HC Deb 05 February 1969 vol 777 cc408-78

Order for Second Reading read.

3.43 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

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

This Bill has over 30 Clauses and deals with a large number of matters. Its cumulative effect represents yet another important chapter of law reform. It should render less daunting to the litigant the complex processes of litigation. There are valuable individual changes affecting the man in the street, like that in Clause 20, which enables orders for interim payment before trial to be made to victims of accidents in the conditions prescribed. But many Clauses in the Bill are highly technical, and, although they have their own importance, I cannot contend that they are of absorbing parliamentary interest.

However, I take comfort from the famous reply given by Mr. Micawber to David Copperfield, when Copperfield asked: 'How do you like the law, Mr. Micawber?' 'My dear Copperfield,' he replied, 'to a man possessed of the highest imaginative powers, the objection to legal studies is the amount of detail which they involve. Even in our professional correspondence,' said Mr. Micawber, glancing at some letters he was writing, 'the mind is not at liberty to soar to any exalted form of expression. Still, it is a great pursuit, a great pursuit.' One aspect of that great pursuit in recent years has been the increasing interest shown by lawyers in law reform and I am happy to acknowledge the contribution which judges, solicitors and barristers have freely made to the prolonged study of complex and difficult problems in the administration of justice.

Part I of the Bill is concerned with the county courts and amends the County Courts Act in a number of important respects. Clause 1, for instance, extends the pecuniary jurisdiction of the county court in actions of contract and tort or for money recoverable by Statute from £500 to £750. The jurisdiction of the court has always depended generally on the amount in dispute or the value of the object in dispute. Originally, the limit, when the modern county court system came into being in 1846, was £20. By 1938, it had risen to £200, in 1955 it was raised to £400 and in 1965 to £500.

The purchasing power of the £, based on the Consumer Prive Index, fell by just over 31 per cent. between 1955 and August 1968, so that the equivalent of £500 then is about £655 today. The equivalent of the 1938 limit of £200 would be £742 today, so there are strong arguments for extending the jurisdiction of the county courts merely to keep pace with the fall in the value of money. These arguments have recently been reinforced by the Report of Lord Justice Winn's Committee on Personal Injuries Litigation. One of its recommendations was that county court jurisdiction in these cases should be increased to as much as £1,000, with power to increase it after a trial period to £1,500.

But the Committee wanted a number of things to be done before that recommendation was implemented, including the improvement of court buildings, the installation of tape recording equipment and the provision of a large central court on each circuit. These are clearly desirable, but, unhappily, they cannot be accomplished overnight. But my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who has these matters under consideration, has concluded that there should be, in the meantime, a general increase in jurisdiction to £750. This will result in a small but sensible measure of relief to the High Court judges without imposing an undue burden on county court judges.

Clause 10 provides that future increases in jurisdiction can be made by Order in Council after an affirmative Resolution in each House of Parliament approving the draft Order. This will avoid the difficulty which we have experienced in the past of necessary increases in jurisdiction having to be postponed because of the lack of that rare commodity, parliamentary time. It will also make adjustments of the limits easier, should the Reports of the Payne Committee on Enforcement of Judgments and the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions make further changes desirable.

Clause 2 makes the alteration from £500 to £750 wherever £500 appears in the County Courts Act. Clauses 3 and 4 are concerned with transfers from the High Court to the county court and vice versa and with what happens when an action in the High Court should have been started in the county court because the amount recovered is within the limit of county court jurisdiction.

The Bill follows the existing practice by providing that if a plaintiff does not recover more than a certain amount—the amount specified is £600—he will get only his county court costs. This therefore leaves a margin of error

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the Attorney-General's speech. This is not quite the practice where the plaintiff recovers but does not recover the total amount. If he recovers £500 he gets costs only on a county court scale whereas now, if he recovers, £1,500, reduced by two-thirds for contributory negligence to £500, he gets High Court costs.

The Attorney-General

I should like to have notice of that and deal with it in due course.

As I said in dealing with the sanctions contained in the Bill, if the plaintiff recovers a small sum in the High Court, that is, a sum less than £150, he will get nothing in the way of costs. The object of these provisions is to give the strongest encouragement to litigants to bring actions in the county court. The provisions are in line with the recommendations of the Winn Committee; indeed they follow them. Under Section 47 of the County Courts Act, 1959, the judge may allow such costs as he thinks fit if there is sufficient reason for an action in the High Court.

Mr. John Cronin (Loughborough)

Before my right hon. and learned Friend leaves Clause 4, may I ask him this? He has made an interesting point, that the maximum jurisdiction of the High Court in 1938 was £200 and, therefore, in terms of increased cost of living, and so on, the equivalent now would be £742, but the minimum jurisdiction in 1938 was £50 and on the same calculation the minimum jurisdiction should now be £185. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is, therefore, incomprehensible to me, and I gather, to some of my hon. Friends, why this minimum jurisdiction should now be raised to £600, which is more than three times the appropriate figure in terms of the change in the value of money. It seems that the plaintiff is being very seriously penalised.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions should be brief.

The Attorney-General

I do not think that that is so. We are translating to equivalents of the 1938 position. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is not so."] Perhaps my hon. Friends may make their interventions in due course. As I have said, under Section 47(3) of the County Courts Act, 1959 a judge may allow such costs as he thinks fit if he thinks there is sufficient reason for a plaintiff bringing an action in the High Court.

Clause 5 of the Bill increases the equity jurisdiction from £500 to £5,000, but this increase is not so startling as it sounds. Indeed, there has been no increase in this jurisdiction for 103 years. The £500 limit is now so low as to render the jurisdiction almost nugatory. The Family Provision Act, 1966 has enabled the county court to make provision out of estates of up to £5,000 in value. Therefore this provision, the House may feel, is completely logical.

Clause 6 will give the county court ancillary jurisdiction to enable it to grant an urgent injunction, even before an action is started. This is in line with the High Court jurisdiction in this respect and will enable immediate injunctions to be obtained in the count court, whereas up to now a party would have to be put to the expense of proceedings in the High Court.

Clause 7 relates to two questions affecting the right of audience. The first, which has given rise to controversy, is the provision in Section 89 of the County Courts Act whereby a solicitor cannot employ another soicitor as his agent to appear at the hearing of a case in the county court. Here, a demarcation question arises. Solicitors have long felt that it was unreasonable to put clients to the expense of briefing counsel if the solicitor himself could not appear in the county court. In practice, in recent years the provision has perhaps become more honoured in the breach than in the observance because solicitors have been able to get round the difficulty by the process of serving notice of change of solicitor on the other party.

When the recent Matrimonial Causes Bill was before the House I resisted an Amendment to the effect that solicitor agents should be able to appear in undefended divorce cases. I contended at the time—and I am still of that view—that it was wrong to make an exception in the case of undefended divorce when the matter would be dealt with comprehensively. Since then the Prices and Incomes Board, in its Report on Solicitors' Remuneration, has condemned the current operation of Section 89.

The opportunity to do away with this provision has now arisen and I do not think its continued existence is defensible. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said in another place that he does not think that it will make any appreciable difference to the Bar, because solicitors have been able to get round the provision by serving notice of change of solicitor.

The second matter in Clause 7 concerns actions by local authorities for rent recovery of small premises. Subsection (2) will enable a local authority officer who is not legally qualified to appear before a county court registrar in such proceedings as of right and not as at the moment by leave of the court. This Clause will pave the way for repeal of the Small Tenements Recovery Act, 1838, under which local authorities go to magistrates' courts in this type of case. It is the policy of the Lord Chancellor to encourage bringing these proceedings in the county court, which is the most suitable court for such proceedings, rather than in the magistrates' court. This subsection will help local authorities by making county court procedure more attractive and less expensive.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)

That may be so, but if a case is brought in the county court will the judge have jurisdiction to try the case instead of rubber-stamp it, which has had to be the position in the magistrates' court?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the judge would not be content with rubber-stamping and that proceedings would receive the customary care which such proceedings have in the county court.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

The difficulty is that one expects county courts to give the matter the necessary attention, but it must be a rubber stamp as they have not the jurisdiction and they must give the protection which is asked.

The Attorney-General

I should like to look at that, but I should think that the merits of such an application would be considered—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] I should like notice of the question and I shall return to it later. It surprises me that the prospect of a mere rubber-stamping exercise is what the courts would have to face, but I promise to look into the point.

Clause 8 provides for county court judges to summon at the public expense, assessors to assist them in reviewing taxations of costs by registrars.

Clause 9 will enable county court rules to be made to increase the jurisdiction of the registrar. County court registrars have always been able to hear small cases, particularly undefended ones, and the present limit of their jurisdiction is £30. The Winn Committee recommended an increase in this jurisdiction to £100 in line with its other recommendation, to which I have already referred, that the judge's jurisdiction should be increased to £1,000.

As I have explained, it is not proposed to increase the judge's jurisdiction to that extent for the present and, consequently, an increase in the registrars' jurisdiction should be proportionately less than that recommended by the Committee. An appropriate figure would appear to be 10 per cent. of the judge's new jurisdiction, and that is why the Clause provides for an increase to £75.

Clause 9(2) will enable rules to be made to authorise a registrar, as well as a judge, to direct that a case for hearing by the judge in one court shall take place in another of the judge's courts. This will make arrangements for trial more flexible and allow a case which has been started, for instance, in a court where the judge sits only once a month to be transferred to another court on the registrar's direction so that the matter can be dealt with more speedily.

Clause 9(3) will enable rules to be made to allow the court to disallow costs where they have been incurred improperly or without reasonable cause or wasted by undue delay, misconduct or default on the part of solicitors. This is in line with existing powers in the High Court, and, although it is not expected that the power will be used at all frequently, it will provide a useful sanction where cases have not been conducted properly.

I have already dealt with Clause 10. Clause 11 deals with a number of minor miscellaneous matters in this field, including the increase in the amount of fines laid down in the 1959 Act which may be imposed on jurymen and witnesses who do not appear or on officers of the court who misbehave. There has been no change in these fines for 34 years, and the increases are in line with those made in the recent Criminal Justice Act.

Part II of the Bill deals with what is known to lawyers as the "leapfrog" procedure. So, even if lawyers are denied, to use Mr. Micawber's phrase, any exalted form of expression, they do occasionally indulge in these flights of fancy. The "leapfrog" proposals derive from difficulties which arise when a judge of first instance is bound by an existing decision of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords. Although the judge may think that the decision of the higher court is wrong, it is useless for the unsuccessful party to appeal, unless he is pre pared to go to the expense and trouble of taking the case to the House of Lords.

An appeal to the Court of Appeal would, in any event be wasted, because the Court of Appeal is, at present at any rate, bound by its decisions and by those of the House of Lords. This means that in some cases, such as Revenue cases, a litigant may have been first to the General or Special Commissioners of Income Tax, have then appealed to a single judge, then gone on to the Court of Appeal, before a final decision can be reached by the House of Lords after an enormous amount of time, trouble and expense.

The Evershed Committee, in 1953, recommended that a High Court Judge should have power to certify that an appeal from his judgment was fit to go direct to the House of Lords where the questions to be the subject of the appeal were essential to the determination of the cause and were of substantial legal or public importance and were covered by an earlier decision of the Court of Appeal. The question would, alternatively, have had to have been wholly or substantially related to the construction of a Statute or Statutory Instrument.

Clauses 12 to 16 incorporate the principle of those recommendations. I should, however, explain to the House that the Bill, as it now stands, contains a number of modifications to the proposals that were incorporated in the Bill when it was first introduced in another place. These changes followed discussions between my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary.

The Bill now enables the judge to grant a "leapfrog" certificate to eliminate the Court of Appeal where his decision involves a point of law of general public importance relating to the construction of an enactment or Statutory Instrument and which has been fully argued before him and fully considered in his judgment or is covered by a previous decision of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords and was fully considered in their judgments.

The House of Lords is now included, as it was not in the Evershed proposals, because it has been announced, as the House will know, that the House of Lords sitting judicially will in future regard itself as free to depart from its previous decisions when it appears right to do so. The certificate of the judge will be issued only—this is an important departure from the Evershed recommendations—when all the parties to the proceedings consent.

A further modification of the original proposals is that the judge's certificate will not in itself authorise a direct appeal to the House of Lords but simply enable the parties to apply to the Appeal Committee of the House of Lords for leave to bring a direct appeal. This will give to the Appeal Committee a measure of control over the number and type of cases which are appropriate for direct appeal. It is proposed that the Committee should decide whether an appeal can be brought on reading the papers and without hearing the parties or their representatives. The procedure should, therefore, be relatively quick and inexpensive for the parties. This, the House may think, is an important improvement.

Mr. John Lee (Reading)

If all the parties do not consent, and there is still a very arguable point, will there be appeal procedure in the normal way to the Court of Appeal so that the case can go ultimately to the House of Lords in the normal course of events?

The Attorney-General

Yes. The case would go through the normal stages to the Court of Appeal and, if the litigant had sufficient money and courage, thereafter to the House of Lords. Some lawyers think that a large number of male descendants—or female descendants, for that matter—should be bred from men like that.

I do not think that I need trouble the House at this stage with the more detailed provisions of this part of the Bill, except to say that Clause 15 prevents a certificate from being granted in certain cases—for example, where the decision of the trial judge is normally final—and that Clause 16 extends the provisions of this Part of the Bill to Northern Ireland, with necessary modifications.

I come now to Part III of the Bill, in which we move to a rather different part of the legal world. The purpose of this part of the Bill is to empower the Court of Protection, which manages the affairs of mental patients, to direct or authorise the execution of a will or codicil on behalf of a patient. The Court of Protection has power at present under the Mental Health Act, 1959 to direct a settlement of all the property of a mental patient whose affairs it is managing. A patient cannot, however, make a valid will except during a lucid interval, because he is incapable of understanding the nature of the business on which he is engaged. The court has, in the past, avoided the injustice that might arise from this inability to make a valid will by authorising a settlement under the power to which I have just referred.

