HC Deb 11 November 1960 vol 629 cc1394-404

Order for Second Reading read.

12.17 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)

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

This Bill is small in size but important in content, and it is a Bill which is easier than most to comprehend. Its main Object is to facilitate the administration of justice by making provision for the appointment of more judges for the High Court and Lords Justices for the Court of Appeal. The Bill also includes some minor and, in a sense, rather technical amendments of the provisions relating to the pensions of Masters of the Supreme Court and of some other officers in the lower reaches of the judicial hierarchy. The House always examines carefully any proposal to increase the numbers of the judiciary. It is my task to satisfy the House that the increases for which the Bill makes provision are amply justified. In my submission, they are urgently needed.

There are now forty-two judges of the High Court, six of whom are assigned to the Chancery Division, twenty-seven to the Queen's Bench Division and nine to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. It is principally, although not exclusively, in the Queen's Bench Division that there is an urgent need for more judges. It is from this division that judges are drawn to man the circuits and, as is well known, the amount of work at assizes throughout the country is now very heavy indeed.

The pressure of work which falls on the Queen's Bench judges is now such that the Lord Chief Justice has represented that there is an immediate need for the appointment of two additional judges. In criminal work, the pressure is due not simply to the increase in the number of criminal cases to be tried, but also to the fact that a considerable number of the criminal cases that now come for trial are very heavy and complicated cases which take up a great deal of judicial time.

Within the last year or so it has been possible to deal with the volume of criminal work on circuit only by appointing Commissioners of Assize on an unprecedented and, in my view, an undesirable scale. They were appointed on 11 occasions in 1959 and 11 appointments have been made this year. But even with the assistance of Commissioners of Assize appointed on this scale it has been necessary to send extra judges from London to assist with the work at assizes. Four additional judges had to be sent out from London during both the autumn assize in 1959 and the winter assize this year, and that, of course, meant a reduction in the number of cases tried in London during that time, and so delay.

Despite the assistance which was thus given on circuit, there are still serious delays in the disposal of civil business at assize, and this has led to frequent complaints and the situation is indeed serious. The volume of business on the North-Eastern Circuit and elsewhere is now such that a considerable number of civil cases at assizes have to be postponed to a subsequent assize.

The demands on the judges in London are also heavier than they were. There were 828 actions for trial in the Queen's Bench Division in London at the beginning of this term compared with 738 at the corresponding time last year. The increase of the criminal work at assizes has been reflected in increased pressure on the Court of Criminal Appeal. At times it has been necessary to have two courts sitting simultaneously to dispose of the work, and that means employing six judges on it.

Although the pressure of work in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division is not so heavy, judges in that Division have for a long time had the assistance of four Commissioners trying defended cases, quite apart from the county court judges who sit as Commissioners to try the undefended and short defended cases. The use of barristers to sit as Commissioners to try these defended cases was severely criticised by the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, and it is my noble Friend's intention to replace them by judges. He does not, however, contemplate doing so immediately, but seeks under this Bill power to replace the Commissioners gradually over a period of time.

Then there is the Chancery Division. Although six judges are assigned to this Division at present, one spends his whole time on patent work; another is a member of the Restrictive Practices Court and the work in that Court takes up a considerable amount of his time. Work in the Chancery Division is now showing some signs of increasing, and a further appointment to that Division may be needed before long.

It is for these reasons that Clause 1 (1) of the Bill proposes that the maximum number of High Court judges shall be increased from 42 to 48.

Clause 1 (2) of the Bill provides that the number of Lords Justices of Appeal shall, instead of being fixed at eight, be not less than eight nor more than 11. The object of this provision is to make it possible for the Court of Appeal to sit permanently in four divisions instead of three as at present. This is necessary because the Court of Appeal is not now able to dispose of cases at the rate at which they have been set down, and the result has been a steady growth in the number of appeals awaiting hearing at the end of each year. Thus, in 1954, there were 96 appeals awaiting hearing at the end of that year. Last year there were 285, and at the end of the summer term this year there were 351. The consequence is that the interval between the setting down and the hearing of an appeal is now twelve months or more, and I am sure the House will agree that this is much too long and necessitates immediate action. If, happily, the position should improve so much as to make it unnecessary for a fourth division to sit regularly, the number of Lords Justices could be reduced by leaving vacancies unfilled.

