Corporations Bill, when the House may remember I was a lone voice in advocating the changes, particularly in regard to public authorities, with which the House is presented today. Another sources of satisfaction to me is that the Government have had second thoughts on this matter and are now supporting this Bill. Certainly this correction of the law is very much overdue and it will remove many hardships and injustices from the legal path.

I want to correct at once a misapprehension which appears to be in the minds of some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House. This Bill has been welcomed by trade unionists on the basis that it was conferring an advantage in its entirety, but in one respect it is creating a disadvantage. It can, however, be put right on Committee stage. Under the law as it now exists, in the case of personal injury, as a result of a 1939 Statute the period in which an action can be brought in respect of personal injuries is six years. Under this Measure the period is to be reduced to three years. In that respect, the Bill is a disadvantage and not an advantage. This position applies to personal injuries in cases where the action does not come under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1846, where the action is brought for the benefit of the spouse and the family. On the other hand, in cases where the Act of 1846 does apply the present period of limitation would be two years, whereas the Bill provides for three years. In that case there is to be an extension of one year. In the other cases there is to be a reduction of three years.

Mr. Moyle

May I draw the attention of my hon. and learned Friend to the Report of the Tucker Committee in regard to that point? It says that the number of actions taken after three years does not amount to more than 1 per cent.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Hard cases make bad law. It is the 1 per cent. that we are concerned about where the injustice occurs, and that is what the Bill seeks to remedy. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) made a comment upon this question of percentages. It is that very matter of percentage about which the House is very anxious and for which it wishes to provide by this Bill. I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil on the introduction of this Bill, because I think it is very necessary and will be very beneficent in its effect.

The Limitation Act of 1939 was a stirring of conscience in this matter, but it still left the anomaly, although it somewhat modified it. I have often wondered why public authorities and the Crown should have been specially treated in the matter either of breaking a contract or breaking a limb. That has always been a complete mystery to me. I could never feel that it was any consolation to the injured person or the injured pocket that the wrongdoer was a public authority or the Crown. The well-matured truth is that there is no moral nor logical reason for the invidious distinction. The whole position has indeed become completely contradictory.

There are different periods for different public authorities. There is not even uniformity there. In most cases, the period is a year, but in quite a number it is three years. No one knows why there should be that distinction. The difference arose in connection with the nationalised bodies when the period for them was made three years. The National Coal Board, development corporations under the New Towns Act, the Transport Commission, the Electricity Board, the Gas Council and Gas Area Boards are all subject to a three years' limitation period, as of course were the Air Corporations in the Air Corporation Bill recently before the House. On this, I ask the Attorney-General if the Air Corporations are to be included in this provision. Will the objections that I raised during the Second Reading of and in Committee on the Air Corporations Bill be met by the present Bill? I see no reference to that Measure in the Bill. It may be that the Attorney-General has considered the matter very fully and will be able to tell the House about that point. There was never any ground for the difference I have mentioned with regard to the nationalised bodies.

I wish to be brief, because there is another Bill down for consideration. The Bill we are considering falls short in one very serious respect indeed in regard to the Tucker Committee's Report, namely, on the question of personal injuries referred to in the Report in paragraphs 22 and 23. It is quite true that in this Bill the period is made three years instead of the two years recommended by that Report, but there is no provision in the Bill for an application to the court after three years for leave to bring an action if the circumstances should require it.

It is quite true, and the hon. Member for Yeovil referred to it, that most actions are promptly brought, but there are, of course, exceptions to that and one or two hon. Gentlemen have already referred to such cases. These are very serious cases indeed and are the cases for which we want to provide. I submit that there is no reason why this application ought not to be allowed. The position as to extension is quite safe in the hands of the court.

If that provision were in the Bill, the Measure would lose nothing and justice might gain very much indeed. There is no sound argument, so far as I can see, against paragraph 22 of the Tucker Committee's Report. I propose at a later stage to introduce an Amendment in order to give effect, in regard to Clauses 2, 3 and 6 of the Bill, to what the Tucker Committee recommended in this respect.

