§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill makes a number of important changes in the machinery of justice. It is part of the process of modernising and improving the administration of the law, as well as reforming the law itself, which has been a significant part of the work of this Government.
It had been obvious for some time before the Beeching Report that the increase in the volume of crime and the increase in the number of criminal appeals, combined with an increase in the amount of litigation, were subjecting the administration of justice to serious stress. It has been said, rightly, that justice delayed can be justice denied. The Government have taken several steps to deal with this problem. Since 1965, 14 new High Court judges and 23 new county court judges have been appointed, and Commissioners of Assize are trying cases to reduce delays in the provinces until the Beeching reforms can be implemented. Acute shortage of court accommodation is one of the root causes of the present trouble.
Within a short time of publication of the Beeching Commission's Report—which, as the House knows, the Government have warmly accepted in principle —the Lord Chancellor enlarged the staff of his Department so that the problem of court accommodation could be tackled centrally instead of the matter being left, as it is now, to local authorities. Once circuit administrators are appointed following Beeching, they should be able to start work in co-ordinating sittings and planning the effective use of judge-power throughout the circuits. In the Bill there are several provisions which should help materially to reduce delay by saving judicial time which at present is wasted.
Clause 6 extends the power to dispose with the holding of assizes at certain 446 assize towns. Clause 7 will relieve some of the pressure in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal. Part III should also help to reduce delay. It implements recommendations made by Lord Justice Winn's Committee on personal injuries litigation designed to speed up the disposal of personal injury cases by making the parties lay their cards on the table at the outset. These cases comprise a large part of the business of the Queen's Bench Division, and they affect a lot of people, so that any provision which will ensure that they are not unnecessarily, prolonged will, I think, be very useful.
The Bill makes the first alteration to the divisions of the High Court for 88 years, by establishing the Family Division and redistributing the business of the High Court so as to concentrate in the Family Division family, domestic, and matrimonial business.
The Bill recognises the needs and wishes of the commercial community by establishing the Commercial Court and making provision for judges to undertake arbitrations of a commercial character.
As the House will have noticed, the greater part of the Bill is taken up with implementing recommendations made by Mr. Justice Payne's Committee, to which we are greatly indebted, on the enforcement of judgment debts.
I turn to the detailed provisions of the Bill, though I cannot undertake to turn to them all. We shall have to consider a great deal of technicality in Committee, but the House will forgive me if I endeavour to deal with some of it as I go along.
Part I relates to the High Court, assizes, and the Court of Appeal. Clause 1 affects the changes which I have mentioned in the divisions of the High Court by creating the Family Division out of the existing Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, that remarkable combination which is the product of history, and not of logic, and it redistributes the business of the High Court accordingly.
The jurisdiction of the new Family Division is set out in the First Schedule to the Bill. The jurisdiction at present exercised by the Chancery Division in wardship, guardianship, and adoption cases is now to be exercised by the Family Division. The High Court's 447 probate jurisdiction is to be shared between the Family Division and the Chancery Division so that non-contentious probate business will go to the Family Division, and the contentious to the Chancery Division.
The Chancery Division has long been the one most concerned with property questions and it has been the division responsible for determining all questions relating to the interpretation of wills. The Family Division is to concentrate on domestic matters, so it is appropriate that disputes concerning probate questions should be assigned to the Chancery Division. But as the greater part of probate business is essentially administrative and non-contentious, there is little to be gained—and much difficulty would be involved—in transferring all probate work to the Chancery Division. The Admiralty and Prize jurisdiction of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division is to be transferred to the Queen's Bench Division, where it will be dealt with in the separate Admiralty Court established by Clause 2. The change is one in name only, and there will be no changes in the structure or personnel of that court.
The changes effected by Clause 1 are more than a change in name; they are a recognition of the importance of family and the need to ensure that any disputes that may unhappily arise within the family are dealt with in a sympathetic atmosphere by judges and officials who have the necessary experience and understanding to deal with them. This, we think, can be done only by concentrating all business relating to the family in one single division.
This concentration of business will enable attention to be given more easily to the important welfare aspect of this work—the welfare of every member of the family who may be concerned in any domestic case that comes before the courts. So long as the jurisdiction in family matters is scattered, as it now is, and often dealt with by judges and others between totally dissimilar kinds of business, it must be harder for those concerned to be familiar with welfare matters and to keep an eye constantly on them.
Clause 2 establishes the Admiralty Court as a separate court within the Queen's Bench Division. It is a court with an international reputation and 600 448 years of history behind it, and it is right that it should be retained as a separate entity. No changes in its structure or personnel are contemplated.
Clause 3 establishes the Commercial Court as a separate court within the Queen's Bench Division. The Commercial Court work of the High Court is a small, distinct and specialised part of its operation. There has been a separate commercial list since 1895, and so it may fairly be said that the commercial court has had some sort of separate existence already. Clause 3 recognises this. But there is one provision in that Clause which makes a change which has aroused controversy, although, curiously enough, it was hardly questioned when the matter was discussed in another place. This is subsection (3), which enables rules of court to provide that, in certain circumstances to be prescribed, a judge of the Commercial Court, if he thinks fit, may sit in private and dispense with strict rules of evidence. The Government fully recognise that these proposals require close scrutiny.
At this stage I would only say that when the arguments of public policy on both sides are properly balanced I think it will be found that the case is made out to justify modifying, in this specialised field, the more general principles and presumptions which apply to other parts of the legal system. Hon. and learned Members on both sides of the House will be keenly aware that down the centuries the common law has tended to decay and decline when it disregarded the needs of commerce, and to thrive when it showed itself willing to change and adapt itself to meet those needs.
As the 1962 Report of the very impressive Commercial Court Users Conference indicated, businessmen tend to avoid litigation in the courts because they dislike the formality and publicity of legal proceedings, so they often take their disputes to arbitration instead of going to the courts. It is desirable for many reasons, both legal and economic, national and international, that we should do what we can to attract commercial litigation into our courts. In genuine commercial cases the desire of the business community for informality and privacy is a legitimate one, which should be met so far as we properly can do so.
449 As the Lord Chancellor has said, however, since most proceedings are, and must remain, both formal and public, it is right that the special power in relation to the Commercial Court should be regarded and treated as a limited experiment. That is why the Bill itself makes no substantive provisions on these points, but merely confers power on the Supreme Court Rule Committee to make such rules as it thinks fit. There are two members of the Bar and two solicitors on that Committee who can reflect any views of the profession they represent. Rules of Court must, of course, be laid before Parliament, and are much more flexible and easy to amend in the light of experience than is an Act of Parliament.
There is insufficient work to justify the creation of a separate Division to deal with Admiralty and commercial business. The present Admiralty work of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division occupies about half the time of a single judge, and the time taken by the whole of the commercial list takes even less. For this reason a Division dealing simply with commercial and Admiralty work would not be a viable entity and the Bill does not, therefore, provide for one.
Clause 4 enables the judges of the Commercial Court to take arbitrations where the dispute is of a commercial character. There is no rule of law prohibiting a High Court judge from sitting as a private arbitrator in his own time. However, unless the public interest indicated that a judge should act as an arbitrator it might be said that his doing so was inconsistent with his office. For this reason High Court judges who have been asked to sit as arbitrators have sought the advice of the Lord Chancellor, who has usually advised them to decline.
However, the report of the Commercial Court Users Conference recommended that thecommercial judge should have power to sit in private as an arbitrator,and in recent years there have been further indications that there would be a demand for High Court judges to act as arbitrators in a small but important class of commercial disputes if they were available to do so. Clause 4 is intended to meet this demand.