Although the existing law is intended to safeguard the position of the mental patient and those for whom he might have been expected to provide, its practical effect is to place him at a disadvantage. For instance, a patient might, on marriage, have made a will in favour of her husband; subsequently, he may leave her, obtain a divorce abroad which is not recognised by the English courts, and re-marry. Meanwhile, the wife becomes mentally ill and is no longer of testamentary capacity.

The only way to prevent the will from taking effect is by means of a settlement, but it would be much simpler and cheaper if a new will could be made for the patient; and, furthermore, to make provision for the patient's family or for a servant by a legacy or an annuity in a will would be far less complicated and less expensive than by using the process of a settlement.

There is another reason in this somewhat complex field why the patient is at a disadvantage. This is because a settlement of property is a disposal of assets for Capital Gains Tax purposes. In addition, stamp duty is payable. If the patient was of sound mind and had testamentary capacity, his legal advisers would undoubtedly recommend that he should make a will under which there would be no immediate Capital Gains Tax liability or stamp duty payable rather than effect a settlement.

The Treasury has been consulted and agrees that, just because a person is unfortunate enough to be mentally ill or incapable of managing his affairs, there is no reason why those affairs should not be administered with the same regard to tax considerations as in other cases.

Clauses 17 to 19 seek, therefore, to remove this injustice by amending the Mental Health Act, 1959. The Court of Protection will be able to direct or authorise the execution of a will, although if the patient recovers his testamentary capacity he will be able to revoke the will which the court has made and make such new will as he wishes to make in the normal way.

Part IV of the Bill deals with a number of miscellaneous and supplementary provisions.

Clauses 20 and 21 stem from the Report of the Winn Committee, although the provisions go somewhat wider than its recommendations. Clause 20 will enable an order for interim payments to be made not just in personal injury cases, as the Committee suggested, but in other cases in both the High Court and the county court as specified by rules made under the Clause. This will be a useful addition to the powers of those courts in that a plaintiff will be able to obtain payment of damages in the type of case where liability is admitted and in which the only dispute is as to the extent of the injuries and the amount of the damages.

As those who practise in the courts will know, the delay involved in obtaining a judgment in cases of this kind often causes intolerable hardship and has frequently been criticised. It is hoped that the interim payments which will now be possible will go some way towards alleviating the hardships which plaintiffs must suffer during, I regret to say, the period of perhaps two years which they must wait before a final judgment in their favour is given in the courts.

Clause 21 provides for the court to make orders before the commencement of proceedings for the inspection, preservation or custody of any property as to which any question may arise in the subsequent proceedings. This was recommended by the Winn Committee, but the Clause goes somewhat further in including the taking of samples. The usefulness of this provision is obvious. Only too often evidence is available shortly after an accident or incident which may give rise to proceedings but subsequently, by the time of the trial of the action, it is not available for inspection or examination. These provisions will apply to the High Court and the county court under rules.

With Clause 22 we come to another Report, that of the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority. It recommended that the Divorce Division should have concurrent jurisdiction with the Chancery Division in matters of wardship, adoption and guardianship of infants cases. It is desirable, however, not only to implement that recommendation, but also, on general grounds, to enlarge the Lord Chancellor's power under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, 1925, to redistribute the business from one division of the High Court to another by allowing the Lord Chancellor to confer jurisdiction on more than one division concurrently.

The Latey Committee looked forward to the time when we might have a family division of the High Court. I take the same view. It may well be that, in due course, there will be a reconstitution of the High Court. But in the meantime, it is thought that the Lord Chancellor should be able to make as flexible arrangements as are possible within the existing framework, and this is what the Clause seeks to achieve.

Clauses 23 and 24 are concerned with what goes on in the Law Courts—and curious things go on in that labyrinth. Clerks to the registrars of the Chancery Division are so called despite the fact that they are not clerks but qualified solicitors. They do not like being called clerks and Clause 23 enables them to be called assistant registrars. Although they are hard to get—and this is the more important part of the Clause—they cannot be appointed now unless they are of two years' standing. There is difficulty in recruiting solicitors and the removal of this limitation should help to recruit them.

Clause 24 will rationalise the position with regard to the appointment of the clerks of the Central Office of the Supreme Court. Under the old law they are supposed to be appointed alternately by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls—a curious sort of merry-go-round—but, in practice, his has not happened for many years and they are, in fact, appointed by open competition, and the Clause brings the law up-to-date with that practice.

I do not think that I need detain the House long with Clause 25, which deals with the records of grants of probate and administration. At present the law requires that calendars must be printed of all grants and copies of them sent to every district probate registry, and also to Edinburgh and Belfast.

The Clause will give power to the President of the Probate Division to direct in what form records are to be kept in future and what particulars they are to contain, while doing away with the expensive distribution of the calendars which I have mentioned. There are a number of detailed amendments to the law in this respect with which I need not trouble the House.

Clause 26 is concerned with the apprenticeship of public notaries. I do not suppose that their activities and functions are well known to the House. However, they perform a variety of functions connected with the authentication of signatures, official seals, the certification or execution of deeds, contracts and powers of attorney and the verification of other facts and things done in their presence. In London, much of their work is connected with documents like bills of lading and negotiable matters relating to international trade.

A person wishing to become a public notary must serve as an apprentice to a public notary or a person using the art and mystery of a scrivener. He is appointed not by the Lord Chancellor, as the House might expect, but by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is appointed by the Archbishop through his master of the faculties. In turn, the Lord Chancellor appoints 500 clergy to livings. My noble Friend suggested in another place that one day he and the Archbishop might do a swop, but he did not say it in quite that inelegant language.

The point of the Clause is that in London an apprentice to become a public notary must serve seven years, whereas elsewhere he need serve only five. The London notaries think that five years is sufficient a period, and Clause 26 meets their wishes.

Clauses 27 and 28 are concerned with pension arrangements. The aim of Clause 27 is to promote transferability between members of the judiciary from one aspect of judicial duty to another. At present, cross-posting between judicial positions is often almost impossible because there are no arrangements for the transfer of pensions between posts which are paid out of central funds, local funds or a combination of both.

The positions affected are largely those of judges of first instance silting in criminal courts, other than High Court judges, and they include additional judges at the Central Criminal Court, the Recorders of Manchester and Liverpool and full-time chairmen and deputy chairmen of quarter sessions and stipendiary magistrates outside London.

At present, there are provisions for transfer of pension rights between offices paid out of central funds, and the object of Clause 27 is to extend these arrangements to cover judicial positions of the kind which I have mentioned. The result of this amendment to the law should be greater flexibility in the appointment of judges.

Clause 28 remedies a defect in the law governing pensions. It will enable the Registrar and Assistant Registrar of Criminal Appeals to have the same rights with regard to widows' and children's pensions as others in similar positions. The Clause also deals with full-time chairmen and deputy chairmen of certain quarter sessions. At present, if they have previously held a public office and are drawing a pension as a result of that service, there is no provision for an abatement of their remuneration as a chairman or deputy chairman of Quarter Sessions. Clause 28(2) will bring their position into line with that of others who are drawing pensions while holding judicial office.

Clause 29 deals with the remuneration of the Chancellor of the County Palatine of Durham who has jurisdiction for the area around Durham to hear Chancery cases which are ordinarily heard in the Chancery Division of the High Court in London. The Church Commissioners at present pay part of the Chancellor's salary, and the object of the Clause is to enable the Lord Chancellor to take over the Commissioners' liability in return for a payment by them of a capital sum amounting to 15 years' purchase. The rest of the Chancellor's salary is paid by local authorities, and the Clause does not affect their liability in any way.

Clause 30 will extend the legislative powers of the Parliament of Northern Ireland to enable it to abolish grand juries at assizes. Grand juries were abolished in England and Wales about 35 years ago, as a result of which the duration of criminal proceedings has been reduced, and it seems reasonable that they should also be abolished in Northern Ireland. The Clause will also enable the Parliament of Northern Ireland to amend the law relating to the presentment of indictments.

Clause 31 concerns application of the Bill to the Crown, and provisions as to orders which may be made under the Bill. Clauses 32 and 33 deal with minor consequential amendments and other necessary matters.

I apologise for burdening the House with so much detail, but this is, as I have said, a varied Bill, the aim of which is to promote sensible, useful, and I hope uncontroversial, reforms in the administration of justice.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I remind the House that many hon. Members, some learned and some not learned in the Parliamentary sense, wish to address the House. I shall be able to call them all if speeches are reasonably brief.

4.22 p.m.

Sir Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)

The House is indebted to the Attorney-General for taking us through the provisions of the Bill and trying to squeeze a little juice out of what is on the whole a dry lemon. I do not under-estimate the practical importance of some of the changes it introduces, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman used some of the hyperbole of Mr. Micawber when he said that the Bill was another important chapter in law reform.

I accept that the Bill is useful and reasonable and I do not believe that it is controversial. But we shall want to examine in Committee some of the matters foreshadowed, particularly Clause 4, to make sure that the object of Part I is fairly achieved. The object is to give a wider jurisdictions to the county court, the court which is much more convenient and practical for so many people who have to bring their causes before the courts, and to ensure that with changes in the value of money the limits are not to the disadvantage of the plaintiff or defendant.

I am interested and a bit surprised that we are having this debate on the Floor of the House. We dealt with the Theft Act in a Second Reading Committee, which can include between 20 and 80 hon. Members. This Bill seems eminently suitable in many respects for the Second Reading Committee, thus leaving the Floor of the House clear for other matters. That was the idea of the Second Reading Committee, which seems to have worked in the past on important changes of the law such as the Theft Act or the Civil Evidence Act. It may be that it is because the Bill deals with the question of jurisdiction that no application was made to the House by the Government to send it to the Second Reading Committee. But they must not then complain if other of their Measures are squeezed out.

The Bill seems to me a useful Measure and part of the process of law improvement which should go on continually. It deals particularly with the matters of procedure, and I have always believed and said that the kernel of law reform concerns the reform of the laws of evidence and the procedures of the courts.

Part 1 deals with increasing the jurisdiction of the county court. What we must bear in mind, and what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not told us about, is that this will inevitably mean a greater burden of causes in the county court, with a greater increase in its use, and more time being taken up by the judges and staff of the County Court. I much favour the increased jurisdiction, but I should like the Attorney-General to tell us at some time how many more county court judges will be required. It would be quite useless if we made the change and found that the pressure of business was then such that cases were not being tried with the proper expedition.

It is important to keep the quality of the county court judges as high as it is today. As has often been said in the House, it used not to be as high as it is today, but now the county court judges are of a much increased stature. I hope that in the future they may also have an opportunity to exercise some criminal jurisdiction, to give a greater breadth to their expertise in their duties as judges. I hope that when the right hon. and learned Gentleman gives us the numbers of the county court judges he will also assure us that their quality will be maintained.

The Attorney-General

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman may know, many county court judges are now helping considerably with criminal work, and the Lord Chancellor is very grateful to them for this.

Sir P. Rawlinson

I appreciate that. It is a very good innovation, and I hope that it will be extended. But it takes the judges away from their work in the county court. Many cases are now being tried by deputy county court judges, just as a fair proportion of the work being done at assizes is being done by commissioners. This may be necessary in certain circumstances, because of par ticular difficulties, but it is not right that there should be so much dependence on deputy county court judges and commissioners. A litigant has the right to have his cause tried by the appropriate judge. That is what the judge is for, and that is what the litigant wants. The Bill will increase the numbers of causes in the county court. There are already complaints about the amount being tried by deputy county court judges, and, therefore, I impress on the right hon. and learned Gentleman the urgency of seeing that the right number of judges is created as a result of the Bill.

One problem that leads to criticisms in the county court concerns listing and the delays which arise. It is not unusual for a county court case to go part-heard and not return to the list for many weeks, or sometimes months. It is not right that the litigant, his advisers, counsel, and so on, should have a part-heard cause go over for many weeks. I hope that with the increased jurisdiction, and, therefore, the increased pressure, a close examination will be given to the difficult problem of organisation of the courts to try to avoid the lengthy delays over part-heards and adjournments.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

Is it not also a fact that there is no transcript of such proceedings, and that in, say, a very detailed industrial injury case it is necessary to rely on the notes of counsel and the judge, and that it could very well go against the litigant?

Sir P. Rawlinson

That is true. There is the difficulty that there are no shorthand writers and no mechanical recording. I hope that when mechanical recording becomes more widespread it may be brought into the county court. The hon. Gentleman makes the very valid point that if there are weeks and months of delay evidence can be forgotten. It can be seen in the note of the judge, but the impression given by the witness is wholly gone. This should be avoided, and I hope that it will be.

Therefore, while we all welcome this move, there are problems concerning more judges and better organisation in the county court structure which, I hope, the Lord Chancellor's Department is studying with great care.

As foreshadowed by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), Clause 4 relates to a matter which we shall want to examine closely to ensure that the balance is maintained and that no plaintiff suffers, particularly in the personal injuries case which are such a vast proportion of the causes being tried.

Last Session, we had an unsatisfactory debate about the County Court Rules. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate, the Lord Chancellor has, in relation to the County Court Rules Committee, an express power of veto. But we also understand—but do not know, since complete explanation was not given last Session—that the Lord Chancellor purports to exercise a veto over the Matrimonial Causes Rules. These however, have the same basis as the High Court Ruples, where there is not an express veto by the Lord Chancellor but where, we understand, it is claimed that the Lord Chancellor's veto is implied therein. In that case, surely there is no need to have an express veto set out in the County Court Rules.