Even as the Bill stands, and certainly with that Amendment, it will clear the Statute Book and also case law of a strange and indefensible doctrine. For that reason, and with that hope, I welcome the Bill and ask the House to give it a Second Reading.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I wish to add my congratulations to those which have been extended to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) on his luck in the Ballot. I give my congratulations with some degree of envy because I had hoped to incorporate two of the main principles of the Bill in my own humble Measure, which has a very much lower place in the lottery. However, the great thing is that the Bill and the reforms which the hon. Member proposes are before the House, and, provided that I do not speak too long, there is every indication that they will be agreed to.

I wish to deal briefly with Clause 3 because those who have had any experience of dealing with cases under the Fatal Accidents Act realise the very great difficulty and hardship that sometimes devolves upon the widow bringing the action. Not only is there hardship, but the limitation of one year does seem to be completely illogical. I wish to refer to paragraph 107 of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Alternative Remedies, Cmd. 6860, which not only deals with the period of limitation under the Fatal Accidents Act but also with the limitation and alteration of the period which the hon. Member is proposing in Clause 2.

This Report was prior to the Tucker Report, but I think it is important to remember the positive reasons for the three years. The Tucker Report suggested that the period should only be two years. In paragraph 107, the Departmental Committee says: On the other hand, injustice will be done unless adequate time is given to the injured person or his dependants before they are compelled to commence proceedings. For example, some time may elapse before the extent and effect of the injury can be ascertained or before the injured person has secured sufficient funds to launch an action which may involve heavy costs,"— although at that time the legal aid scheme had not been introduced, it is true that obtaining the necessary certificate for legal aid sometimes takes a very long time, so that argument is still valid— particularly if it raises issues which the defendant wishes to take to appeal. If the plaintiff is forced to commence his action before he is in a position to prosecute it to trial, it may be dismissed for want of prosecution without a decision on the merits. For these reasons the time limit of one year which is prescribed in actions brought in connection with the performance of a public duty and in actions brought under the Fatal Accidents Act. 1846, seems to us too short. Then they go on to suggest that the period of time should, in fact, be three years.

The highest judicial criticism has been brought against Section 3 of the Fatal Accidents Act and I wish briefly to refer to a case this year on appeal, Finnegan v. Cementation Co. Ltd., in which Lord Justice Singleton, citing Lord Greene, said: I would add that these technicalities are a blot upon the administration of the law, and everyone except the successful party dislikes them…I do not know why the Fatal Accidents Act, 1846, contained a provision that the action must be brought within a vear of the death. And Lord Justice Jenkins during the hearing of the same appeal said: It seems to me to be a case in which a technical blunder has deprived the plaintiff of her remedy, although the blunder was not such as to affect the substance of the claim in any way, or to prejudice the defendants in defending the action in any degree…It must be borne in mind that in enacting the Fatal Accidents Act, 1846, the legislature thought fit to impose a limitation period of 12 months. That means that a defendant in such a case is entitled to go scot-free, however negligent he may have been.. This is quite an astonishing state of affairs and the hon. Gentleman will have the satisfaction 107 years after the Act of putting right this great omission.

On Clause 2, it is true that most local authorities apparently wish to stick to the recommendations of paragraph 22 of the Tucker Committee Report that the period should be two years instead of one, but not three years as the hon. Gentleman proposes. I hope that this matter will be examined in Committee. There are very weighty considerations involved, but it seems a little difficult, in view of the recommendation in paragraph 107 of the first Committee report to which I referred, and the fact that statutory corporations are all now under a three-year period, to see why local authorities should be in the special position of having only a two-year period of limitation. I hope that that will be considered.

I think the provision in Clause 4 is useful, and on those grounds I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, and hope that the Bill will soon make its appearance on the Statute Book.

3.38 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

I am sure that all hon. Members join in the congratulations extended to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell). It is a happy combination when the technician and the craftsman join together, and it ensures success. We shall look forward to this Bill getting on to the Statute Book.

As I understand it, the Law Society accepts this Bill. I gather that the Amalgamated Engineering Union accepts it. I represent Her Majesty's Opposition, and speaking as a trade unionist I think the whole trade union movement accepts it, and that is a pretty powerful combination.

To bring proceedings at present, means that action must be taken within 12 months in England and within six months in Scotland. If there is a delay in reporting a case, the poor victim cannot receive any compensation for the physical disability which is suffered.