450 The House will note that subsection (2) provides that a judge shall not accept appointment as arbitrator unless the Lord Chief Justice has informed him that, having regard to the state of business in the High Court and at assizes, he can be made available to do so.
Clause 5 recognises and regularises the position of the Senior Judge of the Chancery Division, who is to be known by the old title of Vice-Chancellor, which is now revived—so it cannot be said that we are unmindful of some of the names and institutions of the past—as the judge who is in practice responsible for the administration of the Chancery Division.
Clause 6 is one of the contributions which the Bill makes to deal with the critical problems of delay in our courts. The Beeching Report criticised the present poor location of assize courts and the resulting waste of judicial resources. Some of the assize towns were chosen in the reign of King John, and are really large villages. Between all these small places there has to be a travelling day, and a further travelling day at the end of an assize, which may only last a day. The Beeching Commission estimated that in some circumstances our total loss of judge time caused by the inefficiency of the present administration might be as much as 25 per cent. This Clause will enable the holding of assizes at any place to be dispensed with by Order in Council, and save a good deal of judicial time. I regret the disappearance of some of the assize towns as some of us who have enjoyed visiting them in the past will no doubt do. This reform is indubitably needed, quite apart from the Beeching Report. I should emphasise that there will be no question of assizes being closed at any place, either for all purposes or for a particular form of business, without my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor first discussing the matter with the local authority concerned. Thereafter the Order will be laid before this House.
Clause 7 is another contribution towards the husbanding of judicial resources. As hon. Members are aware, the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal has been under considerable pressure in recent years as a result of the substantial increase in the number of appeals. The figures for 1969 for 451 instance showed that there was an increase of almost 1,000 applications for leave to appeal to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal that year.
Clause 7 will relieve the position so far as applications for leave to appeal are concerned in two ways. It will permit a court of two judges to dispose of applications which can currently only be disposed of by a court consisting of at least three judges. It will also make it clear that the "single judge" powers under the Criminal Appeal Act, 1968 may be exercised by any High Court judge.
At present applications for leave to appeal are dealt with by a single judge. If he refuses leave, the application may be submitted to a court of three judges. This means that three judges have to read and consider all the papers with a view to considering whether there is an arguable case for an appeal. Last year it was necessary for the judges of the full court to examine 8,013 sets of papers. The introduction of a two-judge court will result in a substantial saving of judge-power. I should, however, point out, lest there should be any anxiety that this represents some whittling down of the rights of appeal, that the powers of a two judge court are limited and that it will not have power to determine appeals.
The second part of the Clause enables the burden of the single judge to be shared by all the judges of the High Court. Whether they like that or not remains to be seen, but undoubtedly the judges of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division have considerable experience in trying criminal cases and regularly deal with them at assizes. In addition, seven are chairmen or deputy chairmen of quarter sessions. It would, therefore, be quite wrong to leave this available source of judicial power unused at a time when the Criminal Division is under such pressure.
Part II of the Bill gives effect to recommendations in the Report of the Payne Committee on the Enforcement of Judgment Debts, relating to the abolition of imprisonment for debt and the introduction of attachment of earnings as a means of enforcing judgments for the recovery of money.
We are, I think, the only country in Western Europe where imprisonment for 452 ordinary civil debt has been retained. In Scotland, they have never had imprisonment for debt, not so much, I suspect, because they never run into debt, but because they have always had attachment of earnings. At present, the High Court and the county courts have power to commit a person who makes default in payment of a judgment debt to prison. However, the committal order can only be made where it is proved to the satisfaction of the court on the hearing of the judgment summons that the debtor has or has had the means to pay the debt.
The Committee found that the present system does not enable the debtor's means and circumstances to be properly investigated before the order is made. It found that the vast majority of debtors received into prison were… inadequate, unfortunate, feckless or irresponsible persons …in need of help rather than dishonest or plausible debtors who might merit imprisonment. It therefore concluded that it was undesirable to send merely inadequate persons to prison simply because imprisonment was a means of extracting money from the recalcitrant. It accordingly recommended that imprisonment for debt should be abolished.
It will, incidentally, be of considerable assistance in relieving overcrowding in our prisons, since it is estimated that at least 2,750 people would be kept out of prison each year as a result of these proposals. The House may think that that is indeed a valuable step.
The Committee was evenly divided on the question of whether the recommendation to abolish imprisonment for debt should be extended to default in payment of maintenance orders. The Bill retains committal to prison as a method of enforcing maintenance orders. The Committee found that, with few exceptions, all those from whom it had received representations were in favour of making attachment of earnings available for the enforcement of ordinary civil debts.
The Committee therefore recognised—I think that the House will probably be disposed to agree—that we could not abolish imprisonment without substituting another means of enforcement, and the attachment of earnings seems to be the best means which could be devised.
453 The Committee recommended that there should be a power to make attachment of earnings orders against any judgment debtor in respect of wages or salary. It is interesting, looking back upon previous consideration of this matter, to note that, in 1958, the trade unions objected very strongly to attachment of earnings. Now, the T.U.C. has reported, having consulted all the trade unions, that only one union has objected.
Turning now to the detailed provisions of Part II—perhaps the House should, even at this stage, look at this matter with some care, in view of its social importance—Clause 8 abolishes imprisonment for debt under Section 5 of the Debtors' Act, except in respect of maintenance, unpaid taxes, social security contributions or liabilities specified in the Fourth Schedule to the Bill.
The Payne Committee did not recommend the retention of imprisonment for Crown debts. The reason for retaining committal in respect of this liability is that it is of great use in the tax field against a small hard core of habitual defaulters. Imprisonment is the sole effective sanction and the threat of it has had remarkably effective consequences. In the year 1967–68, there were only 50 cases of imprisonment for tax debts, although the number of proceedings brought in respect of such debts in county courts or magistrates' courts was 39,000.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
How does this class of case differ from that of that small hard core of recalcitrant debtors in civil debts who find that imprisonment is really the only sanction?
§ The Attorney-General
The special position of the Inland Revenue in these matters, of course, is that it cannot, like a private trader, refrain from giving credit to a bad debtor. It must have an effective means of recovering from a debtor who, because he is not employed, has no wages from which taxes can be deducted under P.A.Y.E. If that explanation does not satisfy my hon. Friend, I am very sorry.
Clauses 10 to 24 provide for the making of Orders for the attachment of earnings. They are inevitably somewhat technical and complicated. The remedy of attachment of earnings is already available in the case of maintenance orders 454 under the Maintenance Orders Act, 1958, but the Bill does not retain the existing code under Part II of that Act. It was decided that it would be simpler for all concerned if this were replaced by a single composite code dealing with maintenance orders and with civil debts and liabilities. Clauses 10 to 24 set out that code.
Clause 11 specifies the persons who might apply for an attachment of earnings order and the circumstances in which an order can be made. Clause 12 deals with the effect and contents of an order. This is directed at the person who appears to be the debtor's employer and requires him to make periodical payments from the debtor's earnings in accordance with Part I of Schedule 5 and to pay them to the collecting office of the court at such time as the court may order. The scheme has been devised with a view to ensuring that the employer is given no more trouble than is absolutely necessary. Instructions giving as simple an explanation of the scheme as possible will be issued to employers so that they will understand what is required of them under it.
So far as the employer is concerned, the scheme is broadly the same as that which exists at present under the Maintenance Orders Act, 1958. The order will give the employer the debtor's name and sufficient particulars to enable him to comply with it. When the first pay day after the order comes into force arrives, the employer will calculate the debtor's "attachable earnings", that is, his gross earnings less the usual deductions for tax, National Insurance and so on. This is a calculation which the employer will have to do in any event. He will then have to calculate the "normal deduction"—the amount deductible on the normal deduction rate—that is, the rate determined by the court at which the debtor's earnings should be applied to meet his liabilities under the order.
