HC Deb 13 February 1956 vol 548 cc2092-9

Order for Second Reading read.

4.6 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)

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

This is a Bill of 53 Clauses and deals with a wide variety of subjects, the only connecting link between them being that each one deals with the administration of justice. I hope that I shall not weary the House by going into too much detail, but I feel that I should indicate the main changes proposed by the Clauses.

As the House will see, the first part of the Bill deals with Admiralty jurisdiction and other provisions as to ships. Despite its title, it does not trespass on the province of my noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty. That part of the Bill really has three objects. The first is to bring our law into line with a convention relating to the arrest of sea-going ships which has been signed on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. The second is to bring our law into line with a convention concerning civil jurisdiction in matters of collision, signed also on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. The third is to state the law relating to the Admiralty jurisdiction of the court in a convenient and up-to-date form.

In 1952, an International Conference on Maritime Law was held at the instance of the Belgian Government. We sent a strong delegation, headed by Mr. Justice Pilcher. That conference led to the two conventions to which I have referred. An implementation of those conventions will lead to a greater uniformity of practice in different countries in relation to the matters dealt with by those conventions. I may say that the conventions are supported by the shipping interests of this country, who consider that our shipping industry will benefit from them.

Most of the other States which are parties to the convention exercise jurisdiction to arrest ships in circumstances in which no arrest would be made in this country. To ratify the convention relating to the arrest of ships, those countries will have to reduce the number of cases in which arrest is at present possible. We, on the other hand, in order to be in a position to ratify these conventions, have to extend in some respects our law relating to the arrest of ships and to make some minor changes in the law governing jurisdiction in collision cases.

I do not think that the House will wish me to detail the changes involved in our law. I can say that the Bill fully implements the requirements of the conventions, but there is perhaps one change which I should mention. That change relates to the power to arrest a sister ship in certain actions against an owner or charterer if the sister ship is beneficially owned by the same owner or charterer as the ship in respect of which the claim arises. This, though not known to English law, is a concept well known in Scotland and on the Continent, and this change in our law will enable a foreign claimant to bring his action against the ship here instead of abroad, and that may help British owners.

I think that the real advantage of implementing these conventions lies in the measure of uniformity of practice in the countries of the contracting parties that will result. To be able to ratify the convention relating to collisions, we have to restrict in some degree the existing jurisdiction of our courts. The general effect of Clause 4 is to restrict jurisdiction in personam in cases of collision to cases where the defendant has his habitual residence or place of business in England or Wales, or the cause of action arose in England or Wales, within inland waters or a port, or the court has already heard or is hearing an action arising out of the same incident.

The House will, I hope, agree that the third object of this part of the Bill is satisfactorily achieved. Clause 1 defines the Admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court, Clause 2 of the inferior courts, and Clauses 3 and 4 relate to the manner of its exercise. The provisions of this part of the Bill have been carefully considered by the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division and Mr. Justice Willmer. They are satisfied that these provisions will enable us to give effect to the two conventions and also that the law as to the jurisdiction of our courts in Admiralty and the manner of its exercise has been well stated.

Part V of the Bill is designed to bring the law of Scotland into line with the conventions, and I hope that the House will not expect me to say any more about that part.

I now turn to Part II, which deals with a variety of matters. Clause 10 deals with the appointment and tenure of office of official referees. They were first created in 1873, and since then their functions have greatly increased. They deal with a wide variety of matters, particularly the trial of issues involving a mass of detail and often involving very large sums of money. They really function as assistant judges of the High Court and their status as such should be recognised. This Clause provides that they should be appointed by Her Majesty as our recorders and stipendiary magistrates on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, that they should take the oath of allegiance and the judicial oath and that their tenure of office should be certain, not determinable by the Lord Chancellor.

Clause 11 widens the field of recruitment to various offices. Oddly enough, though a county court judge can be appointed a judge of the High Court, he cannot at present be appointed an official referee. This Clause remedies that and also one or two similar anomalies.

Clause 12 makes it easier to appoint deputy district registrars of the High Court in case of illness or the unavoidable absence from duty of the district registrar. The present procedure in relation to that is rather cumbrous.