If the Attorney-General can assist us by clearing up, by a side wind, as it were, some of the unsatisfactory nature of our debate of last Session, we can learn whether there is thought to be an implied veto in the High Court and in the Matrimonial Causes Rules as opposed to the express veto set out in the County Court Rules.

Some of the provisions in the Bill are based on recommendations made long ago by the Evershed Committee. It is good to see in his place, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your predecessor in that post—the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher), who was a member of the Evershed Committee. I hope that he will be able to catch your eye later. The Bill was greatly improved by another place. There has recently been criticism of the other place, but those of us who know something of such Bills as this appreciate the considerable amount of work done there to improve them.

For example, when the Bill first came before the other place, the Lord Chancellor, on Second Reading, resisted what is now Clause 13. There was then no Clause 13 It was inserted in the Bill in Committee, when the Lord Chancellor accepted it. In my view, it has improved the Bill, since it provides that the House of Lords, in its judicial capacity, can review causes without the expense of a hearing—without any persons appearing. The cause can be decided merely on the papers. This can be done without expense and will be a good check upon the use of these powers solely by the judge of first instance.

I listened with interest to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about litigants who take their causes to the House of Lords having to be men of courage and wealth, but Lord Chorley, in another place, on behalf of the academics, insisted upon the importance of the Lords getting the law right even though it may be an expensive exercise. It would be interesting to have a study of how many litigants in the Lords or the Court of Appeal are either legally aided or are a great company or are supported by, for example, a trade union. I wonder how many litigants are unfortunate enough not to get legal aid, or do not have a great organisation behind them. It would be interesting to have statistics on this at some time to see how the problem bears on individuals.

In Part III of the Bill, we heard an example of the typical Treasury attitude when faced by the problem of wills for the mentally disordered, but it is obviously right that this provision should be introduced. Clause 20, in Part IV. dealing with interim payment where liability is admitted, is sensible. The other parts of Part IV are also sensible.

But in Clauses 21 and 22 we come back to the Rules Committee, about which we have had acrimonious debate. They give the Rules Committee power really to legislate. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this place should legislate and not a rules committee, however distinguished it might be and however eminent the lawyers sitting on it. If the Lord Chancellor has a veto over the Committee, one is, in effect, having legislation by a Minister in addition, and I have never thought that to be satisfactory either. We will want to look at these Clauses carefully to ensure that we are not giving to a committee, over which a Minister has power of veto, power to legislate.

However, in my view, this is a useful Measure. It is a reflection, of course, of the fall in the value of money, since £200 in 1938 is now worth £742, while £20 in 1846 is probably also worth £742 now. Even so, it is right that this adjustment should be made and that more persons should be able to bring their causes to the county court. I repeat my warning that the success of the Bill depends upon sufficient judges and sufficient organisation to ensure that the provisions can be properly carried into effect.

4.36 p.m.

Sir Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I, too, extend a cordial welcome to the Bill and congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government on having managed to include such a large variety of useful and desirable reforms, some more important than others, in this miscellaneous and comprehensive Bill. It would not be right on Second Reading to attempt to discuss more than perhaps two or three of the Clauses, but I have something to say on a few of them.

Before doing so, I want to refer to Part II, which outlines the "leapfrogging" proposals. As the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) has said, these Clauses received a great deal of consideration in another place and were substantially amended. The Bill in its present form, not only differs from the recommendations of the Evershed Committee, but also differs from the intentions of the Government as they were when it was originally introduced. I hope to be able to convince my right hon. and learned Friend that the Bill can be improved in one important particular.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, the provisions of Part II—generally known as the "leapfrogging" provisions—stemmed from the recommendations of the Evershed Committee, which sat from 1947 to 1953 and made a large number of recommendations for improving the practice of the courts and the administration of justice, and was particularly concerned to reduce the expense of litigation. I had the honour of serving on that Committee, together with my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Not the least important recommendation was that, in certain cases where it was realised that it was inevitable that a decision could only be reached in the House of Lords, a judge of the High Court should certify that it was an appropriate case to by-pass the Court of Appeal and to go direct from the court of first instance to the House of Lords, thereby saving the litigants involved a very considerable amount of expense.

We realised that a provision of that kind would be appropriate only in certain cases and that, therefore, certain conditions should be laid down to enable that procedure to be adopted. We proposed, as the Bill now provides, first, that there should be a point of law of general public importance; secondly, that it should involve either the construction of an Act of Parliament, or a Statutory Instrument, or that there should be a binding decision of the Court of Appeal, the effect of which would mean that the Court of Appeal would be bound and could give a decision only one way, whatever it might think of the merits; thirdly, that the trial judge should certify that the case was appropriate for going direct to the House of Lords. These three conditions are embodied in the Bill.

But the Bill now embodies a fourth condition, namely, that all parties should consent. This is contrary to the recommendations of the Evershed Committee and is, in my opinion, not only wrong, but will produce hardship and injustice. The matter was carefully considered by the Evershed Committee which, in paragraph 502(b) of its Report, said: We do not think it necessary that there should be a consent by both parties to the litigation, either before the trial or afterwards, at the time the application is made. When the Bill was introduced in another place, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who had signed the Report of the Evershed Committee, as I did, endeavoured to justify the change which he had introduced with these words: The Evershed Committee did not recommend one of those limitations, and that is that all parties should consent. I have put that in on the representation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Reid. He is apprehensive that the House of Lords, with quite enough to do already, might have too many of these cases."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 12th November, 1968; Vol. 297, c. 441.] Substantial changes have been made in Part II, and Clause 13, as it now stands, is entirely new. The original intention of the Government was that the certificate of the judge of first instance that the case was fit to go to the House of Lords should be sufficient. Objection was taken to that by a number of Law Lords in another place who indicated that they thought that the House of Lords ought to have some control over the number of cases brought under the "leapfrog" procedure.

This, also, was considered by the Evershed Committee. We pointed out that if, after a certificate had been given by the judge of first instance, it was open to either party then to go to the House of Lords, that would open the door to a great deal of additional expense being incurred—counsel being briefed and argument before the House of Lords as to whether the "leapfrogging" was appropriate. As the Evershed Committee reported, to permit that would go far to offset any savings which might otherwise be achieved by a "leapfrog".

In Committee and on Report in another place, a compromise solution was reached and that solution is now embodied in Clause 13. To obviate the expense of a hearing before the Appeal Committee of the House of Lords after a certificate is given by the trial judge, it is now proposed that the House of Lords should retain control over which cases bypass the Court of Appeal. Clause 13 enables the Appeal Committee of the House of Lords, on receiving a certificate from the trial judge, to grant leave or not as it pleases and—and this meets the objection of the Evershed Committee—Clause 13(3) provides that such an application should be determined without a hearing and, therefore, without expense

I am entirely in favour of the introduction of Clause 13. But the introduction of Clause 13 seems to me to make it quite unnecessary and irrational to preserve in Clause 12(1) the requirement that the consent of the parties to a certificate should be obtained. Let us examine what might happen. Let us take a case which it is eminently desirable should bypass the Court of Appeal, a case in which there is involved a point of law relating to the construction of a Statute or a Statutory Instrument, a case in which the courts are bound by a previous decision of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords and which is, therefore, exactly the kind of case which, to save expense should go direct from the court of first instance to the House of Lords.

In such a case, why should the consent of both parties be required? Either both parties would consent, in which event there would be no problem, or one party would oppose, either for good reason or bad. It is not unknown in litigation for litigants sometimes to have ulterior motives, and sometimes to put a less wealthy litigant to unnecessary expense. It is not unknown to take advantage of inequalities of economic strength as between one litigant and another.

I therefore take as my illustration a case which, pre-eminently, should bypass the Court of Appeal, but in which one party, for some reasons, chooses to oppose. The trial judge will be able to take account of that opposition. If he thought it reasonable, he would not give a certificate; if he thought that the opposition was unreasonable, he would grant a certificate. But that would not be final. With Clause 13, the House of Lords would have a final say in the matter and it would know whether it was a reasonable case to bypass the Court of Appeal.

Therefore, under the provisions of the Bill as we now have it, the provision, contrary to the recommendation of the Evershed Committee, that the consent of both parties is necessary, seems to me not only unnecessary, but calculated to produce hardship and injustice. For those reasons, I hope very much that, when we reach the Committee stage, an Amendment which I shall propose in that sense will commend itself to the Government and will not be found unfavourable in the House of Lords.

Having said that, may I now make two or three comments on one or two other Clauses? Proceeding in reverse order, I shall deal first with Part IV. I welcome the provision in Clause 20 that the court should have power to make interim payments. One knows only too well that, not only in running down cases, but in other cases, litigants often suffer great hardship by having to wait one year, two years, or sometimes more, before collecting, under the order of the court, the damages to which they are entitled following the injury which they have sustained.

My hope is that the rules of court to be made under Clause 20 will be sufficiently flexible and wide to enable the courts to take full advantage of these powers and that they will not be limited merely to cases in which liability is admitted and the only issue is as to damages.

I particularly welcome the revision in Clause 17, giving the Court of Protection, or a judge nominated on behalf of the Court, power to execute the will for a patient. For a long time I thought it incongruous that the Court of Protection should have the much greater power of being able to execute a settlement for a patient, a settlement being irrevocable, yet be denied the power to make a will, which can always be revoked.

That seems eminently desirable, Adequate provision can be made in those cases in which a patient for whom a will has been made subsequently enjoys a lucid interval, during which, the will made on his behalf will be brought to his notice and he will be given an opportunity of exercising his own discretion.

Part I deals with the extension of jurisdiction to county courts. I subscribe entirely to what was said by the Attorney-General. As a solicitor, I naturally applaud the provision in Clause 7, which, for the first time, enables a solicitor to employ another solicitor in a county court. It has always been the case with London solicitors. They can employ a county agent to conduct a case in a non-London county court. It has always seemed anomalous that a solicitor practising in one provincial county court should not be able to employ a solicitor in another county court where the case comes up. I have always regarded existing law on the subject as being a rather glaring example of a demarcation dispute and a restrictive practice. I am very glad to see that it is to be removed and that the learned professions are setting a good example to industry and the trade unions in taking an opportunity to remove restrictive practices.

Mr. Orme

And about time, too.

Sir E. Fletcher

I would like to go much further, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would support me, in two respects. On Second Reading one can mention matters not included in the Bill, Something has been said about the county court bench, and the necessity that will probably arise of recruiting to that bench. I have always thought that it would be very desirable that provision should be made to enable solicitors to be appointed county court judges.

I want to mention something contained in a dissenting addendum to the Ever-shed Committee, signed by Sir Thomas Barnes, as he then was, by Lord Crowther, as he now is, by Professor Marshall and myself. As long ago as 1953 we were of the opinion that one of the most obvious and perhaps one of the most likely methods of reducing the cost of litigation, to the general benefit of the public, would be if there could be fusion between the two branches of the legal profession.

I know that this is a controversial subject, but as we are on this today, it is appropriate to remind my right hon. and learned Friend of what was said then. We pointed out that It was ruled at an early stage of our proceedings that consideration of any proposals for fusion of the two branches of the profession was outside our terms of reference. We expressed the view … that the question of fusion ought to be considered forthwith by an appropriate body constituted for the purpose with appropriate terms of reference. The view is held by some that fusion would result in a reduction in the costs of litigation. Whether or not this is so, we do not know; but the division of the profession into two distinct branches is one of the most obvious peculiarities of our system which invites criticism and requires to be rationally and convincingly justified. I hope that after that absence of time the Govrnment might consider setting up a committee to investigate this subject.

4.56 p.m.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

May I, first, follow, very briefly, the last two or three remarks made by the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher)? I assure the House that this will not become an inter-union wrangle between both sides of the legal profession, but it should be remembered by those who think that costs will be reduced through fusion, that this is a most doubtful proposition.

It can also be said that, for the plaintiff it is equally doubtful whether it is to his benefit. I find it difficult to think that if we had partnerships of barristers and solicitors, and if a plaintiff went to a firm, that that firm would willingly say to the plaintiff: This is a case which we really cannot handle ourselves. You ought to go to someone else.

Mr. Doughty

What would happen is what happens in the United States. There are lawyers, or attorneys, who call themselves "trial lawyers", and who are much more expensive than barristers in this country.

Mr. Miscampbell

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend.

There would undoubtedly be a certain amount of specialisation. One of the great advantages of the present system is that when a plaintiff wishes his case to go to any court he can go to any solicitor, and that solicitor can get the best advocate in London, or anywhere else to represent him, without any difficulty.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the first few Clauses, dealing with county court jurisdiction. The county court is the familiar court for the overwhelming number of people who come into contact with the law, if one dismisses the criminal courts. For those dealing with civil actions, the county court is where they go to get justice, and it is there that they get their impressions of how justice is dispensed. I welcome the increase in jurisdiction to £750, and I note the reference to inflation made by the Attorney-General. Some significant figures were given in the other place. We have changed the jurisdiction simply in money terms from £200 to £750 and it covers very much the same kind of thing. That is true in strict money terms, but the ordinary litigant, who does not follow these things with the same mathematical precision as the economist, will find it rather more difficult to accept that his £750 case is not one that should merit the highest attention of the highest court in the land. It is difficult for him to follow the changes. There is no doubt that they will look upon their cases in the higher as of considerable importance.

It is likely that the Beeching Report, which we hope to have in the near future, will recommend tremendous changes in the county court jurisdiction. I shall be surprised if it does not. We have already had the Winn recommendation to go to £1,000, allowing for changes in accommodation and equipment.