I now turn to the remaining provisions of the Bill with which I think I can deal quite briefly. These provisions deal with the pension of some members of the lower judiciary. Clause 2 provides that the pensions of a stipendiary magistrate is to be calculated on the salary he was receiving immediately before retirement instead of on the average of the salary he received during the last three years of his service. The present provisions for such pensions are in line with the pensions of the Civil Service, but they are not appropriate to a judicial appointment, which is usually the last stage in a forensic career without any great prospect of promotion. There is really no reason in principle why the stipendiary magistrates alone of the judiciary should be subject to a provision of this kind. This Clause, therefore, brings them into line with all other members of the judiciary.

Clause 3 modifies the pension terms applicable to the Masters of the Supreme Court and certain other judicial officers who are at present able to earn the full pension only after 25 years of service. These people are in a worse position than any other judicial officers with whom their duties are comparable because they have to serve longer to earn full pension but are by statute required to retire at the same age of 72 as, for example, county court judges and Metropolitan magistrates. It is also generally difficult to find suitable candidates for appointment to these posts who are young enough to serve the full 25 years before reaching the compulsory retiring age. The Clause, accordingly, reduces the pension span to 20 years.

Clause 4 enables future holders of the office of Judge Advocate General to elect between a pension under the Superannuation Acts and the same pension terms as are available to an official referee. At present the choice lies between a pension under the Superannuation Acts and a pension on the special terms provided by the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act, 1951. The effect of the change will be to bring the Judge Advocate General within the Widows' and Children's Pensions Scheme provided for all other judicial officers by the Administration of Justice (Pensions) Act, 1950.

The remaining Clauses of the Bill contain financial and consequential provisions.

I cannot commend this as an exciting Bill, but it is in at least one respect a most important one, in that Clause 1 will undoubtedly provide for the more efficient and expeditious administration of justice both in London and at assizes and in both criminal and in civil cases; and the provisions of the Bill dealing with the pensions of the lower judiciary get rid of some pointless and not altogether innocuous anomalies. I commend the Bill to the House.

12.28 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for having explained so clearly why he has thought it necessary to introduce this Measure, and I am bound to say, speaking for myself, that I think he made out his case very fully indeed.

Clause 1 may, perhaps, be regarded as the most important Clause, in that it strengthens the manpower of our judiciary. The Attorney-General indicated in the case of each of the divisions and also of the Court of Appeal how the arrears were piling up and how the judges in their present strength are having difficulty with keeping up with the work which comes before them.

Looking at it through the eyes of the public, possibly the most graphic example which he gave was the situation in the Court of Appeal. If one has won or lost one's case before the judge of first instance, it really is very serious if one has to wait for a year before one can have the view of the Court of Appeal on appeal from the judgment of the judge of first instance.

It is not necessary to elaborate the detail, but, after all, cases have an enormous effect on the life and prospects and the plans of individuals who come before our courts. It is a matter of very great gravity. I think that everybody will agree that, for example, in the Court of Appeal one should not have to wait for a year after one's appeal has been prepared and has actually been set down before one finally obtains the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

What the Attorney-General has said of the Court of Appeal is in different measure and in rather different circumstances reflected in the arrears of work both on assize and in the Queen's Bench Division and in the other two divisions to which he referred.

I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the change which the Attorney-General seeks to introduce by the Bill. It is, in any event, as I understand, an enabling Bill. If it should appear hereafter that the work which comes before our courts does not justify filling all the possible appointments, as I understand the existing legislation and the terms of the Bill, it is not necessary that all the appointments should be filled. Speaking for myself, I have always taken the view that it is much better that some judges possibly on occasion should not find themselves fully occupied than that there should be a lesser number of judges who are over-occupied. If there is some loss of judicial time, judges work very hard indeed and possibly a rest on occasion is well received and extremely welcome, and I should have thought that if it is an extravagance at all it is an extravagance amply justified in the public interest.

Our great pride in this country is the high respect which is accorded to the Bench by all sections of the population, and everybody should feel that their actions can come on speedily and that ample time can be afforded to their proper considerations. This is what happens now and it is the purpose of the Bill, which is highly commendable, to make certain that it will continue in future and to avoid the possible risk in multiplication of work that exists at the moment. I therefore cordially welcome Clause 1, the case for which has been amply made out.