Finally, the employer will have to calculate the "protected earnings", having regard to the protected earnings rate, that is to say, the rate below which the court considers that the debtor's pay should not be reduced by the attachment of earnings order. So long as the "attachable earnings" exceed the "protected earnings", the employer will pay the difference up to 455 the maximum of the "normal deductions" to the court. Before making this payment, he will be entitled to take 1s. towards the cost of his clerical and administrative expenses. In the case of maintenance and liability arising in criminal cases, any arrears will be carried over to the next pay day as under the 1958 Act.
Clause 14 precludes a debtor from pursuing other remedies during the currency of an attachment of earnings order.
Clauses 13, 15, 17 and 18 facilitate the enforcement of attachment earnings orders, and make a valuable contribution towards their enforceability against elusive debtors.
Clause 13 imposes an obligation to comply with an order on an employer if the debtor is still with him. The employer does not have to comply with the order as soon as it is served on him. He is allowed seven days to do so without incurring any liability by subsection (1). This enables him to make the necessary arrangements for the necessary deductions to be made before pay day. If the debtor leaves his employment subsection (2) obliges the employer to notify the court within ten days thereby enabling some track to be kept of the debtors movements.
Clause 15 provides for the variation and discharge of orders and makes a specific provision for the case where a debtor changes his employment. In such a case subsection (4) provides that the order simply lapses until it is directed to the debtor's new employer. The order does not terminate on a change of employment as it does under the 1958 Act.
Clause 17 enables the court to require a debtor or any person employing him to supply information as to his employment earnings and commitments.
Clause 18 obliges the debtor and his employer to notify the court as to changes in his employment. This clause gives effect to the recommendations of the Payne Committee that the debtor against whom an attachment of earnings order had been made should be under a legal obligation to do so, in order to facilitate the redirection of the order to a new employer.
456 Clause 21 enables a county court to secure the attendance of the debtor on an application for the attachment of earnings and provides penalties for failure to comply with it. It also makes it an offence subject to certain defences for an employer to fail to comply with any requirement of the Bill concerning attachment of earnings orders. There is one further matter in connection with this part of the Bill. The Payne Committee referred to the problem of unreasonable harassment of debtors and mentioned devices of various kinds by which—and it may come as a surprise to the House to learn—in some cases these debt collectors seek to recover sums due to creditors. It listed some of them.
One is called the "blue frightener", a printed notice of the creditor's intention to institute proceedings in the county court. It is printed in black letters on blue paper apparently so as to simulate a county court summons with which some unfortunate debtors may already be familiar.
Then there is the "red frightener", which is a thoroughly sinister object. It is a printed notice in red letters on white paper under the rubric "You have four days in which to reduce your debt".
Then there is the strategy of making frequent calls to the debtor's home, leaving threatening cards or informing the neighbours or shopkeepers under the guise of seeking information. There is also the threat of painting a motor car with a statement that it is the property of the creditor, writing to the debtor's employer or making threats to send a bad debt collection man and other undesirable methods of harassment of that kind.
No one would wish to deny that there are reluctant debtors whom it is hard to persuade to meet their obligations. But the problem of unreasonable harassment is, as the Payne Committee showed, a real one which ought to be tackled. An Amendment was moved in another place in Committee to deal with this. My noble Friend, the Lord Chancellor, sympathised with the purpose of that Amendment and, when it was withdrawn, so that its contents and drafting could be further considered, it was understood that an Amendment would be moved at a later stage of the Bill. The Government attach some importance to this and I am glad to be able to tell the House that, as 457 the result of the discussions which have taken place, I expect to be able to move an Amendment in Committee to deal with that kind of harassment.
Part III of the Bill gives effect to recommendations made by Lord Justice Winn's Committee on Personal Injuries Litigation about what is commonly known as "third party discovery". As the House may know, discovery is a means by which a party to litigation can require his opponent to disclose any documents which he has in his possession relating to the matters in issue and to produce them for inspection. But an order for discovery can be made only when proceedings are pending and it can be made only against another party to the action. The Winn Committee thought that in personal injuries cases it ought to be possible to obtain an order before any proceedings are begun. It also thought it could sometimes happen that a person other than a party might have in his possession a document with an important bearing on the case. It might, for example, be a medical record kept by the hospital where the plaintiff had been treated, or a report made by an expert on some machine which the plaintiff was operating at the time of the accident. The Committee accordingly recommended that the court should have power to make an order for discovery on an application made before any proceedings had been commenced and that it should be possible to obtain an order against a person who was not likely to be a party.
Clause 23 and subsection (1) of Clause 24 give effect to these recommendations. The first enables the court, before the commencement of proceedings for personal injuries, to order a person who is likely to be a party to the proceedings to disclose any documents which are relevant to any issue likely to arise out of the claim. This does not go quite as far as the Winn Committee suggested, because it does not enable an order to be made against a person who is not likely to be a party to the proceedings. It seemed to me that it might be oppressive if a stranger could be put to the trouble of searching for and producing documents simply to assist in the prosecution or defence of a claim which had not yet been formulated in legal proceedings. Subsection (1) of Clause 24 does, how- 458 ever, enable an order to be made after the commencement of proceedings against a person who is not likely to be a party to the proceedings.
§ Mr. Raphael Tuck (Watford)
I think my right hon. and learned Friend will find that Clause 24(1) deals with other provisions for the interpretation of Part II.
§ The Attorney-General
My hon. Friend is perfectly right. It is probably Clause 28(1). I am much obliged.
Clause 28(2) gives effect to another recommendation of the Winn Committee, enabling a similar order to be made for the inspection, photographing and preservation of property and such like. I am sure that these provisions will be helpful. We have all in our experience and practice known of cases, for example, of factory accident and of a machine said to be unguarded. Before proceedings can be started and formulated, when solicitors go to the factory they find in some cases that the machine has already been removed, because it is under repair or for some other reason, which makes it impossible for the plaintiff's solicitor to have access to it, and no one has taken a photograph of it. In cases of that kind, these provisions should be helpful.
Part IV deals with actions by mortgagees for possession of mortgaged property. This Part is based on the recommendations of the Committee on the Enforcement of Judgment Debts, which was asked also to considerwhether the courts should have power to postpone the operation of an order for possession of mortgaged property".In general terms, the Committee recommended that, although a mortgagee might have a legal right to possession of mortgaged premises, a court asked to order that he should be given possession should be entitled to adjourn the case so as to give the mortgagor time to pay. This could be of great assistance to a mortgagor who found himself temporarily in difficulty.
Clause 32 gives effect to that recommendation by providing that the court shall have power in an action for possession by a mortgagee to adjourn the proceedings or to suspend the order so as to give the mortgagor time to pay.
459 Clause 33 gives the county court exclusive jurisdiction to hear actions for possession by mortgagees in cases where the rateable value of the premises is within the county court limits in the case of premises outside Greater London. In the case of premises within Greater London the High Court is obviously the most convenient place for them, and the Bill does not make any changes in this regard.
Part V makes provision for a number of miscellaneous matters, including the payment of costs in criminal and analogous cases and the enforcement of fines. I do not think that I need deal with those matters at this stage.
I am grateful to the House for the patience with which it has listened so agreeably to so much technicality. No doubt, there will be much to study when the Bill goes to Committee. In the meantime, I commend it to the House.
§ 4.51 p.m.