Before coming to what I regard as the great needs in the county courts, I digress for a moment to follow up an intervention which I made while the Attorney-General was explaining the provisions of Clause 7. I accept that it is probably some time since the right hon. and learned Gentleman was briefed to appear in the magistrates' court, and he is fully excused for not being immediately apprised of the fact that, if a local authority wishes to recover a council house, the magistrates have no right to consider the merits of the matter. They must ascertain simply that the proper officer is making the request and that the request is made in proper form. If that has been done, the court must order possession in a very few weeks, if not days.

The Bill does nothing about that anomaly, but something ought to be done. I do not see why those who come to the county courts as tenants of council houses should not have the same protection as those who come as tenants of private landlords. There ought to be the same consideration given to them in deciding whether they should have to vacate their tenancies.

I have one other preliminary point to make which, judging by the noises earlier, several hon. Members opposite wish to make. It will be difficult, as the figure goes up—it is now going to £600—whether one should proceed in the county court or in the High Court. It is an increasingly difficult decision to make, and one must bear in mind that it is made on behalf of the unfortunate plaintiff by his counsel or solicitor. He pays the costs if the wrong decision is made. I do not know that there is much we can do about it.

I understand why it is necessary to make sure that people do not always start in the High Court—there would be some firms, I think, which would start every case in the High Court, for obvious reasons—but, on the other hand, the House should itself recognise the difficulties which may be put in the plaintiff's path and that of his advisers by the ever rising limit of county court jurisdiction, which, as I say, will in the near future be even higher than £600.

I come now to what I regard as the crying needs in our county courts. Above all, the need is for accommodation. I have already said that the county court is the familiar court of the ordinary civil litigant, the overwhelming number of people who have civil disputes, but so often they still have to go to courts which are totally unacceptable in this day and age. I hope that priority will be given to the provision of courts which are acceptable, bearing in mind the growing weight of business and the importance of the cases which are being heard. We are always asking for more Government expenditure, and I understand the difficulty, but the provision of better accommodation ought to have high priority.

There is also the need—these are, perhaps, lesser considerations, but important none the less—for at least a full circuit library. This should be a high priority in all circuits. Too often, on arriving at a county court, perhaps insufficiently armed oneself, one finds that one then has to trail round the local solicitors' offices and the rest to get hold of the appropriate authorities which have come to light, which have been mentioned or which appear to be necessary as the case proceeds. This, again, is doubly necessary now that we are raising the limit to £600 or £750—and, perhaps quite soon, higher still.

It has been suggested that there should be full electronic equipment for all county court cases to be transcribed. I suspect that that is beyond the possibilities of Government finance at the moment, but could not something much simpler be provided? Why cannot we have a simple tape recorder so that the one thing which is really necessary, the judgment of the county court, might be fully transcribed, if necessary. I cannot help regarding as unsatisfactory the system by which the judge's note, counsel's note or the solicitor's note, perhaps with the assistance of the note taken by the solicitor's shorthand typist who comes with him, are, as it were, all jumbled together to produce the judgment so that one may decide what happened some weeks before in the county court.

This is a fertile field for injustice, and I am sure that, for the expenditure of £40 or £50 per circuit, a machine could be provided for the county court judge so that the full judgment could be available, if necessary.

I turn now to another aspect of the matter which gives us concern. It has already been touched on by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ascot—[Laughter.] I beg his pardon. The elegance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) is perfect Ascot, but I know very well that he represents Epsom. We are constantly adding to the work of our county court judges. Frequently nowadays, they go to the criminal courts. At Middlesex Sessions, I understand, most of the county court judges have to do at least one or two months a year. Much the same is true in the large provincial centres, for example, in Liverpool and Manchester.

Every Act which we pass seems to call upon the county court judge in some way. I think that I am right in recalling that in the recent Commonwealth Immigrants Bill it was provided that the whole question of race relations should now fall into the county court judge's lap. That may not lead to a great deal of work—I hope that it will not—but it is true, none the less, that we are putting an increasing amount of work upon the county court judges. The Bill will increase it further.

The problem of adjournments, through no fault of the county court judge, can be very real. In the main provincial towns, the judge sits continuously so that a case may be adjourned and taken in the list the next day, but where a court sits for just one day and moves on round the circuit, quite important cases may be adjourned and have to be picked up again. We ought to try to stop that.

The Lord Chancellor's office tries to stop it. I know that it takes the trouble to find out every quarter what is happening; it secures a list of the adjournments and the sitting days so that it has the information. The Lord Chancellor's office is taking the trouble to obtain the information. I hope that it is acted upon, because it is a serious problem for a litigant having a case tried in the county court to the tune of £600 or £750.

The hon. and learned Solicitor-General has promised us for a year now that the Payne report would finally be produced. I think that it has now been produced. I hear that it may have arrived at the correct office, although we have not seen it yet. It will be a great boon if we can take away from the county court judge the endless and tedious business of judgment summonses which should have no place in his court. This would be one way by which we could remove from his shoulders a great burden and give him time to look after the much more serious matters which we are now putting upon him.

With those remarks, I welcome the Bill.

5.10 p.m.

Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, North)

We have heard a very erudite and interesting address from the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). In a sense he has made my task a little lighter, because he has drawn attention to some of the inadequacies of the county court procedure on which I intend to concentrate. I do not want this afternoon to talk about the Bill generally. Generally I think it is a good Bill which does some very useful things. However I think we have to have regard to the fact that it increases county court jurisdiction from £500 to £750 in claims. I do not object to that in principle, but I think we have to read Clause 1 in conjunction with Clause 4, and this penalises in costs a plaintiff who takes a High Court action where he could have brought a county court action. I do not necessarily say that this is bad in itself, but I think it might well be bad in one particular class of cases, those of the industrial injury type of case, a number of which will fall to be considered by the county courts in future if this Bill goes through unamended whereas they have hitherto been considered by the High Court, and I would like the House to consider the problem of those cases as affected by Clauses 1 and 4 and, to some extent, Clause 7.

I admit that it is quite possible to substantiate a major claim in industrial injuries on simple points of fact and law where the damages will exceed £750. On the other hand a claim may be for less than £750 and still be a substantial sum of money to a working-class family, and it may require complex points of fact relating to factory technology, industrial organisation, medical knowledge, and complex points of law, to be resolved. I think the general experience of those who have engaged themselves in industrial injury business is that the second class of case is more likely to occur than the first class, and it is this sort of case which shows the danger of arriving in the county courts, with all their inadequacies, at which hon. Members on both sides have already hinted, if this Bill goes through in its present form.

My simple thesis is that, as at present organised, the county courts cannot cope with complicated industrial injury cases, and that in consequence there will be a denial of justice in these cases. My right hon. and learned Friend said he was going to find it difficult to indulge in imaginative flights of Micawberism in his speech, but I think he introduced one when he drew a rosy picture of electronic equipment and masses of building material all descending on county courts. I notice that wisely he did not put a date for the realisation of the picture, and I think the House would be well advised to consider Clauses 1 and 4 with some caution as a result.

We also have to remember that most of the defendants in the industrial injuries cases are insurance companies. They have at their disposal great resources and expertise, and if justice is to be done, then countervailing expertise must be available to plaintiffs. It is my contention, therefore, that these cases are not very likely to become more simple as time goes on, but likely to retain their complexity.

I think the real criticism of the Bill is, firstly, that, whereas, for historical reasons, most of the work relating to industrial injuries is concentrated on the High Court at the moment, it is proposed by this Bill to take this work and disperse it and allocate it to a legal system which is widely diffused throughout the country. This will require a totally different attitude from that which has been hitherto. I find on my computation that there are 90 county courts and 110 registrars of county courts scattered throughout the country. This of itself will make life much more difficult than it has hitherto been.

For instance, interlocutory proceedings are not unknown in this class of work, and at present may involve only a fairly quick visit by counsel or solicitors, but in future it may well entail a day's journey from where they have their present offices or chambers. Claims for further and better particulars are not unknown in this type of work because of the complexity and importance of fact and law involved. These at the moment are dealt with swiftly and very often on a 1.30 summons or something of that sort. In future these may entail a lengthy journey and take up the whole day of a busy legal adviser, whereas at the present moment only a very brief period of time indeed is involved. This will apply even to cases referred to county courts in the Home Counties, but even more to county courts farther afield.

We have to remember that most of the people practising in this class of business are concentrated in one or two centres and so for them it will take an even longer time. We have to remember that, where hearings are in the county court, counsel, solicitors, medical witnesses and others are only, generally speaking, able to deal with one case at a time. At the moment, for instance, a medical consultant may be working in his chambers in Harley Street until the time he goes to give evidence, he can be summoned to the High Court, and give his evidence, and return to practise in his chambers for the remainder of the day. In future—and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) can speak with more feeling on this subject than I can—if the proposal in the Bill is carried out this same medical consultant will have to stay throughout a whole day, having travelled to some provincial centre, to give evidence for perhaps no more than ten or fifteen minutes, and the whole day of a busy man whose time is expensive will have been wasted. One has to bear in mind that the scale of county court costs is not as high as that of High Court costs, and one wonders where the difference between the money actually expended by these expert legal advisers and their medical and industrial witnesses, and the scale costs, will come from. However, these are all matters of organisation.

One then gets down to the question of the facilities of the county court. They have already been touched on by hon. Members. I think it can be said first that very few county courts have any consultation rooms, and none at all, to my knowledge, has any adequate law library. My right hon. and learned Friend, I am sure, will be fully seized of that point because he has probably heard many time the old adage that lawyers know no more law than anybody else, they just know where to look for it. I think that this point is of some considerable importance.

The question of shorthand transcripts has also been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). He raised it particularly in relation to the problem of an adjournment, where, if a case has been adjourned for several days, the parties concerned have to try to work out, as a result of their lengthy longhand notes or their rather inadequate memories, what was said on the previous occasion.

This is an entirely unsatisfactory basis. The problem possibly becomes even more acute when the question—

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

Is my hon. Friend not aware that if this proposal were adopted it might mean cutting down on time and that that would mean cutting down on the very heavy fees lawyers get, and that this, therefore, would be very badly looked upon by the legal profession outside and inside this House?

Mr. Moyle

I am sure that any cutting down of legal fees would be very badly looked upon by the legal profession. On the other hand, what I am primarily concerned about is the question of justice for lawyers' clients. As far as I can see. the proposal in the Bill is unlikely to improve the position, particularly in so far as it relates to industrial injuries cases. How much more serious would be the lack of a transcript or an adequate record when an appeal from the county court is being considered? The acoustics in many of these places may also be poor.

I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned some of the ways in which the legal education of county court judges is being improved. I hesitate to say that a county court judge's legal education needs to be improved, but it is fair comment to say that, because county court judges work in provincial centres, they are likely to be legally more isolated than High Court judges. They are likely also, because of the nature of county court work, to think more in terms of small sums of money, and when they come to deal with industrial injury cases their minds will still be geared to small sums of money, which might have a considerable effect on the amount of damages which they are inclined to award in these cases.

The rules of procedure for county courts are not entirely simple; some might even call them complex. What complicates the matter further is that different practices are adopted by different courts in interpreting those rules of procedure. This will make the work of those who have handled industrial injury business in the High Court and who are used to that atmosphere much more difficult when they have to deal with the myriad, 90, county courts throughout the country.

I welcome, in theory anyway, Clause 7, which makes provision for solicitors to appoint agents, but here we are up against a technical problem. A firm of solicitors which is used to dealing with industrial injury business and has operated in a centre such as London, with ready access to the High Court, may be able, in theory, to save itself considerable time and trouble, whatever might be said about counsel or medical and industrial witnesses, by appointing an agent to handle the cases in a county court. Here we are up against the historical facts of the situation. Very few solicitors likely to be appointed agents in these circumstances have had experience of industrial injury work which, by virtue of historical pressures, is so substantially concentrated in the major centres of population.

The county court was set up to deal speedily with simple matters on which no great principle arose and which involved small damages. Speed of litigation, which was one of the great merits when they were set up, does not work out in practice. I have details of a recent case where it took two months to get the proceedings heard because of doubt as to which of two county courts had jurisdiction. Eventually, a hearing date was given in January, 1967, but this was adjourned until February, 1967, and again to March, 1967. The case was then adjourned generally. Ultimately, it started on 2nd October, 1967, and continued to 1st December and again on 4th December. My right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt note the adjournment. The case was heard on 4th December only because the county court judge concerned was good enough to give up his holiday. Even then, judgment was reserved until a later date. I have other examples which I could quote, but the one I have given should convince the House that, whatever merits the county courts may have, they are not necessarily those of speedy litigation, particularly in a complicated industrial injury case.

Why is this being done? The Winn Committee Report gave no reasons. It may be because there is congestion in the High Court. Supposing there is; why should we not appoint more High Court judges and provide them with more courts in which to meet? Will it be lèse-majesté to suggest that a firm of management consultants, skilled in operational research, might be loosed upon the High Court to see whether their Lordships' administrative procedures might be speeded up? There are other ways of dealing with the matter.

No doubt the question of public expenditure will be raised. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, North has already said, public expenditure is difficult to come by, but public expenditure will equally be required if the proposal in the Bill goes through. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General was good enough to hint that substantial public expenditure would be required on the county courts in the not-too-distant future. I see he nods his head. So there is no question of saving public money if this method of solving the congestion in the High Court is adopted, rather than the other one of extending the facilities of the High Court.

The assessment of likely damages by the legal advisers to the plaintiff prior to the hearing of the case is highly complicated; it is an inexact science. It may well be that the case is started in the High Court for the best of reasons and then the case goes awry, the amount of damages awarded falls well below the £750 and the poor plaintiff is, as a result, substantially penalised in costs under Clause 4. Nothing could be more calculated to perpetuate the feeling amongst working-class litigants of the "them and us" attitude than that sort of situation. When a man who works with his hands, is injured, even if that work is directed by considerable mental skill, the whole future of his economic life is at stake. The House should go out of its way to make sure that he is not made to feel that he is being provided with second-rate justice at a poor man's court at this critical period in his life.

