HC Deb 26 November 1964 vol 702 cc1689-94

(1) Section 17 of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restriction) Act 1920 (which provides for the making of rules of procedure for purposes of that Act, and extends the jurisdiction of county courts and sheriff courts in respect of proceedings under that Act) shall have effect as if references to that Act included references to this Act; and for the purposes of that section any proceedings for the suspension of an order for the recovery of possession of a dwelling to which this Act applies shall be deemed to be proceedings under this Act.

(2) Rules of procedure as aforesaid shall be made so as to provide that, if the court is satisfied of the urgency of the proceedings, proceedings for recovery of possession of premises to which this Act applies shall be heard (upon a two days' notice to the court and to the other parties to the proceedings) in any court within the circuit of the county court judge of the court in which the proceedings would otherwise have been heard and shall take precedence over other proceedings due for hearing.—[Sir I. Hobson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir J. Hobson

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

This Clause is meant to deal with what I regard as possibly a very serious situation. We shall put an enormous amount of additional work on county court judges, and we shall also remove from the High Court any prospect of expeditious proceedings. There are numerous cases where the situation that has developed between landlord and tenant can be very serious and ought to be dealt with in the interests of both parties, and occasionally in the interests of one party.

At present, while I do not think that it is very often followed, but it provides a useful safeguard, there is the method of applying in the High Court. I agree with the decision of the Government that all these decisions should go to the county court. I think that the local county court has much better knowledge of local conditions, and it obviates for those who live outside London—and a great many do—the necessity of employing agents or putting in affidavits before registrars of the High Court, and it provides an easy local court to which they can go. But the consequence is that one is left with a situation in which the present delays in the county court are substantial, even in London.

The average time between setting down and making application and getting a hearing is six weeks. Also, it is easy for defendants to get an adjournment. One has also to bear in mind the situation in a country district where there is a large area over which the county court judge has to travel. For instance, in north Lincolnshire the judge is in Louth only once in 13 weeks. This is the sort of delay that will be imposed on all cases, even the urgent ones.

I accept that the vast majority of cases can be reasonably dealt with by the county court in the ordinary course of its business, but I have endeavoured in the Clause to provide that where the county court is satisfied that there is a matter of urgency, there should be a special procedure by which it can be dealt with very expeditiously. I have endeavoured to deal with it, first, by saying that the power to make rules applies not only to applications for possession but those applications that are dealing with suspension orders and the variation of suspension orders, because I think it is fair that if a tenant wants to get an extension of the suspension order he already has, the rule-making power should apply to an extension in that respect.

Finally, I have suggested that it should be an application to make rules to do three things. First, there should be special procedure in cases of urgency if the court is satisfied on a preliminary application that it is an urgent matter, and if it is so satisfied, it should be possible for the application to be made on a two-day notice and it could be made at any court on the circuit of the judge who is to hear it, and in such circumstances, the application should take precedence over all other business of the court.

I hope that the court will think that these are reasonable and sensible provisions, remembering always that they will be attracted only to those cases where the court is satisfied that the question of urgency arises.

Mr. Weitzman

This is one of the necessary and sensible suggested alterations to the Bill and I hope that the Government will do something along these lines.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I join in that and go further and say that this is one of the most important suggested alterations to the Bill, if not the most important. The purposes of this emergency Bill is to make people go through the courts instead of taking the law into their own hands. Unless there is machinery which will enable a decision to be taken within a matter of days in certain cases and weeks in others, the Bill will fail to achieve its purpose.

I do not propose now to go into the analogies which arise, but it is absolutely plain that in matters which we have not as yet discussed, in the cases not only of service occupancies and short tenancies, but almost all examples of furnished lettings, the landlord will have entered into other arrangements for letting to someone else, particularly with short tenancies. If, as he is, the tenant is encouraged to take advantage of the right to go to the courts, unless the landlord can get his application heard immediately, subsequent short tenancies, perhaps down an entire season, may collapse like a pack of cards.

