HC Deb 16 June 1969 vol 785 cc205-14

11.55 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Arthur Irvine)

I beg to move, That the County Court Judges (Maximum Number) Order, 1969, a draft of which was laid before this House on 15th May, be approved. The maximum number of county court judges, which was fixed at 80 by Section 4(1) of the County Courts Act, 1959, was increased to 90 by Section 5(2) of the Administration of Justice Act, 1964, and increased to 97 by Section 1(1) of the Administration of Justice Act, 1968. Section 1(2) and (3) of the Act of 1968 enables this number to be further increased by Order in Council, provided that a draft of the Order is laid before Parliament and approved by Resolution of each House.

The purpose of the Order is to increase from 97 to 105 the maximum number of county court judges authorised by the Act of 1968. The work of the county courts has increased so rapidly during the last year that it has been necessary to increase the number of county court judges to the authorised maximum number of 97. This number, however, includes one county court judge who, at the earnest request of the Government of Uganda, has been seconded for two years from March 1969 to the High Court Bench of Uganda to assist that country at a stage of its development when the Government of Uganda were anxious to have the benefit of an experienced English judge. The cost of the salary of the judge seconded to the High Court of Uganda is met partly by the Government of Uganda and partly by the Ministry of Overseas Development.

In spite of this increase in the number of county court judges, it was necessary to appoint members of the Bar and retired judges to sit as deputy judges on 1,000 occasions in 1968 to relieve congestion in the courts. This compared with 811 appointments in 1967 and 587 in 1966.

The business of the county courts continues to increase, and this, together with the need to reduce the number of occasions on which deputies are appointed, makes a further increase in the maximum number of judges authorised by Parliament unavoidable. The county court judges, with the assistance of deputy judges, disposed of 29,888 county court actions and 36,778 divorce petitions in 1966; 32,567 county court actions and 42,298 divorce petitions in 1967; and 33,978 county court actions and 45,527 divorce petitions in 1968. The latest information from the county courts indicates that this trend is continuing, and the House will observe that these figures reveal a steady increase in the volume of business.

In the last few years it has been my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor's policy to use the county court judges to an increasing extent as deputy chairmen of Greater London Sessions as well as Commissioners in the Crown Courts of Liverpool and Manchester, and many county court judges sit in rotation at these courts. This work, in effect, now occupies the time of ten judges, six in London and four in Lancashire. It is only in these areas that there is statutory provision for the recovery of the judges' salaries from the local authorities who are responsible for their remuneration. The appointment of deputies from time to time is inevitable, but their appointment on the scale which I have indicated cannot be justified. Furthermore, it is not easy to find well qualified members of the Bar to sit as deputies and their appointment on so many occasions in 1968, when the number of occasions was a thousand, involved a great deal of administrative work.

A study of the trends in county court and divorce business suggests that the increase in both classes of business is still continuing at a fairly steady rate and that some increase in the number of judges would be needed during the next two years if delays, or the appointment of more deputy judges, are to be avoided. In proposing that the authorised number of judges should be increased from 97 to 105, my noble Friend has taken into account this trend in county court and divorce business, and the effects, so far as they can be predicted, of increasing the county court jurisdiction under the Administration of Justice Bill now before Parliament from £500 to £750 in the general jurisdiction and, coupled with that, the relief which will be given to the county court judges by increasing the registrars' jurisdiction.

The Lord Chancellor also has in mind that, if the Divorce Reform Bill now before Parliament is passed, its provisions will add somewhat to the work of the judges; but, on the other hand, when effect is given to the recommendations of the Payne Committee on the Enforcement of Judgment Debts, there should be a useful reduction in the county court judges' work.

It is always hard to predict the course of judicial business, and, in fact, complete figures for the work of the courts during 1967 were not available when it was decided that the maximum number should be fixed at 97 by the Act of 1968. It was not apparent until after the passing of that Act that the county court and divorce business was increasing so rapidly, nor that the maximum authorised number of posts would be filled so soon.

The Lord Chancellor has given most careful consideration to this question and, having regard to the considerations I have outlined, has come to the conclusion that it is reasonable and best to fix the number at 105. Having given this background, I commend the Order to the House.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

We welcome what is proposed in this Order, and it may be that we shall receive substantial and sophisticated advice as to how we can now arrange our system for the determination of cases and, in particular, how we can ensure speedier determination of them. One thing which is always clear in this kind of discussion is that if there is an insufficient number of judges to do the work there must follow avoidable delays. The increased pressure of work in the county courts requires an increased number of judges, and with that we agree.

Our one slight concern is that this modest increase by eight may already have been overtaken by events. Is eight really enough to remedy the difficulties? It may be overtaken, and overtaken very quickly, as a result of the operation of the Bills to which the learned Solicitor-General has referred. The passage of those two Bills may well result not only in there being an additional number of cases but more substantial cases which could well make much greater demands upon the judges' time.