I therefore suggest that an exception be made in Committee whereby the industrial injury type of case can be excluded from the effects of Clause 4, and the choice left with the legal advisers of a plaintiff to take the case either in the county court or in the High Court, as they think fit. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider this point seriously in the interval, and that he will see his way to write it into the Bill before it becomes law.

5.29 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I share to the full the sentiments expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend, both in welcoming the Bill and in the notes of warning which he sounded.

I come straight to the first of the four Clauses on which I would like briefly to comment, namely, Clause 4. It seems to me to be perfectly clear from the interventions already made, both standing and sitting, that the House has serious misgivings about the Clause, and so have I. It is my view that, as a matter of principle, when we are considering provisions designed to penalise a litigant for an error of estimation made by his advisers, and when that error of estimation is in an area so inexact as damages, it is essential, both to the litigant and to the advisers, that there should be a reasonable cushion. I will not go into figures since I want to deal with the matter of principle.

Under Clause 4, if an adviser estimated that the damages would be £750 and, in fact, they were £600, that is to say, he was just 20 per cent. above, then his client might be penalised, because it is the client, not the adviser, who is penalised. I suggest that a margin of error in damages of at least 30 per cent. would be more reasonable, and that could be achieved simply by reducing £600 to £500. I appreciate that, beyond that, it is a matter for Committee, though I repeat that I share the misgivings which have been expressed about the Clause.

I turn now to Clause 5. I agree with the Attorney-General that the limits at the moment in respect of the equity jurisdiction which is given to the court under Section 52 of the principal Act are so small that very little, if any, of that kind of work is done in the county courts. I accept that that is a good reason for increasing it, say, to £1,000 or £1,500. Whether it should be one or the other would be a matter of judgment or opinion for discussion in Committee.

To raise it to £5,000 would be to revolutionise the equity jurisdiction of county courts. Not only would it bring in a little more of the comparatively small work, but a large volume of new work. After all, £5,000 is a substantial figure in relation to the kind of work specified in the relevant Section.

Many references have been made to the capacity of the courts to deal with an increased volume of work. My point is not simply on the increased volume, but on the different nature of the work. The Attorney-General may have had the advantage of seeing the memorandum submitted to the Beeching Committee by the Chancery Bar, in which the special features of Chancery work were pointed out. There are some very special requirements in the kind of work about which we are speaking under Clause 5. We have the judges, assisted by the Chancery masters, by the Chancery registrars and, anticipating only a little, by the assistant registrars, the latter being those who were clerks but whose work is so responsible that they are qualified men.

The Attorney-General said that curious things go on in that labyrinth. That is a graphic way of saying what was expressed more prosaically in the memorandum in these words: A great deal of responsibility in the interlocutory stages of non-witness matters falls upon the Chancery Masters, and in many cases a substantial number of applications are made in Chambers before the matter comes on for hearing. The nature of the case very frequently involves the making of a very complicated order which itself involves further applications in Chambers after the hearing for the purpose of working out the order. My query is this. In practice, is it possible to provide the 90 county courts referred to by the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) with the very special machinery required if a court is to deal with any volume of Chancery matters? Would it not be better to proceed with a little more caution? The recommendation to the Beeching Committee was that courts like the Palatine Court of Lancaster and the Palatine Court of Durham might be given increased Chancery jurisdiction so as to get some of the work away from London. I can see the argument for that, but would it not be more wise at this stage merely to increase the limit to. say, £1,000 or £1,500 so that the jurisdiction of the county courts to hear some equity matters would at least be more realistic than at present? Before going to the extent of raising it to £5,000, which would entail building up new machinery in the county courts to deal with the work of a new nature which would then come to them, would it not be wiser to await the outcome of the Beeching Committee and see whether the dispersal of this work outside London might not otherwise be better dealt with?

The third of the Clauses to which I want to refer is Clause 10, to which as yet no reference has been made either by the Attorney-General or by anyone else. In our usual habit, we are legislating here for a reform which necessitates looking at two different Acts and three different places to see what we are doing. In Clause 1, we say that in Sections 39 and 40, which are the Sections providing for the general jurisdiction of the county courts, the figure shall be increased to £750. In Clause 10, we are amending Section 192 of the Act of 1959 so as to give power by Order in Council to increase that jurisdiction. It may be said that that is something which was done already in the 1959 Act and that, therefore, there is no departure from principle. But there is a departure from principle, and it is an important one.

While it is true that, in the 1959 Act, power was given to increase the jurisdiction by Order in Council, the limits to which the jurisdiction could be raised were prescribed in the Act. As a broad generalisation, power was given to increase the jurisdiction by £100 or £150 by an Order in Council requiring an affirmative Resolution of this House. What is done in the Bill is different. One can see the argument for what was done in 1959, because it might have been said, "It is unreasonable to have to come back to Parliament every time it is desired to increase the jurisdiction by £100 or £150, so we will give power to do that by Order in Council, but we will specify the top limit to which the jurisdiction can be raised by that method."

Under Clause 10, there is substituted a power to raise the jurisdiction by Order in Council, but there is no limit on the amount by which the jurisdiction may be raised by Order in Council. I submit that it is wrong to say that there is a special reason for departing from the principle established in the 1959 Act. What is required is not that the power to increase the jurisdiction by Order in Council shall go, but that it should, as formerly, be subject to a top limit to which the jurisdiction can be so increased.

Finally, I want to say a few words on Clauses 20 and 21. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) has referred already to them and used the phrase, "giving power to legislate". As I read the two Clauses, they are giving power to the Rule Committee to legislate—not just to make rules—about the jurisdiction of county courts. If this were not giving a power to legislate beyond making rules concerning matters of practice and procedure, it would be within the powers of the Rule Committee already, and there would not be occasion to give this extra power.

I do not quarrel with the proposition that it could be useful for both the High Court and the county court to have powers to order interim payments in cases where it was clear that some payment would be made ultimately, and thus enable the court to see that the plaintiff was not kept waiting for money which was undoubtedly due to come to him in the long run. But I question the desirability of leaving to the Rule Committee the legislation necessary to implement that intention.

We make a very frequent practice here of delegating powers of legislation by Orders in Council. Then we have what are called the "grandchildren" Orders and the further delegation of powers by Orders in Council.

I appreciate that in some cases this is necessary for administrative reasons, but there are no such reasons here. If it is desired that the court should have this new jurisdiction, we should legislate upon it just as in the Bill we are legislating on other aspects of the jurisdiction of the court.

It is wrong for two reasons. First, this is a new method of delegating legislation, and any extension of that principle is to be deplored and resisted. Secondly, guidance is needed. Someone has to give guidance on what this new jurisdiction is to be. Simply to put it on the plate of the Rule Committee that it should legislate without being given any guidance, when that Committee is subject to the veto of the Minister, is undesirable in principle.

With those reservations, I, too, welcome the Bill.

5.41 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I wish to refer to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) concerning Clauses 1 and 4, particularly as it concerns the problem of industrial injuries going from the High Court, almost on a compulsory basis, into the county court.

The majority decision of the Winn Committee was that in certain cases injured persons should, in effect, be compelled to proceed in the county court and should be penalised if they proceeded in the High Court. The Winn Committee said that it thought this question was very difficult and that it had discussed it at length, but it did not go on to give any reason for that decision.

My reason for intervening in a legal debate of this nature is that I hope to put what I consider to be a trade union point of view to the House because of the large amount of work done by trade unions on behalf of their members in the courts, particularly concerning industrial injuries. We all deplore injury in industry. We should like to see it reduced to the lowest possible level. But, despite the safety measures, modernisation, new techniques, and the hazards with which people live and work in industry, injuries do occur. Some injuries are of a very serious nature and liability has to be resolved by litigation between what is basically the insurance companies and the trade unions.

To give an idea of what is entailed, I should like to read from the February issue of the Journal of the A.E.U. Under the heading "Legal Case Book", it states: During the month ended December 1968 our solicitors secured for members who had met with accidents, the sum of £138,682 representing 366 settlements. For the year ended December 1968 the amount secured was £1,921,155 in regard to 4,989 settlements. This was an increase of 720 over the previous year.

The amount of damages involved—about £2 million over a year—gives some idea of the amount of work which has to be done on behalf of a trade union. I am quoting one major industrial trade union, but this happens in many other cases. Therefore, when it is recommended that these matters should go into the county court, we should consider it extremely carefully.

The majority of cases that I have just mentioned were settled out of court. But certain cases had to go into court, for obvious reasons. They were contested cases and, therefore, had to be decided. The settlement of these cases lays the basis for other cases which do not go into court. I do not want to teach lawyers how to suck eggs, but this is the reality of the situation. Scales of compensation arise and these become the guide lines, official and unofficial, for damages.

Recently there was a case in the High Court concerning a single boy of 19 who lost his life. The court judged at that time that his loss was valued at £500. If that is so, when dealing with such problems as this, raising the scale will bring into this situation many serious cases.

Considering the legal representation on the Winn Committee, solicitors were not very well represented. Nevertherless, Mr. Robin Thompson, who gave a minority decision dissenting from the main recommendation on this Clause, said that, although he accepted many of the other recommendations of the Committee, it would be against the interests of a large number of people who would be forced into the county court to accept the proposals to raise the jurisdiction. In effect this would raise legal fees as opposed to the compensation which would be obtained. It would, therefore, cost more for the claimants involved. Speaking for the A.E.U., it would cost my members a great deal more to pursue these types of cases.

Apart from cost, important issues have been raised about the suitability of county courts to give such judgments. This has to be taken into account very carefully. I am not conversant with the everyday working of these institutions, but I was astounded when I investigated the matter at the lack of facilities available to them. Differing standards exist within these courts. They are not centrally situated. In the complicated business of representation of people involved in industrial injuries, whether it be on the docks, on building sites or in factories, evidence is required—for instance, medical evidence, which needs very careful examination—and these cases can take some considerable time.

As a branch official and shop steward in industry I have seen the beginning of these cases when the claim form has been filled up with the details of the injury. I have seen the great amount of work which has been required by the solicitors before they were able to put the case to a barrister if it had to go into court. They have to collect medical witnesses and other evidence in many cases. These cases, some of them extremely important because of the precedents that they set, can, therefore, have an overall effect on what might happen.

Why are these cases being taken out of the jurisdiction of the High Court? I think that my right hon. and learned Friend has a duty to tell the House the reason for this decision. Libel cases will still be heard in the High Court. Are they more important than the case of a man who loses his index finger, and is perhaps prevented from following his previous occupation? We are told that one reason for this change may be the amount of time spent on hearing criminal cases, and defended matrimonial cases. We are also told that a reason for the change is that the High Court is not able to deal speedily with these cases, that there is a large backlog of cases waiting to be heard. We are told that judges are under pressure. No one would deny that, but if that is the kind of problem confronting us, surely the answer is to appoint more High Court judges. I hope that the Attorney-General will consider that suggestion.

The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) spoke about the need for more county court judges and for maintaining the standards of those courts. Some people, particularly those who are not members of the profession, might say there is a need to improve them.

Many of us who have no personal interest in this issue are concerned to see that justice is done for the thousands of people who find it necessary to go to court to get their cases decided. I hear of responsible people saying that the High Court is the correct place for dealing with cases such as I have in mind. They take the view that only in the High Court can the people concerned be properly represented, and that it would be an injustice if such people were precluded from going to the High Court.

The Bill is designed virtually to force people to go to the county courts in specific cases, because if they go to the High Court and the sum they are awarded for damages is below £600—incidentally I do not know how that figure has been arrived at—it will be possible to claim expenses only on a county court basis. To my mind this is a dubious method of trying to force people to take specific cases to the lower court, and I do not think that this change is in the interests of justice.

Nobody has greater admiration than I have for my right hon. and learned Friend. I am sure that when he gives this matter further consideration, and when we deal with this issue in Committee, he will agree that it is right to give people the chance to decide in which court they want their cases to be heard. I think that giving a litigant and his advisers the right to make that decision is very important indeed.

It is of great importance to give those people whose only means of redress after an accident, perhaps resulting in permanent disablement, is to go to court, the right to choose the court at which they wish their cases to be heard. I think that it would be wrong to take action now which would prevent them getting the help they need. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider seriously what we have said, and allow the existing freedom of choice to continue.

5.55 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I intend, I hope as always, to make my remarks as short as I properly can. I therefore do not propose to repeat what was said by the hon. Member for Sal-ford, West (Mr. Orme), nor what was said by the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle), save to say that I agree with everything said by the hon. Member for Salford, West. I do not think that I can put the matter better than he did, and I shall therefore content myself with saying "Quite right".

There are further reasons why this type of case should not be sent to the county court, except in respect of very trivial matters. To do so will increase the delays, the overloading, and the work of these courts. I propose to deal with this more fully later.

There is another matter which I think I raised in an intervention during the Attorney-General's speech, when he was dealing with Clause 4, and no doubt the right hon. and learned Gentleman will deal with it when he replies to the debate. If I am not here then, I hope that he will accept my apologies. I have another engagement, which I have to fulfil, but I assure the Attorney-General that I shall read HANSARD with the greatest of interest.

Under the law as it is now, if a plaintiff has his damages assessed at a figure higher than the county court scale, but has them reduced by reason of his own contributory negligence to a figure below that scale, he still gets his High Court costs. As I read that Clause—and if I am wrong I hope I shall be corrected—if he gets an aggregate sum below the new figure he will not get his High Court costs. This provision will be a great injustice and will put on the plaintiff's advisers the responsibility of assessing, first, the amount of the damages according to the injury, and, secondly, whether contributory negligence will be found against the plaintiff, and if so to what extent. That will be an extremely heavy burden.