§ Sir Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)
I guess—it can be only a guess—that this will be the last Administration of Justice Bill which we shall hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General present to the House of Commons. [HON. MEMBERS: "0h."] I say that for this reason. Either he may be in what Disraeli called the Elysian Fields of another place, where he may be the author as opposed to the agent of such legislation, or, alternatively, he may be on these benches, when he will have the consolation of being able to command the fees which a former Law Officer of the Crown is able to command.
As I guess that this may well be the last such occasion—certainly, I could be wrong—I take this opportunity to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman and to congratulate him for the way in which he has always presented complex Bills to the House, with great skill and clarity and usually enlivening the presentation with some anecdote or other to make the occasion more memorable.
On these occasions, I always have the feeling that, somehow, the House looks as though it is in church—perhaps that is because of the small numbers present —but, nevertheless, we have before us in such Bills matters which call for careful explanation, and we are extremely 460 grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the way in which he presents them to us. The present Bill is no exception.
I come now to a criticism which I direct not so much to the right hon. and learned Gentleman as to the managers of Government business. This Bill, like the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Bill and the Animals Bill which is to come later today, started in another place. All of them, by their nature, are of interest and concern to a comparatively small number of hon. Members, but Members with, perhaps, like interests and like expertise. Hon. Members with those special interests and concerns would wish to serve on the Committee and contribute to the debates.
§ Sir P. Rawlinson
As my right hon. and learned Friend says, on each of those Bills. The Government's organisation of business prevents that happening. I have not yet recovered from the gallop which I used to do from the Grand Committee Room up to the Committee Corridor when I was serving on two such Bills. It is a matter of grave dissatisfaction that the managers of Government business have put the same imposition upon us again.
All of us, as Members of Parliament, constantly receive criticism about the form of legislation. Since I have had certain responsibilities in these matters on behalf of the Opposition, I have sought to treat legal Bills not with a partisan approach but with the aim of ensuring that we could all put our heads together, and sometimes our expertise, to try to make the best of them.
Our work in Committee on these Measures is of considerable value. On the present Bill, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General got his pagination slightly wrong, I suspected that the reason was that those assisting him had looked at the original Bill, which was 46 or 47 pages long, whereas when it emerged from the other place it covered 55 pages. That is the sort of thing that happens during the passage of such Measures under a Parliamentary programme organised as it now is. The fatness of a Bill is not necessarily 461 a sign of its virtue, but there is nevertheless a lot to be dealt with here in an effort to put everything right. If the Government believe in the processes of Parliament and the spirit in which such Measure should be approached, I wish that their business managers would arrange things better.
I pay tribute here to what was done in another place, in particular, to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Colville of Culross, in assisting, under great difficulties, in the consideration of so much of the Bill.
On the Second Reading of a Bill such as this, which is an amalgam of different matters, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly how to aproach it. To adopt some words from "Animal Farm", some parts of the Bill are more equal than others. The range of subjects covered includes the organisation of the High Court, rules as to evidence, principles governing when the High Court should sit in private, provision for a new Law Officer, the power to dispense with Assizes, the organisation of the Court of Appeal in criminal matters, the enforcement of debt, mortgages, discovery, fines, the county courts, rent legislation, guardianship of minors, children and young persons, and so on. It is all in one Bill presented to the House of Commons for Second Reading.
One has, therefore, to direct one's mind to many different classes of subject. For my part—I am sure that other hon. Members will feel the same—I approve of some parts of the Bill and disapprove of others, and I look forward to further investigation of others still.
First, I take Part I, and I begin with a criticism. One of the reasons for the Bill given by the Lord Chancellor in another place was that our administration of justice now is in such a state that the organisation and administration of the courts is of the highest importance. The Attorney-General referred to the Report of the Royal Commission, the Beeching Report, saying that the Government express approval of it. It was a major Report, but not yet has the House had opportunity to debate it. In the other place, the Lord Chancellor observed that the Opposition had their opportunities, that there was Opposition time, through their Supply Days, to deal with it. That shows a strange misunderstanding of the 462 processes of Parliament. On a major Report affecting the administration of justice, it is nothing short of disgraceful that the House of Commons has not had an opportunity to debate it. It requires Government explanation and commentary. It is their duty to put this matter before the House, and not introduce it in bits and pieces in different Bills. We should be able to examine it in its entirety.
I say that by way of introduction, because part of Part I deals with certain reorganisation for the purpose of helping the speedy administration of justice. As the Attorney-General said, it is 80-odd years since the structure of the courts was last examined. The pressure on the courts is such that, in 1970, there are something like 300 more cases in the Queen's Bench Division than there were in 1969. That is an increase of about a sixth. In the Chancery Division, there are 23 more suits in 1970, which is an increase of only a fifteenth. In the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, there is a drop of 331, about a third, because of the provision whereby the county courts deal with non-contentious divorce. There is a large increase in the Queen's Bench Division, a small increase in the Chancery Division, and a large decrease in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division.
The utilisation of judges is of the utmost importance. I imagine that the Attorney-General has had presented to him the suggestion made by the Chancery Bar that consideration should be given to the whole structure of the courts beyond that proposed in this Bill, including whether it would not be wise to divide the High Court into two parts, the first dealing with status and property and the second dealing with what might be termed the more ephemeral collisions of tort, defamation, personal injury and matters of contract, which would go to the Queen's Bench Division, together with Admiralty and Commercial matters.
With the setting up of the family court, the proposal for which I welcome, the Chancery Bar has made its interesting proposal that we should have the division into two. It illustrated it by saying that a claim against a deceased husband will be in one division if the woman is a widow, but that if she is a former wife the claim will be in another division. A settlement will be awarded in the Chancery Division if there is no 463 divorce, but in the Family Division if there has been a divorce.
There is force in some of the Chancery Bar's comments that this may be the time to have a deeper examination and study of whether we should not have a more major division of the business of the High Court. For the moment, as I have said, I welcome the family court and I welcome, too, the appointment and title of Vice-Chancellor. I can only reflect about "Law Reform Now", which was a book published several years ago. Then there was to be a Vice-Chancellor in the Commons. Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at one time held the office, though not of that name, of Minister without Portfolio. That is another illustration of the need to restrain criticism of the Government when in opposition and vice versa. I turn now to the Commercial Court, which has caused considerable controversy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that it was not raised in another place, though it had been made clear by me and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends that we did not like this court sitting in secret. Everyone interested has probably read the letter to The Times by the Chairman of the Bar Council and the President of the Law Society. It emphasises an important point of principle, which is the principle of public justice. It is one of the reasons for the establishment of the high standards of confidence, integrity, conduct and bearing among our judges that we have always insisted upon public justice. It is breached at one's peril.
Hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee which considered the Criminal Justice Bill will recall many discussions about whether it was right to have even committal proceedings in private. Some of us thought at one time that it would be right and then changed our minds. Others took the opposite view.
In my opinion, secrecy is alien to the spirit of justice. Why should it be so important for the users of the Commercial Court? If it is important for them, is it not more important for two persons who appear before a matrimonial court to be entitled to have the intimacies of their marriage discussed in private? They are not so permitted. It might be even 464 more sensible to hear a libel action in private. Then again, there are many parties to contracts, just as there are involved in personal injuries. On one side, there may be parties who do not want their system of work brought before the public eye. There may be a plaintiff who does not want the injuries which he has sustained made public. In each division there is a case for having matters heard in private. Why is it so important for cases heard in the Commercial Court? It is argued that, otherwise, the parties will go off and find an arbitrator. I would say, let them go and find their arbitrator. This is a matter about which we should insist. The powers which the courts have should not be extended, and I hope that some amendment will be made in Committee.