Clauses 13 and 14 are designed to facilitate the work of the district registrar of the High Court. Under existing laws pressure of work can only be alleviated by the appointment of a joint registrar or the opening of a new registry. That is often not necessary. This power to appoint assistant district registrars which will be given by these Clauses is not expected to involve any increase of staff, for usually district registrars and county court registrars are the same people. There are more county court registrars than district registrars, and it is proposed to ask county court registrars also to act as assistant district registrars. Clause 14 will also enable one district registrar to help another in time of emergency.

Clause 16 is an important Clause which has two objects. The first is to clarify the present position. The law as to the jurisdiction of official referees, masters and other officers and as to appeals from them is scattered indiscriminately over statutes and rules, and it should be one or the other, either in statutes or in rules. Practitioners are accustomed to look at rules. Procedural provisions are in modern practice usually left to rules of court, and rules of court have a greater degree of flexibility. They can be changed more easily if the situation requires it. This Clause gives wide rule-making power and repeals the statutory provisions so that rules can replace those statutory provisions.

The second object of this Clause is that it will enable certain recommendations of the Committee on the Practice and Procedure of the Supreme Court, which all the lawyers refer to as the Evershed Committee, to be carried into effect—namely, their recommendations that the range of matters which may be referred to the official referee should be increased, that a right of appeal on fact should be given from an official referee's decision, that official referees should be given power to commit or to attach for disobedience to an order, and that appeals from certain decisions of masters and others should go direct to the Court of Appeal.

Clause 17 deals with a distinct and separate matter. It repeals two old Acts and a number of sections of the Debtors Act, 1869. These provisions in these old Acts and in the Debtors Act are entirely obsolete. Warrants of attorney were abused by Debtors to defraud their creditors, and such warrants and cognovits by creditors to oppress their debtors. These two old Acts and these provisions of the Debtors Act were intended to prevent abuse of these legal instruments. They are no longer of any value. These statutory provisions require registers to be kept. Since 1886 no warrant of attorney has been filed, and only one cognovit.

I now turn to Part III of the Bill. Clause 21 makes similar provision in relation to the appointment of county court judges as Clause 10 does in relation to official referees. They will be appointed by Her Majesty and required to take the oath of allegiance and the judicial oath. It really is anomalous that county court judges should not do so, despite their much increased status and jurisdiction, when they have to do so if they sit as justices of peace of quarter sessions.

Clauses 22 and 23 are intended to enable temporary congestion in the county courts to be alleviated. Odd though it may seem, a deputy judge can now only be appointed in the event of illness or the unavoidable absence of the judge. This means that on a county circuit where there is only one judge it is not possible to secure that he and his deputy can sit at the same time at the same court to dispose of a heavy list. Clause 22 seeks to overcome this difficulty.

It is not, of course, intended to make a practice of appointing temporary judges to do the work which could properly be done by a permanent judge. These two Clauses carry out recommendations of the Committee on County Court Practice and Procedure, which, again, we lawyers commonly refer to as the Austin Jones Committee.

I do not think I need say much about Clauses 24 and 25. They make useful changes with regard to county court registrars and their assistants.

Clause 27 is the next Clause of major importance on which I should say a little. It deals with a distinct and separate subject. The Austin Jones Committee described the ineffectiveness of the present machinery for compelling a judgment debtor to attend the hearing of a judgment summons for examination as to his means. The only sanction at present, if the judgment debtor does not appear to answer a judgment summons, is to fine him and so add to his debts.

If he does not pay the fine for non-attendance he cannot be committed to prison unless the court has made inquiry as to his means in his presence. The judgment summons requires him to attend personally. If he does not attend, he is fined, and so long as he does not attend the court and so long as he can consequently avoid an inquiry as to his means in his presence, in practice nothing further can happen to him. Thus the authority of the county court can be flouted with impunity.

The Clause proposes to remedy this in the following way: if the debtor fails to attend on the day fixed for the hearing of the judgment summons, the hearing can be adjourned and the debtor ordered to attend on the adjourned date. If he fails to attend then he can be sent to prison for a maximum of 14 days. I should like to make this clear beyond all shadow of doubt: that will not be imprisonment for debt but imprisonment, if he is sent to prison, for disobedience of the court order requiring his attendance.

Clauses 28 and 29 carry out minor recommendations of the Austin Jones Committee.