The Attorney-General

It is the gross figure.

Mr. Doughty

I accept that. I am sure that the Attorney-General will make sure that that is made clear before this Measure becomes an Act. Judges have to decide these matters on the wording of the Act, and it could be argued that the aggregate amount means the aggregate amount received by the plaintiff.

In recent years there has been a growing practice of passing legislation which is dealt with by county courts. There are a large number of landlord and tenant Acts, particularly those dealing with the Rent Acts. There are a large number of hire-purchase Acts. Judgment summonses, actions for negligence, and matters of that sort passed into the jurisdiction of the county courts. Equally important is the divorce jurisdiction which has been given to the county courts.

The Attorney-General knows as well as anybody in the House does that there is grievous complaint at the overloading of the county courts, with the consequent demand that they should do their work by appointing deputies ad hoc. In other words, there are not sufficient county court judges, by a long way, to deal satisfactorily with the work, and by "satisfactorily" I mean the proper expedition with which anybody who has had an accident can reasonably require that to be done. We must face the fact that it is long past the time when this should be remedied and there should be more county court judges. Their salary has not been increased for some years, and that should also be considered. I hasten to add that I have no personal interest in this matter.

The Attorney-General would also accept, I think, that one of the reasons why we are trying to shift work from the High Court to the county court is that the position in the High Court has been worsening. The Bill is partly due to the fall in the value of money and the growing congestion in the High Court, due to the fact that there are not sufficient judges, which is itself partly due to the fact that more crime is being tried with which High Court judges have to deal. At the moment, three High Court judges are sitting at the same time at the Old Bailey, and there are, I am told, only four High Court judges dealing with civil, that is to say, Queen's Bench, matters sitting in London, which is a ridiculous figure to deal with civil litigation.

When we have to pass a Bill appointing a sufficient number of county court judges to deal with this matter, it will be in the interests of the people that their litigation is tried reasonably quickly. Cases in the High Court are coming on five, six and sometimes seven years after the events complained of. I agree that one does not want to rush into litigation before a man to whom injuries have been caused recovers, so that one knows what he should be awarded, but these hold-ups in the lists of the courts are a scandal and a disgrace. I mean my words to be strong, because that is the proper description.

I agree that judges should be sent out to try crime, because it should be tried while the matters are fresh in the memories of witnesses, but not at the expense, whether in London or at assize, of a complete denial of justice to those who have civil actions to be tried. I hope that this will be dealt with properly and more or less immediately. I agree that the buildings are totally inadequate in many cases, but a good judge in a bad building is better than a bad judge in a good building.

Clause 20 deals with interim payments. As it reads—I agree that rules must be made under it—the judge could arbitrarily order a prospective defendent to pay the plaintiff interim damages almost regardless of the merits of the case. I do not think that that is intended, but that is what the Clause says. Plaintiffs have to wait far too long for the damages to which they finally become entitled, I agree, but to order a defendant who denies liability and is subsequently found not liable to make an interim payment which he may not recover after the court finds in his favour would be a grave injustice.

The "leapfrogging" procedure will not affect the vast majority of people. This is a legal necessity, possibly an attempt to make the law better on a small and, for a few people, very important point. But the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher) was right to say that one side should not have the power, by simply saying no, to block this procedure.

With regard to the hearing in another place, there are two objections to the proposal that there should be no oral hearing. One is that people who are refused their demands without even being able to give their reasons will, not unnaturally, always have a grievance. If the Attorney-General gives one side the power to object in the original court, that is all the more reason for an oral hearing in the House of Lords.

The other matters are mostly points of detail, better suited to Committee. I have raised what I thought to be the principal points of the Bill, above all those which have been overlooked, and particularly what the Bill's result will be. If the Bill is passed without those matters being considered, the present bad position will become even worse.

6.6 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Perhaps I may deal first with the controversial Clause 4—

Mr. Orme

It is always Clause 4.

Mr. Lyons

I am conscious that, in claims for personal injuries, there is a very wide disparity of estimate between different counsel as to the likely damages to be awarded. Only two or three months ago, I was in a robing room in the North-East where a barrister showed various members of the Bar a photograph of an attractive young lady whose leg had been damaged. It was a cosmetic defect, a scar. He asked a number of barristers what amount of damages they would award on the basis of admitted liability. My guess was £850. No one agreed. There were two Queen's Counsel present, both highly experienced in civil actions and one, not in the other's hearing, said £2,000, while the other said, with equal certainty, £150. When they were told of their differing estimates, they were shocked. This episode makes it clear that there is not yet consistency in estimating civil damages.

Therefore, if one brings a case to the High Court but gets less than £600, costs will be awarded only on the county court scale. It could happen that a plaintiff got £550 damages but costs only on the county court scale and, therefore, out of his own pocket would have to pay the balance between the county court and High Court scale and be left with only £300 or £400. That makes the question of damages and compensation even more of a lottery. The Government should think again about Clause 4; they should leave the £400 as it stands and not increase it to £600. The more serious the injury, the more difficult it becomes to assess damages with any degree of accuracy. In England, damages are assessed on a low basis. To obtain £700 in England, one has to be pretty badly hurt. Damages are far too low.

It is said that the Bill's purpose is to make the jurisdiction of the county court equal to what it was in 1938. In 1938, it is said, the limit was £200, which is now worth £742, so if the county court jurisdiction is brought up to £750 that will just keep matters in line. But in 1938 the registrar's jurisdiction was £10, so if that argument is used we should also make the registrar's jurisdiction £35—three and a half times—and not £75 as the Bill proposes. The Government, by using this idea of three and a half times, have plucked figures out of the air to justify the argument. They are using it for the county court scales but not for the registrar's jurisdiction.

It does not matter what has happened to money's worth; what matters is whether judges have taken account of the difference in the value of money. In 1965 the jurisdiction of the county court was raised from £400 to £500. To justify an increase to £750 in 1969 one should be able to show, not only that money has cheapened by 50 per cent.—which it has not—but, more importantly, that judges are now awarding 50 per cent. more damages for the same kind of injury as in 1965. That has not happened. In England today the standard amount for a workman losing an eye is still under £3,000. By increasing the jurisdiction to £750 there is an attempt to get justice more cheaply by taking a sizeable chunk of High Court work out of the High Court and putting it into the county court.

If we were watching the way in which damages have increased we should increase the jurisdiction from about £500 to, say, £550. We are increasing it at a far higher rate in order to lighten the load on High Court judges. It is true that county court cases are cheaper. That being so, there is an argument for saying that we must have justice more cheaply. That is a strong argument for increasing the jurisdiction to £750. I do not condemn the increase in jurisdicition, but we should be clear what we are doing. We are getting judges of inferior status to decide matters previously decided by judges of superior status. To get justice even cheaper, the registrar, who is a solicitor who may have had no experience of court cases, is given jurisdiction up to £75. That means that the registrar will be more burdened than before. He will be deciding cases no whit less difficult than those which come before county court judges.

It is entirely wrong to make the assumption that because damages, particularly in cases of breach of contract or rent, are low therefore the legal problem behind the case is simple. One may have a problem of the utmost complexity involving a case worth £50 in damages. To put this additional load on the registrar, who may not be equipped to bear it, is a retrograde step. It is simply a method of getting litigation cheaply, not only for the litigant but also for the Government. I cannot resist the feeling that in this Bill the Government have considered that a registrar is paid less than a county court judge and therefore we should let there be more registrars than county court judges and, because county court judges are paid less than High Court judges, let there be more county court judges than High Court judges.

The purpose of the "leap-frogging" procedure is to save money for the poor litigant because it is so expensive going through both the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. I completely fail to understand why this procedure does not apply for an appeal from the decision of a county court judge. If one appeals from a county court judge's decision, one has to go in the first instance to the Court of Appeal and then to the House of Lords. Surely the smaller the sum initially the more important it is to save money subsequently. Why should it be that if one takes a case to the High Court one may skip the Court of Appeal and go straight to the House of Lords, but if one goes to the county court one has to go both to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords?

I appreciate how this anomaly has arisen. When the Bill was originally drawn the idea was that the High Court judge was a sufficiently senior judicial official to decide whether a case should go straight to the House of Lords. He would decide it without check or hindrance from anyone, but in another place, as a result of objections, Clause 13 was injected into the Bill. It was said that it would be window-dressing because, even if the High Court judge agreed, the House of Lords, sitting judicially without a formal hearing, could throw out and refuse an application to by-pass the Court of Appeal. With the subsequent provision in Clause 13 it does not matter whether the judge who made the original decision to by-pass the Court of Appeal is a senior or a junior judge because the matter is taken out of his hands.

I should like to hear the Attorney-General justify the reasons why the county court judge cannot make this decision, subject to the checks contained in Clause 13—in other words the approval of the House of Lords—when the High Court judge can do so. Likewise, it does not matter that one party does not consent to this procedure. It did originally matter as the Bill was provided but now, in view of the existence of Clause 13, what harm could come if a county court or High Court judge decided in the face of objections from one litigant that the leap-frogging procedure should be eliminated? The litigant has his appeal through the House of Lords and when the papers are read the House of Lords, sitting judicially, will see from the papers that the litigant objected in the court below. Therefore, in themselves there will be a form of appeal. I ask the Government to take that into account.

Inherent in the Bill is the decision of the Government to maintain the Courts of Appeal. Some people believe that there should be only one. When people talk, as increasingly they do, of a shortage of high calibre personnel to fill judicial offices, it is worth remembering that the House of Lords occupies 10 or 11 able judges and there come before them throughout the year able counsel. If we had only one Court of Appeal there would be an additional reservoir of judicial manpower to be put at the service of that one court which would remain.

The Bar is often accused of maintaining restrictive practices come what may. It is interesting that no one who is not a lawyer has complimented the Bar today for not objecting to the Clause in the Bill which permits solicitors to employ agents. That is something which they could not legally do before. The Bar Council has made no objection. No barrister in this House has raised his voice in protest. The Bar is entitled to credit for not opposing a change leading to greater efficiency and equity. This is an indication that barristers are not motivated only by vested interests.

I congratulate the Government on including in the Bill provisions relating to interim payment by the court in damages cases. One hears of terrible cases where three passengers in a car are injured and it is found that either the driver of that car or the opposing driver has been negligent but, because there is an issue between the two drivers, the three passengers are left out on a limb without damages for three or four years. In the circumstances envisaged in the Bill those passengers may be able to get money on account. Breadwinners may be incapacitated for years and the standard of living of their families destroyed. The Bill is very humane in that respect. I congratulate the Government on this aspect of the Bill.

6.20 p.m.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I declare an interest in the Bill, because as a solicitor I have practised on and off for a number of years in county courts. I have great confidence in the system of county courts, and in spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), people do get justice there. They are properly represented, it is fairly cheap and there is not much delay. I welcome the increase of jurisdiction in equity up to £5,000. I feel that it should have been increased far more in common law as well. I should like to see an increase to £5,000 both for equity jurisdiction and for contract.

I feel that it is a pity that the Government did not take this opportunity to allow the appointment as county court judges of members of the solicitors' profession. The hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) said that the Bar has not made objections on the question of right of audience for solicitors by maintaining restrictive practices and I welcome what he said. However, I cannot see why every county court judge has to be a barrister. I have no prejudice against barristers but solicitors very often make excellent registrars, and I feel would often make excellent county court judges.

Recently, I appeared in the county court before a registrar who had been a local solicitor in my area. It was a complicated little case. He took profound trouble with it and gave a magnificent judgment, missing not a single point. It taught me that a solicitor with many years' practice in county courts behind him makes an excellent registrar.

Why should a registrar be limited to cases involving only £75? If a solicitor is capable of making a good registrar, he should often be capable of making a good county court judge—though not in every case, of course. It would be a tremendous encouragement to the solicitors' profession if they felt that just one or two among them, perhaps specially qualified, who had spent their professional lives dealing with county court work could be appointed to the county court bench.

I do not think that this would be resented by the Bar. I hope that the Attorney-General will be able to tell us that it would not be. It would certainly be welcomed by the solicitors' profession. It would also help justice because it would persuade more solicitors to make their careers in the county courts and to become experts knowing that they might one day finish up as judges. This idea has been canvassed before. I mentioned it myself in our last debate on county courts. I did not get a very hopeful answer then. On the other hand, I was not totally discouraged. Perhaps the Government have had a chance to think again. It is, of course, a matter for the Lord Chancellor but the solicitors' profession would be interested to hear whether the Attorney-General has anything to say about it.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. John Cronin (Loughborough)

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) will not expect me to go into his admirably brief speech on the question of appointing solicitors to county court judgeships. No doubt there is great merit in it but I would not care to express an opinion.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on the admirable and lucid way in which he explained the Bill, which is of rather a complex and scattered nature. I hope that he will deal with the controversial points perhaps more carefully in replying than he did when I intervened on the subject of Clause 4. I have every confidence that he will do so.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Clause 4 is always difficult.

The Attorney-General

We had that joke before the hon. Gentleman came in.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

It is the second house.

Mr. Cronin

I do not feel competent to go into matters of details which are really for hon. and learned Members and for those who practise as solicitors. But Clause 4 affects a large number of people with whom I have frequent and intimate dealings. I refer to injured persons who seek damages in the courts. I see a large number of these unfortunate people, referred to me by trade unions or solicitors, and it seems to me that their interests are going to be seriously prejudiced by Clause 4 if it is not amended in Committee, as I hope it will be.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend has taken careful note of the views expressed by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) and my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). Most of those who have spoken have shown some doubt and disquiet about Clause 4.