The Attorney-General says that this is only giving a power and that there are the rules of court. I am reminded of the Matrimonial Causes Rules, 1967. When we debated the Bill in 1968, we were told, "Leave it to the Rules Committee, which has independent people on it in the shape of two members of the Bar and two solicitors". When the time came for the Rules Committee to make its decision, it was told, "You cannot do that. Parliament has decided the principle." It was told by the Lord Chancellor that it must do what he required. That was legislation on the ipse dixit of a Minister, the Lord Chancellor, and determined by the length of his foot.
There was consternation in the legal profession and among the members of the Rules Committee. We debated it in Parliament. It is not right for Parliament to allow itself to be put in such a position.
In the letter to which I have referred there is quoted part of what Lord Shaw said in Scott v. Scott:There is no greater danger of usurpation (of the principle of public administration of justice) than that which proceeds little by little under cover of rules of procedure and at the instance of the judges themselves.The court serves the customer, and not the other way round. However, the customer does not make the rules. If he comes to justice in the Queen's court, he should come to public justice or not at all.
I share with some of my right hon. and hon. Friends a liberal attitude to the rules 465 of evidence. I welcomed the Civil Evidence Act. Like the Lord Chancellor in another place, I query the need for a law of evidence save in its rudest form. If the rules of evidence are to be removed, why do it for one court only? Either it should be changed for all courts or for none. The burdens of proof are similar. How can the burden of proof be discharged satisfactorily on a lesser kind of evidence in one court and not in another? Here, too, there is muddled thinking about principle. It is an over-pragmatic approach resulting from a desire to attract to the court various customers who would be better suited elsewhere, and there receive their arbitration.
Is the appointment of a judge arbitrator a realistic provision? We have been told, and rightly, that judges are needed all over the country to deal with criminal and civil business. Are we now to have a judge hired to private parties? I believe that it is frivolous to include this provision as one of the many afterthoughts of the Bill, and a very strong case will need to be made out for such a requirement at this time.
Clause 7 relates to the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. This, too, is an afterthought introduced into the Bill in another place because of the increase in the number of appeals from about 8,700 in 1968 to 9,700 in 1969. I suggest that this increase is due, in the first place, to the removal of the power of the Court of Appeal to increase sentence and to order that the time spent awaiting appeal should not count towards sentence.
Those sanctions were removed by Parliament, and I and a number of other right hon. and hon. Members gave warning at that time of the effect. The result has been that the court has been swamped with worthless appeals, and an extra burden put on the judges just when they are most needed for trial work. The power to increase sentence, though rarely used, was a reserve power, and its effect was to deter appeals by people who really only wanted the privileges which can be enjoyed while awaiting appeal and before the appeal is dismissed. That power has gone.
I suggest that the situation might be improved if the certificate given to an accused person for legal aid for his defence at trial should, once granted, auto- 466 matically include a right and a duty on solicitors and counsel to advise on an appeal if the trial verdict is one of guilty. If that were put on the actual certificate, there would be no need for the prisoner to apply, or appeal or write. It would put an automatic duty on his lawyers, and would avoid the difficulties arising under Rule 52 to which the Lord Chief Justice referred.
With that provision I would combine a provision that every convicted person should be given only a specified period after conviction—say, 14 days—during which he would be entitled to that special treatment which the Lord Chief Justice described as an act of humanity. During that period only he could write and receive letters and have visits in particular circumstances, but would thereafter be subject to the ordinary prison treatment. That would eliminate those persons who appeal merely because it gives a period of special treatment.
The present position is that because of the priviliges involved, a man gains even if his appeal is ludicrous. I believe that to be one of the reasons why the criminal division of the Court of Appeal is being flooded. Some more radical approach should be made. We should be able to ensure that no appeal is made for the wrong reason but only for the true reason for which an appeal ought to be made: and that it is made on advice.
The recommendation on matters of discovery seem to be most sensible. I am uncertain, with regard to preservation, whether a third party is to be put to any expense or inconvenience in the storage of machinery or tools which may be necessary or needed for the trial. I presume that in such cases provision for costs could be made.
I certainly accept the general principle contained in Part IV. Courts should be given powers of discretion.
In turning to the question of the enforcement of debt, I join with the right hon. and learned Attorney-General in paying tribute to Mr. Justice Payne and his colleagues for their great labours in producing this report. I would ask the Attorney-General, though I do not seek an answer today, how many judges are having to be seconded from their very important judicial duties to do such work on such committees. That work is very important, and I agree that they are 467 the ideal people to chair such committees, but in view of the present crisis it would be interesting to know how many judges are being engaged on extramural activities of this kind. One wonders whether it would not be wise to drop this secondment at present, if it is possible, and let the judges concentrate on their judicial task.
The principle of the abolition of the sanction of imprisonment has important attractions. It is not wholly appropriate. Imprisonment has never been a sanction in Scotland. The learned Attorney-General gave some explanation for that. He did not suggest that it was due to national characteristics—that credit was not so easy to get or extravagance so common in Scotland, which was the thought that sprang to the minds of some of us when we thought of Scots getting into debt. But imprisonment was a sanction, and its abolition will relieve our prisons to the extent of about 2,000 persons. The very fact that it is being retained for the Inland Revenue and the Crown shows that it is still a sanction. For only a small minority—about 2,000 —it did not work as a sanction: those people went to prison. One cannot therefore say that it was not the best means to make that debtor pay who was wilfully not paying.
That sanction is now given up, and we are putting on employers an obligation to play a part, such as they now play in relation to maintenance orders, in the private affairs of their employees. We are imposing on them very considerable administrative work, and I hope that due acknowledgment will be given to them for taking it on. It means an immense saving for the courts and for taxpayers, and I pay my tribute to the employers for doing this work.
It is an imposition, in particular, on employers in such trades as the building trade, with its mobile workers. I know that since the passing of the maintenance orders legislation such employers have often experienced very considerable difficulties in doing what it is thought they should do. They are now having further burdens put upon them, for a ludicrously low charge of one shilling. The proper sum really ought to be about 5 per cent. of the amount of the debt, which is the percentage allowed by the unions to the 468 employers for the deduction of dues. I have had brought to my attention by some employers that they hoped the trade unions appreciated that this was being imposed on them. They were concerned in regard to industrial relations, and it is important that they should know they are taking on this task imposed upon them by Act of Parliament.
The fact that these employers have to do this if there is attachment of earnings is the only way it can be done. The concern is how it could be done under this Bill and that the whole of the Payne recommendations have not been carried out. The enforcement provisions in Northern Ireland, an area which comes in for some criticism in certain parts of this House, have been accompanied by the setting-up of a central office and a system whereby creditors pay an enforcement fee. The creditor in any bankruptcy proceedings is assisted and there is an order requiring employers to deduct. The penalty of prison is retained only until they see that the new system works. Here there is not an enforcement officer. Is this scheme premature? Will the machinery and the staff prove adequate?
I say to the Attorney-General that with some reluctance I accept that this is the best alternative to prison, but I doubt how necessary it was to introduce it now and why this priority was given at this particular time. Of course people can be caught by unscrupulous traders. We all know about the small print. Everyone should be very careful about reading the small print, particularly those who have now reached the age of maturity. People should have every opportunity of being told to be on guard. Nevertheless, it is a matter in which the attachment of earnings and removal of sanction have to be carefully watched to ensure, first, that the system works properly, and, secondly, that it achieves its objectives.