I therefore express the hope that the Lord Chancellor will not hesitate to use to the full, and at an early date, the powers given by the Order or to come forward with proposals for a further increase in the number if it is found that this increase does not meet the situation. I mean no discourtesy or criticism in what I say; but it is very easy, by being too careful in this sphere, to be overtaken by events and always to be behind them. For instance, if it was still found necessary to use deputies on any substantial scale after the Order has been implemented, we would hope that the Lord Chancellor would not hesitate to take further action, because he could rest assured of our support. In particular, we hope that he will not be deterred by the Treasury from so doing. I am glad to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It may be that there are attractions in meeting the situation by the method which involves the least cost; but that approach should be adopted with extreme caution in this sphere.

We all respect the deputies and the work done by them, but we should all agree—and I am happy to infer from what the Solicitor-General said that this is his view—that it is wrong, so far as concerns the deputies themselves and the public, to use deputies, save to meet particular temporary situations. We feel that it can never be an extravagance in our society to provide the necessary number of judges. It is a false economy not to do so. Accordingly, we welcome the Order and hope that full and speedy use will be made of the powers which it confers.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

I wish to speak briefly in support of what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) has said about the danger that in the Order we may not be making adequate provision for the excessive duties that we are putting on county court judges.

The Solicitor-General has told us that the Order increases overall the number by eight. Taking some of the other figures given to us by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I understand that in 1968 there were 1,000 judge days, if that is the right phrase, on which deputies sat in the county court.

Speaking for myself, in an area where the county court has helped to staff the Crown Courts of Manchester and Liverpool, the increase in the number of deputies is becoming alarming. It is no disrespect to one's friends at the bar, who sit from time to time as deputies, to say that we have reached a stage where it is becoming almost a day to day occurrence rather than an exceptional occasion when a deputy sits.

Taking the Solicitor-General's figure of 1,000 judge days, assuming the county court sits for 40 weeks a year, five days a week, which I think is about right, it means that the time of five judges is taken up in merely meeting the demand for deputies over the previous year. I wonder what provision or what thought the Solicitor-General has given to the increase in the amount of work that the raising of the limit to £750 will make. My feeling is that it will make a substantial difference. One cannot say that the kind of cases now going into the county court will mean a reduction of judgments debts. A case involving £600 or £700 is likely to be fought out and take a considerable time. Even the increase from £400 to £500 meant more lengthy cases in the county court. The same comment applies to the potential increases which the Solicitor-General sees with the rate of divorce.

Rather than have an almost annual Order to increase the number of county court judges, I hope the Solicitor-General is satisfied that this Order means that he will not have to come back in a few months' time to increase the number yet again. Whilst an increase of this kind is necessary, I fear that the maximum number will rapidly be met, and there will not be the necessary allowance for further work.

As has been said, in the county courts we get justice on the cheap. Those who are critical of judges should realise that it is the cheapest form of justice that it is possible to get, and that any provision for a few extra county court judges is a very small price for the country to pay for the provision of speedy justice in the county courts.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

I agree with many of the remarks of the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). When judges are necessary they should be appointed, and it is fair to say that the more one has the quicker litigants have their cases tried.

What concerns me is the piecemeal nature of the Government's policy about appointments. Last year we were here with the Administration of Justice Bill. We were told that there would be seven new county court judges, but it was not expected that they would all be appointed at once. Here we are a year later with another eight on the stocks. I wonder to what extent the Government are engaging in forward planning or in an analysis of the situation in the county courts to see what the long-term situation will be.

Are the Government considering, too, what view they take about specialisation? For example, many county court judges act in the criminal courts as well, and I suppose one way to save extra county court judge appointments is to ensure that county court judges stick to their county courts. I am not suggesting that county court judges are not able criminal tribunals. Indeed, the county court judge of Leeds, Judge McKee, is not only an exceedingly able county court judge, but also a very able and humane chairman of the West Riding Sessions at Wakefield. Nonetheless, there may be an argument, contrary to the prevalent fashionable belief in legal circles, that civil judges should stick to civil cases and criminal judges to criminal cases.

That leads me to the question of deputies. In criminal matters we have no objection to part-time assistant recorders and deputy chairmen. We say that this is good because it enables them to get judicial experience, and therefore it is not wholly a bad thing that barristers should from time to time do a little part-time work as deputy county court judges to familiarise themselves with the mysteries of judgment summonses, and so on. I argue that it is not very serious if to some extent deputies are used. Nonetheless, I agree that there comes a time when deputies are used too much, and then more judges are required.