It seems to me that there is no general objection to raising the jurisdiction of the county court from £500 to £750. There might well be a case for raising it higher still. But what is a matter of serious doubt is that litigants should be forced to use the county court when they are advised, and have every reason to believe, that their case would be more satisfactorily dealt with in the High Court.

My right hon. and learned Friend referred frequently to the Winn Report, which made recommendations in the general sense of Clause 4. I am sorry that he did not refer to the excellent separate report by Mr. Robin Thompson, of the widely respected trade union solicitors, W. H. Thompson. Mr. Thompson's report should give great food for thought.

I believe that Clause 4 will be unfair to the plaintiff because it will cause him to receive less compensation for his injuries, it will make his compensation harder to get and it will make his compensation much more costly to get. I think that it is generally agreed that damages awarded in county courts tend to be substantially less than those awarded in the High Court for the same sort of case. Perhaps if my right hon. and learned Friend studies paragraph 434 of the Winn Report he will move further away from the usual conception. He will see that this is specifically referred to by certain authoritative bodies—for example, the Bar Council, for which I have great respect, as do most hon. Members. According to paragraph 434, the Bar Council expressed the view: Awards of damages in the High Court have tended to increase, whereas in County Courts they have not, and High Court Judges in any event tend to award more generously. The Bar Council could not be more authoritative on the question of county court damages.

I turn now to the evidence given to the Winn Committee by the T.U.C. I know that, in Government circles, it is not considered these days very "with it" to pay a lot of attention to the T.U.C.—

The Attorney-General

No, no. Come, come.

Mr. Cronin

—but the T.U.C.'s views on this matter certainly deserve serious consideration. According to the Report, the main criticism by the T.U.C. regarding the extension of county court jurisdiction was the low level of damages awarded in some courts and the lack of uniformity in awards. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will agree that there is a general feeling that, for the same injury, a plaintiff will get less compensation in a county court than he will get in the High Court. I cannot help thinking that this is an unfair situation. There is also a general feeling that even in the High Court damages are lower than they should be. This makes the situation even worse for the unfortunate litigant.

I will give an example of what can happen in a county court, and this is a distressing type of example. If one considers the case of a child who has been run over by a motor car—or it might be a young unmarried man killed at work; my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West referred to this type of case—it has been decided in another place that the appropriate damages for the loss of life is £500.

We will have the distressing situation of the parents of such a child—or it might be the parents of an injured young workman—having to queue in the county court to have their tragic case decided among many minor cases of, for example, hire-purchase default and minor disputes between neighbours. A situation like this is repugnant to hon. Members on both sides, but I fear that it will be the effect, from the point of view of damages, of Clause 4 as it stands.

The second point I wish to raise concerns compensation in the county court, which, I believe, will be more difficult to obtain. A substantial proportion of county courts are conveniently placed for plaintiffs. For example, in Manchester the county court is close to the assize court and, being in a central position, it is convenient for all concerned.

In some large centres of population, however—this particularly applies to London, where getting on for one-third of the population lives—it is difficult to get barristers, doctors who must give medical evidence and engineers who must give expert evidence to leave their offices, chambers and consulting rooms in the centre of the conurbation to go to a remote suburb.

In these days of intense traffic congestion this travelling may add hours to their work. In any event, the preparation of a case requires as much skill if it is coming before a county court as it does if it is going to the High Court. However, solicitors must make arduous journeys to remote suburbs, in addition to preparing their cases. I suggest, therefore, that it will be more difficult for the plaintiff to obtain his damages if Clause 4 is not amended.

My third point is to stress that it will be more costly for the plaintiff to obtain damages. It might seem that it would be less costly because county court costs, certainly for solicitors, are on a low scale—

Sir Donald Kaberry (Leeds, Northwest)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Cronin

—and, as the hon. Gentleman's affirmation indicates, there is a strong case for saying that they are too low.

The question of obtaining expert evidence is a different matter. The costs allowed, from the taxation point of view, in the county court are often derisory compared with the amounts put in by expert witnesses. Who must pay the difference? It is the unfortunate plaintiff or his trade union organisation. This situation is manifestly unfair to the plaintiff and sways the whole balance of advantage towards the defendant.

I put it to the Attorney-General in an intervention earlier that it was unreasonable to make the minimum jurisdiction of the High Court up to £600, whereas in 1938 it was £50 since, on the basis of the difference in the value of money, the appropriate figure would have been £185 Why is there this extraordinary difference? The year 1938 was not a time when the troubles of the lesser paid were given the maximum attention of the Government. It was not the most progressive time in our history from the social point of view. Why, therefore, has the minimum jurisdiction been increased by three times the 1938 standard? The only possible explanation—if there is another I trust that my right hon. and learned Friend will provide it—is that it is felt that more pressure should be put on unfortunate litigants to drive them into the county courts. If that is the reason, why is this increased pressure being imposed?

We must, in considering the severe disadvantages imposed by Clause 4 on the plaintiff and the advantages which it gives to the defendant, consider what sort of people we are discussing. The real defendants in the majority of industrial injury and running down cases are either large corporations or insurance companies. From the point of view of cases in court, they have, in effect, unlimited funds as well as people of the highest legal, medical and other expertise at their disposal, often on a permanent basis. I suggest that these are not the people who should receive preferential treatment, as will be the effect of Clause 4.

If one considers the average plaintiff—the person who is involved in a road accident or an accident at work—one sees that this person is likely to suffer considerable and prolonged unemployment which will probably involve him in acute financial difficulties. I am speaking of the average plaintiff and not of the very poor.

The average plaintiff does not know how to readjust his economic life to his straitened circumstances. He will probably not be able to pay his rent. He may be in danger of eviction. Probably he cannot keep up his hire-purchase payments, particularly if he has become unemployed through accident or injury.

It is not the Government's business to sway the balance of advantage in justice towards the wealthy defendant. If anything, it should go to the plaintiff, who is the most vulnerable, particularly from the economic point of view. I hope, therefore, that the Attorney-General, who is an extremely sensible and able man and who is sensitive to the views of his colleagues, will agree to amend Clause 4 to avoid these unfortunate effects.

It is reasonable, indeed proper, to allow more people to use the county courts who wish to use them. It is reasonable and proper to improve the facilities of our county courts to enable more people to use them. It is, however, the very reverse of justice to drive into the county courts people who will suffer serious financial disadvantage through that pressure having been put on them.

6.40 p.m.

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

I want to make short comments on three points in the Bill, starting with the increased jurisdiction of the county court. It sounds very reasonable to say that in 1938 the jurisdiction was up to £200, that the value of money has changed so that the equivalent is now £742, and that therefore we will increase the jurisdiction to £750. But I very much agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) said, and I have serious misgivings about the practicability of the step, apart from the question of justification.

There are many cases—personal injury, breach of statutory duty and others—tried in the High Court or at assizes in which less than £750 is awarded. Expert and medical evidence is called and the case can take a day, two or three days, and sometimes much longer. Where are the facilities in the county court for such a case to be tried in that way? I remember many times going down to county courts in my younger days and having cases adjourned over a long period. There is the problem of facilities; to try a case that will take some time, and there is the risk of adjournments.

We must also remember what has been said about the lack of transcripts and the fact that there is no law library at the county court. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, made the very valid point that damages are awarded in the county court on a lower scale than in the High Court, and the litigant, rightly or wrongly, often feels that the trial in the county court is second-class justice as compared with trial in the High Court.

We should also bear in mind that by increasing the jurisdiction we are placing another burden on the county court judges. The tendency of legislation in recent years has been to pile more and more tasks on county court judges. We do not have enough of them, and we have not sufficient facilities. I wonder whether we are not putting too great a burden on them. Although I acknowledge the argument about the value of money, we should look very carefully at the practical problem of the burden we are placing on the county court judges and see whether we are acting fairly to them or to litigants.

Having said that, I come to two points on which I very much agree with the provisions of the Bill. I consider that the most important, apart from the question of increased jurisdiction, are those in Clauses 12, 13 and 20. Reference has already been made to the provisions in Clauses 12 and 13, which deal with what has been called "leap-frogging". It is absurd that before a litigant can test the validity of a binding decision of the Court of Appeal on a point of law he must bring his action before the trial judge and then go to the Court of Appeal, telling both those courts that he has no hope of success but is merely doing it to bring the matter to the House of Lords, to test the matter there and obtain their Lordships' decision. Apart from the heavy costs, that procedure is farcical on the face of it.

It is true that in some cases it has been said that the House of Lords has the advantage of hearing the views of the trial judge and the judges in the Court of Appeal, but their Lordships have that advantage at the expense of the litigant. A strong case is made out for the provisions of Clause 12. Fifteen years have elapsed since the Evershed Committee recommended that change. Doubtless, thousands of pounds have been spent uselessly in costs in that period. They have been thrown away. I am glad that the present Government have at last seen fit to enact this provision.

When the Bill was introduced it contained a provision to leave to the trial judge the decision to go to the House of Lords. I saw considerable objection to that. Trial judges vary so much. I am glad that an amendment has now been made so that a decision can be made by the House of Lords. The only real objection to that was the question of costs, and that objection is now met by the provision that there is no hearing and therefore no expense in argument by counsel, and that the matter can be dealt with simply by the House of Lords looking at the papers.

I am rather attracted by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) about the possibility of extending that provision to a decision of a county court judge. That should be considered to see if it is practical.

I rather agree that there is objection to the provision that there must be the consent of both litigants. I do not know why that should be essential before the matter can go to the House of Lords.

I very much welcome the implementation in Clause 20 of the recommendation of the Winn Committee. Most of us at the Bar must be familiar with many cases where a plaintiff must succeed but cannot obtain any moneys because of protracted litigation. I know of cases where the plaintiff has had to depend on National Assistance whilst waiting for a decision—personal injury cases, accidents to passengers in cars, where the only matter to be decided is the quantum of damages, where there is a battle with one, two or more defendants as to liability. It is absurd that the plaintiff should have to wait, sometimes for years, to recover a penny piece. These are cases of real hardship, and the provision for interim payments is welcome and long overdue. I am glad that it is not restricted to personal injury cases, because there are many others where liability exists and a payment should be made.

Having made those criticisms, I welcome the Bill for its other provisions and support it, but I hope that careful consideration might again be given to the question of jurisdiction, which, as I have said, I view with grave misgivings.

6.47 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

The Report of the Winn Committee on personal injury litigation was not unanimous. The Committee was composed mainly of people from the legal profession, but there were only two people who had extensive knowledge of the legal side of compensation cases. One was Mr. Robin Thompson, who has extensive experience of trade union compensation, and who prepared a minority report, and the other was Mr. P. A. House, an insurance company representative.

There are many such cases each year, and a great deal of money is involved. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) mentioned a sum of £1 million in his trade union. Therefore, the trade unions are treating the Bill as very important. As is obvious from some of the speeches from this side of the House, many of us have been approached by the legal representatives of trade unions because they have grave misgivings about the Bill.

I have a vested interest. I am a member of the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians' Association, which does not have many accident cases, since its members work in offices, but in my constituency there are about 6,000 mine workers. There are frequent accidents, and the amount of compensation paid can be quite large.

The trade unions have had misgivings for some years about the existing law, feeling that the position is worse than it was in 1938, but we have learnt to live with the maximum of £500 being claimed in the county courts and having to go to the High Court for greater sums. Ninety-nine per cent. of the cases are settled out of court and the costs are agreed. This is an established and regular routine. It is always difficult to estimate the amount of damages which a court will award, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) said. There is always the opportunity to go to a higher court, with the union having to stand the difference in costs which could be awarded if the damages are less than 80 per cent. of the county court maximum.

In any negotiation or dispute between parties, tactics and bluff are obviously involved. I may be unethical in saying this, but in the trade union world we are rather blunt and we recognise that in negotiations and disputes people sometimes have to do things which they do not put into legal phraseology.

It is obviously policy for insurance companies faced with a claim to delay in the hope that, in the case of injury, the plaintiff will completely recover. It is policy for a union to call the bluff of an insurance company and issue a writ in the High Court, hoping that, in view of the excessive costs of a High Court action, the insurance company will settle out of court. I will not be dogmatic or adamant about this, but I am led to believe that quite a lot of this sort of thing has taken place in the past; so there is this sort of balance of power, with each side being aware of the extent to which the other side will go.

A change in the amount of damages the court can award will alter the status quo and give a little more power to the insurance companies than they have had. I will explain how. We are in favour of increasing the maximum award of the county court from £500 to £750. There is no objection to this. However, by increasing the maximum award we are also increasing from £400 to £600 the 80 per cent. award which must be obtained to qualify for High Court costs. If we settle for less than £600 in the High Court we shall be awarded only the equivalent of county court costs. This minimum is still maintained at 80 per cent.

Compared with the 1938 situation, this is a backwards step for the trade unions. In 1938 the maximum amount which a county court judge could award was £200. The minimum which a High Court judge could award was £50, or 25 per cent. of the county court maximum: there was a £150 difference. The £150 difference has been maintained, with the county court maximum at £750 and the High Court minimum at £600, but since 1938 the ratio has altered from 25 per cent. to 80 per cent. In other words, the decision whether to go to the High Court will now be much more difficult than it was in 1938, when the gamble was between £50 and £200. This will make High Court actions on the part of trade unions much more speculative ventures and will tend to deter trade unions from engaging in litigation. This will help insurance companies, because the bluff will not be as opaque as it was. There will be a tendency for insurance companies not to seek to settle in the county court but to want cases to go to the High Court.