This is a Bill of many parts and, therefore, any speech on Second Reading has to be the same. My impression is that it is an interim Measure nibbling at various problems and reorganisation is a first step to what might be a wider change. On the subject of attachment, there are questions which have to be answered. I have certain reservations. I think this is the Bill of a man in a hurry, and probably of a Government in a hurry. 469 Some of its provisions may be useful and right in principle, and some I wholly reject. Because I do not reject all, I certainly will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) introduced a facetious note by suggesting that this was the last Bill my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General would introduce. There is nothing like cherishing a forlorn hope.
In its essentials I welcome this Bill. It reconstitutes the High Court in a manner necessary after the long years of its existence. The idea of a family division covering almost every type of jurisdiction of a family kind as set out in Schedule 1 of the Bill is an excellent idea. The only criticism I make is that it has not been found practical in the initial instance to start at the lowest tier and to bring into being a local family court. This is particularly important when one remembers the varied matters with which magistrates' courts deal, particularly with regard to criminal matters.
I am however heartened by the words of the Lord Chancellor in another place that:the fact that we are now getting a family division of the High Court will stimulate thought into giving us a really local family court so that family matters no longer have to be taken in what used to be called the 'police courts'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 4th December, 1969; Vol. 306, c. 257.]The implementation of one of the recommendations of the Beeching Royal Commission in the provision with regard to assize courts is also welcome. No one listening to the words of my right hon. and learned Friend, reading the speech of the Lord Chancellor in introducing the Bill in another place, or recognising the difficulties referred to by the Lord Chief Justice, can doubt the urgent need for this provision. My hope is that before long other recommendations of the Commission with regard to assizes may be implemented.
Stautory recognition is now given to the commercial court which first began, as the Attorney-General said, in 1895. I had the honour of being a pupil of the late Theobald Mathew, a well-beloved figure, the son of the first judge 470 of that court and the first editor of its law reports. Perhaps because of that I have always been interested in the work of the commercial court. It is right that there should be a special court to deal with the complex problems of the commercial world. It is right also that, in so far as it can be done without offending the fundamental principles of open justice, the rules of evidence should be relaxed and in certain instances the court should sit in private. I very much support what the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom said on this matter.
As was pointed out in the forceful letter of the Chairman of the Bar Council and the President of the Law Society in The Times yesterday the parties are already at liberty if they agree to admit facts without any evidence at all or to accept less strict proof of facts. There is an inherent power in every court to sit in private if justice cannot otherwise be done. I agree with the criticism that to leave such powers to be exercised in accordance with rules made by the Supreme Court Rules Committee is certainly a departure from constitutional principles. After all, if businessmen desire to have their disputes heard in private they can do so by arbitration. The Attorney-General put forward economic reasons as one of the reasons for this provision. Some money might be gained from it. What an extraordinary thing it is to sacrifice a fundamental principle because of some economic consideration.
I was somewhat amazed to read these words of the Lord Chancellor:I have come to the conclusion that we would be better without any law of evidence at all. I do not believe it is necessary.As an old advocate I recognise that most of the rules of evidence have sound reasons for their existence. No doubt there are some which can be amended or even abolished, but to say that there is no need for rules of evidence seems a startling proposition. It may well be that other systems of law do not have them, but one of the things we pride ourselves upon is that our legal system is an example to the world, and in my view the law of evidence plays no small part in that. I have grave apprehension about this power given to the Rules Committee to formulate rules enabling the commercial court to admit evidence otherwise 471 inadmissible or to sit in private as provided by Clause 3. I hope that this provision will be thoroughly debated in Committee and amended if it is not thought satisfactory. I support very strongly the criticisms made by the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom.
I want to say a word or two about Part II which deals with enforcement of debt. Everybody, I think, will applaud the decision to abolish imprisonment as a means of enforcing the payment of civil debts. I do not, however, understand the logic of preserving this sanction in the case of maintenance and Crown debts, for example tax and social insurance. I suppose that my right hon. and learned Friend will say that the Inland Revenue is a holy institution and we must do something in regard to it—[AN HON. MEMBER: "A sacred cow."]—but why in logic are debts owing to the Crown different from civil debts? I cannot see the logic of separating one from the other. I hope that we shall look at this matter in Committee.
I have studied carefully the codes set out in Schedules 5, 7 and 8 of the Bill, dealing with the machinery on attachment. They are complicated provisions. They impose considerable burdens on the employer, the debtor and the court. I hope that they work. But it is to be noted that breaches of Clause 21 are punishable by fines and imprisonment. Therefore, we are retaining imprisonment to some extent. I cannot help but feel that there is a real danger that all sorts of difficulties will arise.
It is rightly said that county court registrars and their staff are extremely considerate to debtors and give them valuable advice when they are in trouble. There are citizens advice bureaux. There are voluntary welfare authorities. In addition, there are Members of Parliament who assist in advising their constituents. But registrars and their staff are already overloaded with work, and reliance upon voluntary workers is a very doubtful factor.
The Payne Committee, in its excellent Report, recommended the appointment of enforcement officers with a social staff. I appreciate the arguments against implementing that recommendation now —the suggestion that registrars and their staff can do the work; that judges will 472 be able patiently and thoroughly to do justice to debtors; the cost of such a plan; and the order in which the recommendations should be brought into being. However, I feel that the system evolved, the code drawn up, is so complicated and is fraught with so many difficulties that further consideration should be given, even at this stage, to instituting some enforcement system which might lighten the burden on the court, the employer and the debtor.
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom referred to the system in Northern Ireland. It might be a very good idea to look at that system and to see whether there is any reason why we cannot implement something of that sort. It would be a great pity if a well thought out scheme should result in injustice because of its complications.
I should like to say a few words about Clause 27, in Part III, implementing the recommendations of the Winn Committee. In my view, this is a very valuable new right. Often, before an action is brought, documents may be destroyed or property or machinery vital to the case may be removed or altered. A would be litigant will now have the right, in a proper case, to see such documents or inspect such property or machinery before action. This provision may well assist in preventing unnecessary litigation.
I wish to say something about Clause 32, which gives the court power in an action by the mortgagee for possession to adjourn the case or to stay or suspend execution of judgment so as to give the borrower an opportunity to make good his default. In too many cases a borrower making default has lost his property without being given such an opportunity. The other day, I had the case of a constituent. a West Indian lady, who had been deprived of all her possessions as a result of an action brought by the mortgagee.
My only criticism is that the provisions should be extended to foreclosure proceedings. It is true that in such proceedings an order for foreclosure nisi gives the debtor an opportunity of paying and that there might be a delay of some months before the order is made absolute or not reopened, as it can be in some cases. There may be cases in which even this period is not sufficiently long for the borrower to repay the debt. I do not 473 see why the Clause should not apply to such proceedings. It surely can create no injustice.
Finally, in another place, it was sought to introduce in the Bill a Clause making it an offence to harass or interfere with the peace and comfort of the debtor. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General pointed out, this problem was discussed by the Payne Committee. It is extremely important. The Payne Committee heard a considerable amount of evidence and was unanimous in concludingthat some practices are employed with the object of instilling fear and panic in debtors, causing them injustice and driving them to desperation in trying to pay off their debts".The Committee added:Such creditors disdain the law and endeavour to bypass it by using strong-arm tactics or cunning devices. In our view, it cannot he tolerated that just claims be pursued by unjust methods. It must not be forgotten that the debtor class includes many who, by misfortune or mischance, have drifted into debt and are peculiarly exposed and vulnerable to the methods which we condemns".The other day we discussed the Inertia Selling Bill, which is akin, but here there is a real problem. I was glad to see when reading the report of the discussion in another place that the Lord Chancellor was sympathetic and that the Home Office and draftsmen were interested. I am glad to hear that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is to introduce an Amendment to deal with this problem. It is one of the most important problems with which we have to deal.