The remaining Clauses perhaps from their very nature, as the Attorney-General has said, seem of less importance. They affect fewer individuals and do not have the wide public impact of Clause 1. They are, however, of great importance to the individuals concerned, those who are looking forward after many years of hard work to enjoying the pensions which existing legislation and this Bill provide. Therefore, in the interest of those persons it is important that the provisions of the remaining Clauses should be appropriately drafted and should achieve the purpose which the Government have in mind. After all, it is of the greatest importance from the public point of view that it should be possible easily and in ample measure to recruit suitable members from the profession to occupy appointments such as that of Master of the Supreme Court and other appointments with which the Bill is concerned.

In that context, there is one point I should like to put to the Attorney-General which I think is one of principle and which I would be grateful if he would tell me that he will carefully consider during the remaining stages of the Bill. I refer to the provision which affects the pensions of the Masters of the Supreme Court. The Attorney-General was perfectly right in seeking by the Bill to reduce to twenty years the period of twenty-five years which under existing legislation must elapse before a Master of the Supreme Court can reach the stage where he can have the full pension on the half-scale of his earnings.

But in a sense there has always been regarded as existing a kind of parity between the responsibilities incumbent upon county court judges and those incumbent on Masters of the Supreme Court. Their work, of course, is different and to some extent possibly the work of county court judges covers a wider field. Nevertheless the burden on the shoulders of Masters of the Supreme Court is very heavy indeed.

I have been informed that between 1959 and 1960 it is broadly speaking true that the work of the Masters of the Supreme Court, looking at it as a whole, has increased by about 80 per cent. In using that figure, I refer in particular to the hours which Masters have to sit to try actions under Order 14, Rule 7, to try issues as to quantum of damages and issues under the Married Women's Property Act and similar issues. That aspect of their work, as I have said, has increased between those years by about 80 per cent.

The Attorney-General referred to the number of writs and I have been given figures about them too. The writs issued up to October, 1959, as compared with October, 1960, were in the former year over 47,000 and in the latter year over 54,000. Appearances in the former year were over 25,000 and in the latter year more than 27,000. That increase betokens a considerable augmentation of the burden on the shoulders of the Masters of the Supreme Court. It is they who preside over the preparatory stages of the case, and in order that the case may come to its final hearing before the judge of first instance everybody who practises knows how important it is that the preliminary stages should be properly gone through.

In sum, therefore, I put it to the Attorney-General that the burden upon the Masters has increased very greatly, secondly that it is likely to increase if the work before the courts continues to multiply as it is doing at present, and thirdly—and this is the point to which I wish to come—it is not really in those circumstances easily justifiable in logic to enact that a Master has to serve for twenty years before he can be entitled to receive his pension at the half-scale rate whereas a county court judge has to serve for only fifteen years.

As the Attorney-General has said, the pension payable to judicial officers cannot be easily equated with pensions payable to civil servants, because appointment to a judicial position is attained only at some fairly advanced stage of one's career at the Bar and, in those circumstances, the pension problem should be looked at as something rather special in itself. The point which I therefore ask the Attorney-General to consider is whether it would not be fair in all the circumstances that as county court judges have to serve for fifteen years the Masters of the Supreme Court should also have to serve for fifteen years and not twenty years before they become entitled to pension at a rate of 50 per cent. of their salary at the time of their retirement.

I do not suppose that the Attorney-General can give me an answer straight away. It is obviously one which requires a nice balance between the various considerations affecting each of these two types of judicial appointment, but I should be grateful if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will consider it.

I have no comment to make about other Clauses in the Bill. I personally welcome the Bill, and I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends will support the Government in giving it a Second Reading.

12.39 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)

I join the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) in welcoming the Bill. In my view, it has been quite clear for a considerable time that there has been urgent need for appointments to increase the strength of the judiciary in the High Court and Court of Appeal. It is not uncommon to have nine months elapse in trying to fix the date of a civil action, and I recollect the 1959 winter assizes in Winchester ending on a blazing summer's day in June.

In crime, there has been a great increase in the number of fraud cases. I do not know whether that is a reflection on the commercial dishonesty of the country, or of the skill of the fraud squads, but these are very difficult cases to try and they take a very long time. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that, valuable as has been their service in the past, he appointment of barristers to act as Commissioners of Assize should be the exception rather than the rule.