I agree that the Divorce Reform Bill, when it becomes law, will require more judge time, and that therefore more judges will be necessary to cope with it, but this will be for only about two years. The Divorce Reform Bill is really copied from Australian and New Zealand practice, and their experience was that there was a big rush for divorces for two years when all the people who had not been able to get divorces were at last able to get them, and thereafter things went back to normal. So I hope that the Government do not believe that it needs a great many judges to cope with a permanent flood, because this is not so.

I hope that they will also give some thought to the way in which they select the new county court judges. The Lord Chancellor's Department chooses judges after consulting High Court judges, Queen's Counsel and leaders of circuits. County court judges should operate locally. The normal practice—at any rate in the north-east—is to choose them from barristers practising in the area of the county court. If a few junior counsel were consulted, better county court judges might be selected. Queen's Counsel and High Court judges are often out of touch with the needs of a region and the peculiar qualities required of a county court judge can often best be considered and decided by his brother junior counsel using courts in the area. So I hope that, in all future judicial appointments, the Lord Chancellor of the day will consider consulting junior counsel as well. We might get a better judiciary as a result.

I agree that the pressure on the judiciary makes these extra judges necessary. I only hope that, in a year's time, we will not be here again at this time of night, dealing with a further demand. Have the Government considered what the Beeching Report will have to say? If it says that county court judges should have much more to do with trying criminal cases, eight new judges will be nothing at all. On the other hand, if it says that no county court judge should deal with a criminal case, we may not need these extra eight. Have the Government seen the Report? Are these recommendations based upon their consideration of it? Perhaps the Solicitor-General will tell us about that.

12.18 a.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

I speak as one who at one time was a deputy county court judge. Anyone who has studies these matters will agree that there is considerable need for an adequate number of judges. I do not entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival). There has been a nice friendly discussion, in which everyone seems to agree, and I am anxious that this matter should be looked into with great care.

That does not mean that I am necessarily against this proposal. The whole question of county court circuits should be considered in the light of the changed population and the changed degree of work. I feel in something of a vacuum, because we do not have the information about this. Before one can give a clear judgment about this, one wants to be certain that all county court judges are pulling their weight in the administration of justice.

I am aware, as I practise in Liverpool, that the Liverpool and district county court judges are of inestimable value to the Crown Court. Indeed, I doubt whether that court would be able to achieve its present disposal of criminal business if it were not for the county court judges who sit assisting the recorder. However, this does not seem a satisfactory arrangement. If the needs of the criminal administration of justice are such, it does not seem right that the matter should be dealt with by the appointment of appropriate members of the Bar to assist the recorder. However, rather than say that the county court judges are misemployed, I suggest that they are not employed for their original purpose.

Generally speaking, it is undesirable to have deputies because it is not satisfactory to have serving somebody who is not really a county court judge. We should, therefore, if it is necessary, have as many judges as are appropriate. I am concerned about this because I suggest that the time has come when the whole question of the amount of work that must be handled should be considered. In some cases there is too much work and in others there is not enough. This matter must be clarified if we are to get the administration of justice correct.

I do not agree with the idea of what are colloquially called "floaters", who are not tied to a special court but who go round to the various courts as and when they are needed. I would like to think that one of the effects of this Instrument will be that that system will not be continued or, at any rate, that it will be continued only under absolutely necessary conditions.

The points I have made make me have some doubt about the Instrument. However, it is obvious that everybody agrees that it is necessary. I wish that I could agree in connection with the points that I have raised.

12.24 a.m.

The Solicitor-General

With the leave of the House, I will deal with some of the points that have been raised. I am grateful to hon. Members for their observations and I assure them that their remarks will receive very careful attention.

We are dealing here with an extremely important jurisdiction and it is of the greatest importance that the work of the county court should be deployed so as to achieve the maximum advantage. I paid special regard to the extremely helpful observations in this connection of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington). Hon. Members have tended to doubt whether the figure of 105 is sufficient. I can only assure the House that my noble Friend has given the most careful consideration to this question. Having regard to the considerations I outlined earlier, he has come to the conclusion that it would be reasonable and best to fix the number at 105.

Of course, there is a certain amount of elaboration in the factors that led to a conclusion as to what the best number is. There are the counter-poising factors I mentioned which are illustrated by having the Divorce Reform Bill proposals with the likelihood that they will mean some additional work for county court judges, to be balanced against the effects of the recommendations of the Payne Committee on the Enforcement of Judgment Debts which go the other way. These illustrate the elaboration which arises in determining a question of this kind, and they are circumstances which my noble Friend has had most carefully in mind. The number was arrived at after most careful consideration.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) said about the danger of this matter being treated piecemeal, as he expressed it. He was quite right to point to the danger that attaches to that kind of approach, but I conceive that that is a potential criticism which does not apply in this instance and I ask the House in all the circumstances to give approval to the Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the County Court Judges (Maximum Number) Order 1969, a draft of which was laid before this House on 15th May, be approved.