Obviously a considerable number of points must be discussed in Committee. Subject to those, I welcome the Bill as a sound and necessary Measure. In my view, it is another step forward in the Government's laudable object to secure legal reform.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
In general, I welcome the Bill. I wish to say a few words on Part II relating to the enforcement of debt. I am delighted that at last we are to abolish the old-fashioned process of asking county court judges to send debtors to prison. We should go the whole way and take in all debts, including debts for income tax. I have attended the county court many times when an hour or two of the court's 474 time has been taken up with these melancholy proceedings. In most cases they have become time-wasting factors and are often deeply humiliating for many people who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. All county court judges and practically all solicitors will welcome the fact that we are to do away with this. It should have been done years ago. However, better late than never.
I support the provisions to extend the enforcement of debts by the attachment of earnings. I am particularly glad that they will apply to people who have not paid their fines in criminal cases. Many people who have been convicted in criminal cases—and I refer chiefly to petty criminal cases—are snapping their fingers at the courts. I recently read in a Sunday newspaper that today over £5 million is owed in unpaid fines. Apparently the figure increased over the last 18 months by more than £1 million. This reveals a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is commonly said among this class of people, "If you do not want to pay your fine, particularly for motoring offences, do not pay it, because no further action will be taken against you"?
§ Mr. Awdry
I agree. That is my point. The law will be brought into utter disrepute if something is not done about this matter.
I ask the Attorney-General to tell us how many people are involved in this. How many convicted people have not bothered to pay their fines? Last September, the figure of unpaid fines in England and Wales, outside London, was over £4,500,000. I think that I can say with certainty that the figure is proportionately higher in London. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will say whether he feels that the Bill goes far enough to help the courts to deal with this problem. Does he think that more staff would be needed to help the hard-pressed magistrates' clerks in dealing with this immense problem? It is urgent, as the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) emphasised.
Unless something is done soon people will conclude that crime pays, and this will bring the whole of our system into 475 disrepute. I hope that the Attorney-General can give us some comforting words on this when he replies.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, North)
I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for not wanting to comment on the many interesting matters he raised in introducing the Bill, except to say that when he replies I shall be particularly interested in what he says on the question of the privacy of commercial courts. I am not quite satisfied yet that he has made a good case for the practice he proposes.
I want to draw attention to what I consider to be an omission from the Bill. It was recently brought to my attention that if a litigant appoints a lawyer who represents him in arguments before the courts and establishes his case, he is entitled to the full recovery of his costs, subject to taxation, but that a litigant who takes his own case through the legal system and succeeds in establishing it fails to get costs on probably the most substantial item he has incurred—his own time and labour spent on the case. This seems to me to be a considerable injustice, and I am disturbed that the Government has not taken the opportunity of the Bill to remedy it. It is not an injustice that is important in terms of the numbers involved, but it is important in terms of the quality of our law and equality before it. It is a matter that the Government should consider.
As the New Law Journal put it very succinctly in an article in May, 1969:If a litigant in person loses he must pay the other side's taxed costs in full; but if he wins he will be deprived on taxation of the costs that would otherwise have been allowed in respect of time and labour spent on the case.As with so many points of principle raised in the House, this matter was brought to my attention by the experience of a constituent, although this is in no sense a constituency matter, because my constituent's case has been adjudicated upon, and in any case the gentleman concerned, Mr. Buckland, died tragically in a fire which destroyed his home a few months ago. But to illustrate the problem I have in mind perhaps I could give the House the outline facts of the case, which are relatively simple.
476 My constituent wished to buy a house and, being a prudent man, engaged to advise him in the transaction not only a solicitor but a valuer. The valuer pronounced the house to be in excellent condition, but when the transaction had proceeded some little way it was discovered that it was not. Every possible thing that could be wrong with it was wrong with that house. So my constituent brought an action in professional negligence against the valuer and the solicitor. Being a prudent man, he decided to conduct his case himself in view of the effects of taking professional advice which had already been demonstrated to him earlier in the transaction.
Although he lost his case at the county court, he showed sufficient acumen to establish it in the Court of Appeal. But then he might well have muttered with King PyrrhusAnother victory such as this and I will be a ruined manbecause he was not given costs for the time and labour he had spent on his case, and found himself out of pocket.
But he fought his case on the question of costs right through again to the Court of Appeal. It rejected his claim, and the House of Lords refused to give him leave to appeal. In all the reasons given for refusing Mr. Buckland his costs, nobody quoted the proposition that it would be unjust for litigants in person to claim their costs. Numbers of reasons were given, and I will not deny that they have some weight. It was said that a lay litigant's time varied considerably in value. The typical example quoted was that at one end of the scale one might have someone earning 3s. or 4s. an hour and at the other end a pop singer earning £1,000 a week. The question then asked was, "How are you to assess this cost?" It is also said that lay litigants are a small number of people, and successful lay litigants an even smaller number. This may well be true, but it is a most unsatisfactory reason for any principle of justice to which our courts may wish to put their name.
Finally, it was asserted that costs were intended to remunerate the exercise of professional legal skill, though there seems to be considerable doubt among legal authorities now as to whether that is a tenable proposition. It is even doubtful whether the Court of Appeal's 477 decision on the question of costs was good law. It was based on the case of the London Scottish Benefit Society v. Chorley, which is quoted in 1884 13 Queen's Bench Division at page 872. But what that case decided was that a solicitor litigant in his own cause can get his costs spent on time and labour. It said nothing about what should happen to a lay litigant.
This merely serves to highlight the injustice done to lay litigants in person. It means that lawyers can obtain their costs in time and labour whenever they appear before the court successfully and that laymen who appear cannot get these costs.
I have been in correspondence with my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor on the matter. I must confess to the House with some trepidation that I find myself at issue with that eminent and learned authority. He is against the case which I have so eloquently put for the lay litigant to receive his costs for time and labour.
§ Mr. Moyle
That is the point I am coming to. My noble Friend said that his decision is based on the difficulties which I have already raised, which are really administrative; they are nothing to do with the principles of justice. He has come to the conclusion that the real anomaly in the situation is the solicitor litigating on his own behalf. He intends, if the Legislature agrees with him, to pursue a policy at some future date of emphasising the distinction between costs and disbursements, and says that this will mean that payments made by litigants to third parties can be recovered at the conclusion of the case but that money owed by a litigant to himself, as it were, cannot be recovered. Litigants on their own behalf, whether lawyers or laymen, will not be able to recover costs for time and labour spent on the case, whereas those who are represented will always be able to do so, because one of their disbursements will be payment of fees and expenses to their legal representatives.
When informed of the Lord Chancellor's views on this matter, my constituent, Mr. Buckland, said: 478Lord Gardiner's ruling just keeps the legal profession employed.I cannot help feeling that this will be the reaction of the general public.
I accept that the difficulties exist, but I believe that they are soluble. In a world of accountants it should not be impossible to produce a formula which could at least do rough justice in these matters. After all, rough justice is better than no justice. Surely there is no argument for saying that just because justice cannot be perfectly done in this class of case, no attempt should be made to produce justice? Accountants who might look into this matter are used to producing formulas based on rules of thumb. Perhaps I may give an example from an entirely different field. No hon. Member would contend that council houses stand up for 60 years and then at the end of their 60th year fall down. Yet the whole basis of our local authority housing finance is based on this accountants' rule of thumb. I believe that something of this nature could be introduced to cover the problems of assessing lay litigants' time, both in terms of value and the actual amount spent on the preparation of the case and the conduct of it.