I look forward to the strengthening of the establishment by the numbers as set out in the Bill and while I appreciate that it is only an enabling Bill, I would welcome the establishment being kept at the present moment to about 46 judges. Perhaps it may be what one distinguished judge has described as "watering the brandy", but it is much needed.

I also agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in what he said about judges sitting idle. We have read about the former judge who was distressed to find that his list had suddenly collapsed and that he had to spend the day sitting in his chambers. But it is much more to the advantage and convenience of the public, the witnesses and the parties, if judges, who, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, often have a great deal of work, are sometimes kept idle and dates are more commonly fixed than before. This avoids the great inconvenience and cost to witnesses who sometimes have to spend a considerable time waiting for a case to come on. The convenience of the public would be met by having more judges and more courts.

I have heard it suggested that, in view of the decreasing number of divorce cases, the judges in the Divorce Division might be incorporated in the Queen's Bench Division, that the Admiralty court should become a separate court like the Commercial Court or the Restrictive Practices Court, and that probate practice should go into the Chancery Division. Be that as it may, I think that the suggestion in this Bill is better.

In the Court of Criminal Appeal new procedures have been introduced by the Lord Chief Justice, but, there again, there are tremendous delays which are even more serious than in the civil actions which wait for one year for appeal. There was recently a person who had been waiting for his case to come before the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was successful, but because of pressure of business it was so many months afterwards that his sentence would in any case have expired. This reveals the great pressure on judges, and it is to be hoped that the increase numbers suggested in the Bill will make it much more possible for the courts to expedite their business much more satisfactorily.

Delay has always been the vice of judicial procedure, and has always given rise to critical comment by the public. Of course, in some cases the parties are interested in delay. It may well be that settlements can be brought about more easily by delay, but the practice of there being enforced delay, and of putting many cases in the list so that parties may be brought to the point of settlement, is very unsatisfactory. It has been known in the past at assizes that, in order to have the business dealt with, cases have been put into the list in the hope that they will be settled. Doubtless some would have been settled in the end, but, nevertheless, that seems one of the unsatisfactory results of having too few judges.

Though the hours of court sittings seem to many people to be extraordinarily short, in fact the fatigue which is caused through the concentration which any person in court has to apply during the proceedings means that the courts could not sit longer. It might be possible to do so for a time on circuit, but not as a regular practice.

There have indeed been cases in which, at the end of the day, and of a long cross-examination, the judge has directed the jury to overlook answers given by witnesses as they were not doing themselves justice because of fatigue. One cannot expect courts to sit longer and properly carry out their duties. The proper solution is in this Bill, and I very much welcome Clause 1. I hope that as a result we shall be able to see very much greater expedition in the judicial practice of the country.

12.45 p.m.

The Attorney-General

With leave of the House, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I will say a few words, particularly in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice). I thank him and my hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) for the reception which they have given to these proposals.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman put forward a suggestion, which he asked me to consider, that the period of years that has to be served before a pension can be earned by a Master of the Supreme Court should be reduced further than is proposed in the Bill, He suggested that the position of Masters of the Supreme Court was broadly comparable with that of county court judges. I am not quite sure that I would go quite as far as that, but, at the same time, I would not like to be thought to be in any way underestimating the value and the importance of the work done by Masters of the Supreme Court.

It may well be that the information which he gave about the work now being done by Masters of the Supreme Court would necessitate the appointment of a larger number, but it does not seem to me that the volume of the work is necessarily an argument for reducing the period of years which has to be served before a pension is earned. I will consider what he said, but I would not like him to think that I am holding out hope of being able to meet him on this matter.

As is so often the case in such matters, there are repercussions. A stipendiary magistrate must serve twenty years before he can earn his full pension, and it would be very difficult to reduce the period for Masters of the Supreme Court below twenty years and retain the period of twenty years for stipendiary magistrates. There may well be other minor judicial officers, not necessarily in England and Wales, who would be affected by such a change.

I feel that we are taking a very practical step forward and are making a change which will be of practical value to the Masters of the Supreme Court by reducing the period from twenty-five to twenty years. I doubt whether we shall be able to go any further, but I will look at the matter with my colleagues to see whether there is any possibility of doing so.

I am grateful to the House for the reception given to the Bill. I do not think that I need say any more about it on this occasion.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Finlay.]

Committee upon Monday next.