Today I have lunched with members of local authorities and of trade unions and with a colleague from the Soviet Union. We were talking about this Bill and the Soviet Union representative said. "In our country, if a man has an accident normally it is taken as the fault of the management and he gets compensated at once." I inquired further and found that after a time the workman received 50 per cent. of the income he might otherwise have earned. Their standards are substantially better than ours. I hate to see our country take second place. We ought at least to make an amendment so that our system of compensation is better in every respect than that operating in that other great country, the Soviet Union.

Examples have been mentioned by several hon. Members. My own trade union is the National Union of Public Employees and the general secretary, Mr. Bryn Roberts, has sent me many details. One instance is of a school cleaner in Scotland. She was cleaning windows the morning after a dance in the school hall when the ladder slipped and she was badly hurt. No claim could be made for compensation because the case was established too late. The investigations were not carried out in time to enable her to get that to which she was entitled in the ordinary process by which a worker who has suffered injury ought to be compensated. It is true that the local authority made an ex gratia payment, but without doubt that person should have been adequately compensated for her injury.

Another instance comes from Ardsley, Yorkshire, where a man was working in a cradle on a bridge when the cradle collapsed. There was no doubt about neglect but, because the case was not reported in time, the man, who has been crippled for life, has had no return by way of compensation.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) have talked about worsening existing conditions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) will agree that we must make sure that we do not worsen any existing conditions. As he said the Measure is designed to bring about simplicity and uniformity and to remove injustice. That is what we all seek to do in this House, and I hope that the Attorney-General will tell us that the Government give the Bill their blessing.

3.43 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Lionel Heald)

After the universal chorus of well-deserved praise that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) have received, and the general agreement which has been shown in the House, it might almost be superfluous to ask what the Government think about the Bill, but I can assure hon. Members that the Government commend this Measure most heartily in principle.

I would also give the House some information as to the attitude of the Government to one Clause which was left undiscussed, Clause 5. In that Clause the Crown is bound and the Government consider that is the right position. The Crown should be put in exactly the same position as everyone else. I might also say that, while we shall listen with interest and an open mind to anything said in Committee about Amendments, we feel that the extent to which the Bill departs from the Tucker Report is justified, especially in relation to the suggestion that the courts should have an option to extend the period. I am authorised to say that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has considered that and, although he is quite prepared to listen to argument about it, he does not like the idea of putting responsibility on the courts for varying periods of that kind.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

This is not only a question of the Tucker Report. The present law lays down a period of six years. The Bill will cut down the period which the law has already decided. It is not a question of a recommendation.

The Attorney-General

The hon. and learned Gentleman is critical of the Bill, but I observe that he is one of its backers.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Yes. I only criticise that point.

The Attorney-General

We will consider it. The hon. and learned Gentleman also asked what would happen about the Air Corporations Bill. He does not need me to tell him that if there are general words in a statute they are applied generally.

The hon. and learned Gentleman was a little critical of me for not having done something about this before. He said that he was a lone voice crying, I imagine, in the wilderness, although I do not think there was a wilderness at the time of the Air Corporations Bill. However, at that time my hon. Friends were doing something about it, and hence the Bill.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

I did not say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was doing nothing. I said he was saying nothing.

The Attorney-General

In any event, while the hon. and learned Gentleman was talking about it, we were doing something about it.

It would not be right for me to discuss detailed criticisms, but out of courtesy to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil, I must say that the question of transitional proceedings is something which, so far as I know, has not yet been considered and it is no doubt worthy of consideration. With regard to the Post Office, 150 million packets a year are dealt with, and it is considered by the authorities that it would be a heavy burden to extend the present period.

It seems to me a very fine combination which has produced the Bill. In drawing a distinction, someone said that there was a trade union on one side. But there are trade unions on both sides, because my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil belongs to one of the oldest trade unions in the world.

There is something more about the Bill. It has provided a fine opportunity for displaying a non-party approach to an important question, an opportunity which is provided by Private Members' time. In this instance it has been a pleasure to see friendly and useful co-operation between a Tory lawyer and a Labour shop steward. That is a process which I have been able to carry into effect in other directions in my constituency at Chertsey. There are many subjects on which we can all co-operate in a friendly and useful manner.

In the Bill we have something which is not merely an academic alteration of the law but, as was said by the hon. Member for Leeds, West, who has great experience in these matters, may well make a real difference to the future of human beings. We are doing something which is not only useful from the point of view of reforming the law, but is also of real interest to large numbers of our people. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

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