Now I come to Part IV. The Evershed Committee recommended that the writ of elegit should be abolished. They found it a cumbersome anachronism. It involves an inquiry by a sheriffs jury as to the land the debtor possesses. There was some point in this process originally because a jury of local men would know what lands the debtor possessed. Nowadays that is by no means the case, and usually the jury is completely mystified by this procedure. Clauses 34 to 36 therefore abolish the writ of elegit and provide machinery in its place for enforcing a judgment as a charge on land and by the appointment of a receiver.

Clause 37, again, deals with a distinct subject. The clothes and bedding of the debtor and his family and the tools of his trade to the value of £5 are exempt from seizure under a warrant of execution. This amount of £5 was fixed in 1846. The Austin Jones Committee recommended in 1949 that it should be raised to £15. This Clause raises the exemption to £20, with power to the Lord Chancellor to prescribe a higher limit.

Clause 38 carries out the Evershed Committee's recommendation that deposit accounts at an ordinary bank should be attachable to satisfy judgments or orders made against the debtor. Clause 39 provides that judgments of the High Court should be enforceable by execution in the county court. This is another of the Evershed Committee's recommendations directed to the saving of costs.

I have now, I hope, summarised the main provisions of the Bill which deals, as the House will see, with a wide variety of subjects not closely related. The House will see that the Bill, although miscellaneous in its provisions, has three main objects. The first is to enable us to ratify the two coventions to which I have referred, and to do that we have to alter the Admiralty jurisdiction of our courts. The second is to make changes with regard to official referees and county court judges and to recognise their present status. The third is to make a number of changes in the law relating to the High Court and county courts and in so doing to enable a number of recommendations of the Evershed Committee and the Austin Jones Committee to be carried into effect.

I should like to conclude by expressing our thanks to the members of those committees for the hard work which they did and for the valuable reports which they have presented.

4.25 p.m.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

We are very much obliged to the Attorney-General for his clear exposition of this bundle of miscellaneous items. This is, of course, essentially a Committee Bill rather than a Second Reading Bill. The Attorney-General has expounded the Bill and it is not part of my function to do so, but I will state briefly what is the attitude of the Opposition towards it.

The Bill has already had the advantage of consideration in another place, but when we reach the Committee stage we shall want appreciably fuller and more detailed explanations of at least some of the Clauses, although I do not necessarily say that we shall oppose them. As a whole it is obviously a beneficial Bill, and we welcome it. As a party we are in favour of international conventions and of international understanding, and, of course, we are in favour of the extension of international arrangements, particularly in such an obviously international field as maritime law. We certainly support the proposals in the Bill for giving effect to the maritime conventions which have been entered into.

The second series of reforms in the Bill affect official referees and county court judges, and anybody acquainted with the work of official referees and county court judges will subscribe immediately to the proposal for recognising the status which they hold in the profession. Those proposals will certainly commend themselves to us.

In addition, there are a number of minor reforms affecting official referees and county courts in general, as well as the High Court. They are tidying up reforms of a technical nature which may require a little examination in Committee, but which obviously require no development on Second Reading.

I should like to join the Attorney-General in associating myself with the tributes paid to the Evershed Committee and the Austin Jones Committee. They spent a great deal of time doing very arduous work of a detailed nature on the High Court and the county courts and we on this side of the House are very glad that certain of their proposals have found their way into the Bill.

There is one matter about which I personally have a little misgiving, and perhaps I should mention it now. It concerns the proposal in Clause 27, which I recognize was recommended by the Austin Jones Committee. It concerns the imposition of imprisonment in connection with a judgment summons where a judgment debtor fails to attend for examination on a judgment. It has been a principle of the law of this country for a long time that nobody shall be imprisoned for debt.

Let me say at once that I fully appreciate the point which the Attorney-General made—that this is not imprisonment for debt; it may be regarded as imprisonment in the nature of imprisonment for contempt of court. But what it means—and this is the troublesome part -—is that a procedure the sole purpose of which is to be ancillary to securing the payment of a debt will be enforceable by imprisonment when the debt itself, the major matter, will not and cannot be the subject of imprisonment. I appreciate the Attorney-General's argument, and, of course, one treats with great respect proposals made by the Austin Jones Committee and the Law Officers, but this is a troublesome aspect and one which we shall want to probe further in Committee.

Taking the Bill as a whole, it is obviously beneficial and we welcome its Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).