The Winn Committee gave no reasons why it proposed this change. We are perturbed about it, for this reason. We should like concrete reasons to be given as to why the balance of power should Jean slightly more in future in favour of insurance companies and not towards trade unions. The number of cases proceeding to trial will increase considerably. There will not be the same urgency to settle out of court. With more cases going to the county court, there will be more expense for trade unions. We maintain that the need is for quicker settlements, not for more trials. Our view is that the Bill will lead to more county court trials and many fewer out of court settlements.

Clause 10 says that the figures can be increased by an Order in Council. I understand that such an Order can be opposed when it comes before the House, but it is nevertheless a process of gradualism which we might one day regret.

The case of Naylor in the House of Lords has been referred to. Mr. Naylor, who was 19, was killed in an accident two or three years ago. He left no dependants. The House of Lords, on appeal, reduced a compensation figure of £1,000 to £500. Using this as a precedent—I am not an expert in legal affairs, but I understand that legal gentlemen often use precedents—one can expect such a case to be settled by the county court in future, together with small-time actions such as those concerning hire-purchase debts, disputes between neighbours and so on.

There were no trade unionists on the Winn Committee. We do not demand that we should serve on such committees. We submit, however, that we have a legitimate complaint here, in that the decision whether to go to court will now be a much greater gamble and far more hazardous than it was for trade unions back in 1938. We hope that this position will be amended in Committee.

6.55 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

We are debating the Administration of Justice Bill. On Third Reading one can discuss only what is in the Bill, whereas on Second Reading one can discuss, not only what is in the Bill, but what one would like to see in it.

Mr. Speaker

Order—always provided that it comes within the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Lewis

Yes, Mr. Speaker. That is why I began by saying that we are debating the Administration of Justice Bill. I was about to say that I had hoped that the Bill would do more to assist in the administration of justice. If the Bill is enacted unamended, the position will continue that it costs a lot of money to go through all the processes of justice and to end up in the final court of appeal—the House of Lords. It is possible for a litigant to get assistance under the free legal aid scheme. I see nothing in the Bill aimed at improving the process of the administration of justice and making justice more easily available for the poorer type of person and for persons who, although poor, do not claim free legal aid.

The cost of justice and of the administration of justice is far too high. I suggest that one of the reasons for this is that there is nothing to restrict the amount of fees paid to lawyers. There is no such provision in the Bill. I am not surprised at this. A big argument is raised about another proposed Bill aimed at restricting the activities of ordinary industrial trade unions and preventing them from pursuing their legitimate activities in improving the standard of living of ordinary industrial workers; yet there is nothing in the Bill which will impose any restriction upon the fees charged by lawyers—solicitors.

There is, for example, no provision about refresher fees. I can go only on what I read in the Press. I have never been before a criminal court, but I read in the Press that refresher fees of 10, 15, 25, or 50 guineas are received. This Bill started in the Lords. Some of the noble Lords, I read, get thousands of £s per day in fees. I do not know whether before the introduction of the Bill it was thought necessary to ask the National Board for Prices and Incomes to investigate the extent to which the greatest closed shop in the country—the legal profession—should be brought within the scope of the White Paper, "In Place of Strife".

Mr. Awdry

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the whole subject of solicitors' remuneration has been referred to the Prices and Incomes Board?

Mr. Lewis

Of course I am aware of that. I was referring to the Q.C.s and other barristers who get thousands of pounds. There are many lawyers here, and I am trying to put the case on behalf of the litigants and ordinary industrial trade unionists.

I was dealing with the system of paying refreshers. I am told that barristers can get a refresher of as much as 50 guineas a day. I do not know what the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity would say if one of my dock workers. Jackie Dash or anybody else, were to ask for 50 guineas a day while waiting to unload a boat. I do not believe that Jackie Dash and his dockers would be allowed even to claim 50 guineas a day. It is this sort of thing which I want to be investigated, not so much the fees paid to solicitors, as the money which is paid to the legal fraternity in the courts.

Mr. Miscampbell

Will the hon. Gentleman help the House by saying whether he thinks that the £1,000 and the 50 guinea refreshers which he has mentioned are particularly applicable to the county court?

Mr. Lewis

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was listening. I began by saying that this was called the Administration of Justice Bill, and I was saying that many things could have been included which have been omitted. I was explaining that it would assist the administration of justice if the Bill included a provision to prevent these not poorly paid gentlemen of the legal fraternity from getting thousands of pounds per year and sometimes hundreds of pounds per day when the ordinary farm worker is told that his 17s. per week increase is being held up, even though it has been approved by the Prices and Incomes Board.

Such a provision would be politically very popular among industrial workers and in the trade union movement generally. Justice would not only be done, but would be seen to be done. These highly-paid legal luminaries should be brought within the scope of the prices and income legislation. If they were covered by, for instance, the White Paper "In Place of Strife"—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may deal with the White Paper "In Place of Strife" when we debate it.

Mr. Lewis

I was saying only in passing that I thought that some such provision should be included in the Bill.

The Bill provides for an increase in clerical staff and fees in the London area. It is Government policy to stop more staff from coming into London. It is difficult to get industrial workers in London and in the South generally and it is suggested by the Government that recruiting in the South-East should be kept to a minimum. However, the Bill provides for more officers, although we do not know exactly how many. It proposes that there should be additional registrars who are to receive £4,500. Who settled this figure? Was it referred to the Prices and Incomes Board, or discussed with the Trades Union Congress?

The point I am trying to make is that a different scale of judgment is applied to the lower-paid industrial workers. Immediately they ask for increases, action is taken, but when it comes to the legal fraternity, from High Court judges down to ordinary barristers, there is not the same anxiety to restrict incomes.

I am also concerned about the time taken by the courts to deal with cases. I have just read of one case which has taken 12 months to complete its committal stage. It will be another 12 months or two years before the case can be tried. If there were these delays and this terrific waste of time in engineering workshops, there would be uproar. One reads of courts meeting, adjourning for a day, returning for a day, going into recess and standing adjourned.

The administration of justice would be assisted if the courts met more frequently and for longer periods and perhaps for more weeks in the year. One regularly reads of many cases being held up and yet last August or September, when I went to see how the courts were getting on and visited the Old Bailey, I was told that the court was not meeting and was in the long adjournment. Why is it necessary to have a long adjournment?

Sir P. Rawlinson

The hon. Gentleman said that he went to the Central Criminal Court and found that it was adjourned; that was not true.

Mr. Lewis

I did not say the Old Bailey.—[HON. MEMBERS: "You did."]—In that case, I was not correct. I meant the Law Courts in the Strand.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Interventions prolong speeches.

Mr. Lewis

This was at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and I was told that the court was in recess. Four o'clock is not a reasonable time to pack up. It seems reasonable for the courts to sit until 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock. I am told that they usually start sitting at about 10 o'clock or 10.30, but 9 o'clock would be more reasonable. Fridays could also be used from 9 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock or 7 o'clock at night to get cases finished. We are told that there are arrears of cases and I am talking about overtime.

In the engineering industry and in industry generally, if there are arrears of work which cannot be handled in normal working hours, the "guv'nor" or foreman explains that there are arrears of work which have to be cleared and he suggests that, instead of finishing at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock as normally, the men should stay on until 7, or 8, or 9 o'clock to get the work finished. Has such a system been considered for the courts so that they will sit on Friday nights and other nights to get these cases cleared? If we are to have administration of justice carried out speedily and on a scale which people can afford these are suggestions which might recommend themselves to my hon. and learned Friends and the Attorney-General.

There is also the question of the closed shop. We heard much in the Donovan Committee's Report about this. Has the Attorney-General examined this? It says in the Bill that a solicitor can get an agent. Should it not be made easier for ordinary people to go into the courts, without having ot have lawyers, barristers, Q.C.s, solicitors—

Mr. Weitzman

They can do that at present.

Mr. Lewis

That is quite right, but it is not the impression given to the general public. The ordinary person does not know that he can do this without incurring the very heavy expense of legal fees. Why should it be that a person can win a case, be awarded damages yet find that he is out of pocket after paying legal costs? In my view, legal costs are far too heavy. Some action may be taken, perhaps in Committee, to make justice cheaper for litigants, so that this does not happen.

7.12 p.m.

The Attorney-General

With the leave of the House, I should like to deal with some of the matters raised in debate. I will resist the temptation to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) who has enjoyed his ride upon so many of his favourite hobby horses. He has rightly said that this Bill is concerned with the administration of justice. Whether that would be best served by a judge sitting from 9 o'clock in the morning until 7.30 at night is a matter that I would venture greatly to question.

A number of matters raised in the debate would be happy and fascinating subjects for discussion, perhaps on another occasion. There are such subjects as the merits or demerits of fusion of both branches of the legal profession. My own view is that the specialist service supplied by the Bar justifies its separate existence. It is a service to the public, who would be deprived if that service ceased to exist.

There was an interesting discussion upon the entitlement of county court judges to be drawn from the ranks of the solicitors' profession. Into that controversial theme I do not propose to enter in a debate on this Bill. I have urged, and I know that steps are being taken in that direction, that there should be easier transfer between the two branches of the profession. This will go some of the way, at any rate, to reduce the frustrations which some solicitors may feel about the present arrangements.

I come to the main issues to which the Bill gives rise. I should like to say how glad I am that the House has given a general welcome to the Bill, which undoubtedly introduces valuable changes in the administration of justice of assistance to the litigants. This applies whether or not he appears in person—and the vast mass of litigants do appear in person, per-haps not to their advantage, which is why we have the enormous extension of legal aid in this country. We have the finest system of legal aid in the world, and it is something of which we ought to be proud. It is an important social service, which has no equal in any other part of the world. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North will rejoice in the thought that Administrations since the war, and particularly Labour Administrations, have taken such an active part in extending legal aid.

But I am falling into the very temptation I tried to resist—of pursuing interesting matters which have been raised. The main dissatisfaction expressed during the debate about the Bill undoubtedly arises over Clause 4. I have listened carefully to the criticism made by experienced trade unionists like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). I have heard the criticism from a respected surgeon and experienced lawyers who have expressed their anxieties about the sanction provisions in the Clause. All I can say at this stage is that I will see that most careful consideration is given to the objections that they have raised.

The proposed limits bring the figures in line with the decline of the purchasing power of the £. Proportionately at any rate, they do no more than that. The object of the sanctions is to encourage the bringing of proceedings in the county courts, where that is the appropriate court. I have been asked a number of questions about the possible effect of this increase in the jurisdiction of the county courts, upon the work of those courts. It is not easy to assess what the effects will be. If the jurisdiction of registrars of county courts was not increased, we should undoubtedly need more judges. The House will have noted that the registrars' jurisdiction will be increased, possibly in two stages, from £30 to £75. This will save a great deal of the judges' time. It may be that the increase in jurisdiction and the volume of work in the courts may require, and entail, an increase in the number of county court judges.

There are now 95 in post and the statutory maximum is 97. That number can be increased, under the Administration of Justice Act, 1968, by Order in Council, subject to affirmative Resolution.

A great deal of criticism has been made, much of it well-directed, against the difficulties being faced through the lack of facilities, buildings, scientific equipment, libraries and so on in the county courts. There is a very great backlog to be dealt with here. Unfortunately the restrictions are those of finance. More county courts are being opened. I opened one in Worthing not very long ago. It is impressive what facilities are provided in these new courts. As to the organisation of the work of the county courts, this is something to which we should be paying attention all the time, because I agree that it is deplorable that there should be a series of adjournments of the kind described by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewis-ham, North (Mr. Moyle). It is frustrating for everyone concerned. But Clause 9(2) will at least facilitate the transfer of substantial cases to central courts where better arrangements can be made for them to be heard. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West, who has made a particular point on this matter, that the provision of recording facilities is being actively considered and experiments are now being conducted in county courts on the perimeter of London. We are doing what we can in that regard.

Proceedings in the county courts are less costly than those in the High Court, and to this extent the position of trade unions appearing for injured workmen will be eased. But I assure my hon. Friends that I take careful note of the point on sanctions which they raised. On the face of it, the transfer of jurisdiction will result in a considerable reduction in the costs to both parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) spoke of the difficulties which arise in the assessment of damages. He gave a vivid account of the estimates of what a young lady with an injured leg ought to recover in the courts, those estimates varying from, I think he said, £150 in one case to a Q.C.'s estimate of about £2,500; he must have been very susceptible. However, the range is enormous, and I agree that there are the difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred. The House will wish to know that the Law Commission is examining the problem of assessment of damages with a view to recommending how they can be better assessed. I entirely agree that this is a field of study needing further and urgent consideration.

The hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) raised the question of the proposed equity jurisdiction for the county court. The plaintiff is not compelled to bring a case involving not more than £5,000 in the county court in Chancery matters, and costs sanctions do not apply to equity cases. The defendant may ask the High Court to remove a case started in the county court to the High Court. The hon. and learned Gentleman raised one or two other matters as well which we can deal with in Committee in due course.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher) raised questions about the "leap-frogging" provisions of the Bill. As he said, the Evershed Committee said at paragraph 502 of its Final Report that it imagined that in the great majority of cases the "leap-frog" scheme would operate with the consent of the parties. By making this a condition of the scheme, it is possible to ensure that the House of Lords is not flooded with "leap-frogging" applications. I think that this was the basis of the anxiety expressed in another place by several Lords of Appeal. If consent by both parties were not required—I invite my right hon. Friend to consider this—a powerful litigant might try to intimidate his opponent by asking to go direct to the House of Lords. Some right of appeal would have to be given against the grant of a "leap-frog" certificate in these circumstances and the resultant expense might counteract some of the advantages of the scheme.

There were other matters raised during the debate which, I suggest, would be more appropriate for discussion in the Committee. I repeat my thanks to the House for its welcome to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).