The whole nub of the Bill depends upon these or other suitable arrangements to secure a very rapid hearing, particularly in areas where the tourist industry may find much of its turnover affected. Almost the essence of the Bill is in its administration and the test of its success will be the speed of execution. I take the view that it will require deputy judges to sit for this class of case and certainly the sort of machinery envisaged in the new Clause to deal with it. On the circuit system it must mean extra sessions to deal with the cases, especially in the conurbations which, we hope, will be the only areas where the Bill will have an important impact.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not only accede to this reasonable request, but will see whether he can improve upon it to see that the utmost expedition is obtained.

Mr. Crossman

I am glad that as these proceedings draw towards their close harmony begins to reign. I can give the assurance for which the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) and the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) have asked. However, we would rather do it our own way and not by the new Clause, which has certain disadvantages. We do not ourselves think that putting it under the rent restrictions procedure is the happiest way. It could not be done without amendment, and we think that the purpose can be achieved by administrative action.

I entirely agree that, unless we can do this, the whole purpose of the Bill will be frustrated, and we therefore regard this as one of the most important parts of the Bill. I should like to say what is our estimate of the present situation on which we have to improve. According to our latest information, there is an interval of six to eight weeks between the taking out of a summons and the hearing of a case by a judge in the busy county courts of the larger towns. In the country, the average is five to seven weeks, but this is subject to such wide fluctuations that the average is highly misleading. Hearings by the registrar can be taken on average about one week earlier.

This is a situation which must be improved and we suggest the following course. It is apparently already true that under the existing county court rules a judge or registrar may transfer proceedings to another court where proceedings can more conveniently or fairly be heard. That accessibility for the tenant will have to be arranged, but we expect that the courts will be prepared to exercise this power.

That is our first suggestion for acceleration, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has also taken action. He proposes by administrative action to direct the courts to place undefended possession actions in the list for the first sitting after the period required between the taking out of the summons and the hearing, provided that the owner satisfies the appropriate officer of the court of the need for speed. That means that undefended possession actions will be added to the list, even where that list is already full.

It is already open to judges, under Section 26 of the County Courts Act, 1959, to appoint additional courts, and that power will also be available where the owner makes out a prima facie case for speedy hearing when taking out his summons and there is no regular sitting of the court shortly after expiration of the prescribed period, which is, I understand, 14 days.

We feel that with these administrative changes the period should be reduced to about 21 days, and we believe that that is the kind of reasonable period for making this emergency Bill work. I therefore ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw the new Clause, because we regard it as really unnecessary in view of the steps which the Lord Chancellor contemplates taking to accelerate hearings.

Sir J. Hobson

I am very glad to hear of the Lord Chancellor's arrangements. I am sure that everyone will welcome the fact that the average case will be heard very much more quickly, but there is still an imposed delay of 21 days. I concede that that is very reasonable, indeed, for the ordinary case, but I find great difficulty in believing that it will be sufficient for the really urgent case. There are many urgent cases, and there are certain circumstances in which possession ought to be given in a matter of some 48 hours. There are short weekly lettings that people are holding over, and cases where there is violence in the household—where landlord and tenant, living under the same roof, and cheek by jowl, and have arrived at a position which could not and ought not to be tolerated for 21 days.

The fact is that we have removed the landlord's right to take any means of self-help at all, and he may have under the same roof someone whom he is not allowed to take any steps to get rid of. but, has to tolerate a quite impossible situation when he should have possession.

I only ask the right hon. Gentleman to ask the Lord Chancellor, who, I am sure, will appreciate the point, whether, for the exceptional case—and I only put it on the basis of the exceptional case—it should be possible to get possession on a two-day notice.

Mr. Crossman

I shall be delighted to ask the Lord Chancellor about this.

Sir J. Hobson

On that understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, to be considered upon Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 16.]