I will be the first to concede that the solution propounded by the Lord Chancellor, if ever accepted by the Legislature, is prefectly defensible in the dry logic of the law, but it will fail before the bar of public opinion. It will be regarded by the public as an attempt by the legal profession to exert some pressure on litigants, in every case, whether they wish to or not, to use legal representation to argue their case before the courts. It will be regarded—and, indeed, this point has already been put to me on television and other forums—as a case of the lawyers' trade union protecting itself. In an age when the Government and the potential Government have developed the reputation of frowning on restrictive practices and "who does what?" disputes in industry, the public will accept no excuse if they feel that they are failing to frown on the same sort of problems when they arise in quarters other than industry.
In view of the eloquent case I have quoted, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will do his best to persuade my noble and 479 learned Friend the Lord Chancellor of the error of his ways, and will introduce an appropriate Amendment to the Bill in Committee in order to take care of the situation I have outlined.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce Campbell (Oldham, West)
I want to say how much I welcome the proposal to create a Family Division. It is something which many of us have advocated for many years. The extraordinary situation which has existed for so long, where family matters have been dealt with in almost every court, is an unsatisfactory system, and a satisfactory solution to the problem is now proposed in Clause 1.
Today, proceedings under Section 17 of the Married Women's Property Act—disputes between husbands and wives about property—can be heard in all three divisions of the High Court as well as in the magistrates' courts, and this demonstrates the unsatisfactory situation which has prevailed hitherto. The same sort of situation exists with regard to children and this is much more important. The custody of children is dealt with in the Divorce Division and also in the Chancery Division and sometimes in habeas corpus proceedings in the Queen's Bench Division. That is not the end of it. The custody of children is also dealt with in magistrates' courts and other litigation concerning children—adoption, for example—is dealt with in the county courts. Indeed, children are dealt with in courts which, for the most of their time, are dealing with completely different branches of litigation.
I only regret that the Bill does not go a little further and make provision for keeping family matters in special courts below the High Court level. It is an awful thing that the custody of little children should be dealt with in criminal courts, which is what magistrates' courts primarily are. Magistrates' courts spend most of their time dealing with crime and yet also deal with matrimonial disputes between husband and wife and the custody of children. I know that they do not necessarily deal with these two questions on the same afternoon, although they sometimes do, but I should like to see a situation where special courts, presided over by specially selected magistrates 480 deal with matrimonial disputes and with disputes as to the custody of and access to children. These magistrates should not be required to deal with other matters at all.
I have one other regret about the creation of the family division—that apparently it is not to take over the jurisdiction under the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act. That is a remarkable omission. Surely that jurisdiction is very much a family one. It is one under which, if a husband or a wife or a mother or a father dies without making proper provision for his or her dependants, the courts can order that proper provision for those dependants be made out of the estate. Surely that is very much a family matter. Since the division will be dealing with the same matter if there has been a divorce in the family, surely it must follow that, in a case where there has not been a divorce, the jurisdiction should go to the family division also.
I fear that mine may be a lone voice, but I very much regret the abolition of imprisonment for debt. Indeed, it is a misnomer to call it imprisonment for debt, for there is no such thing in this country. People are not sent to prison because they are in debt and certainly not because they cannot pay. They are sent to prison because they will not pay, because they are guilty of contempt of court. About 2,000 people a year go to prison because they will not pay.
The Government propose now that a man may deliberately incur a debt and refuse to pay; he may have the means to pay but there is going to be nothing that the creditor can do about it if he does not pay. This seems to me to be typical of the soft treatment we now give to wrong-doers of all kinds, and make no mistake about it, these people—I am talking only of those who will not pay; the people who go to prison—are wrong-doers. They are people who, having incurred a debt and although in a position to pay it, deliberately refuse to pay it. I call that plain dishonesty; I call that man a wrong-doer in every sense of the word. He is doing much more wrong than a man who commits a parking offence, is fined and who still, under these proposals, may be sent to prison if he does not pay it.
481 Why should there be one law for the State and another for the individual; why should the State be able to send a man to prison if he does not pay his taxes or his fines, whereas the private creditor does not have this assistance from the law?
The suggestion is that the creditor will have this new remedy of applying for an attachment of earnings order. I predict that this will prove to be a thoroughly inadequate remedy. People who wilfully refuse to pay their debts, although they easily could, are not people to be caught by an attachment of earnings order; they are self-employed people and there is no employer to deduct the money from their wages, or they are people who move from one employer to another with such frequency that no order can ever catch up with them.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have welcomed this provision and one of my hon. Friends said that he thought imprisonment for non-payment of debt should have been abolished many years ago. I disagree. I think that this is a necessary sanction which should have been preserved.
Clause 3 provides that rules of court may be made enabling the Commercial Court to sit in private and to waive certain rules of evidence. Those of us who spend a good deal of time in court have seen examples of the danger of relaxing the rules of evidence. We have sometimes been present when, for example, hearsay evidence has been admitted, and when we have later heard the direct evidence we have found how thoroughly unreliable hearsay evidence can be. These rules of evidence were made in days gone by because they were thought to be necessary. I think that they are still necessary.
As for the provision that it should be left to rules of court to alter the law in this important respect, I echo the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson). I was one of the two barristers who sat on the Matrimonial Causes Rules Committee two years ago, when it was found that the members of the Committee had no power, that our voice counted for nothing, and the Lord Chancellor decided what rules should or should not be made. We could, of course, make suggestions, but he claimed to have a veto on those 482 suggestions. It is proposed that Parliament should empower a Minister to give to the courts the power to sit in secret and to waive the rules of evidence. If important alterations like this are to be made to the law, they should be made by Parliament and not by a Minister.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Raphael Tuck (Watford)
I rise to welcome this necessary Bill, but there are one or two matters to which I would draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I particularly welcome the setting up of family courts, and on this subject the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) has taken many of the words out of my mouth. Family matters have been dealt with by many different courts, and a system of family courts has long been advocated by experts on the subject, among them the learned editor of Rayden on Divorce, Mr. Joseph Jackson, Q.C., who is a great authority, if not the great authority, on divorce in this country. My quarrel with my right hon. and learned Friend is that this is all being done piecemeal.
Appellate business is referred to in Schedule 1 in paragraphs (a), (b), and (c), and paragraph (c) states:(c) section 11 of the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act 1960 (appeal from certain decisions of a magistrates' court under that Act).The magistrates' court will still have jurisdiction to decide matters between husband and wife and under the Guardianship of Infants Act. As I have said, the subject is being attacked piecemeal.
The Beeching Report, which recommended a two-tier system, should be implemented. The courts will be reorganised in any case, and on the two-tier system the circuit courts and the High Court will interchange. All family matters should therefore be entrusted to the family courts. Under the Beeching recommendation the circuit courts will have jurisdiction over these matters. There will be three parts—matters which normally go to Queen's Bench, matters which normally go to Chancery and matters which normally go to Matrimonial Affairs. It is those circuit courts which should deal with matrimonial matters, and appeals should lie to the Appeal Division of the Family Court of the High Court of Justice.
483 May I remind my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that the magistrates' courts will still be administering the old law. The Divorce Reform Act, 1969, which provides new grounds for divorce, will not be administered by the magistrates' courts. They will still be administering the old law of matrimonial offences—persistent cruelty, adultery and desertion. This means that there will be no tie-up with the new law when it comes into effect next year as it is administered by the High Court. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider implementing the Beeching Report and having the whole matter dealt with in one go instead of doing it in this piecemeal fashion?
I turn next to the provision which enables the Commercial Court to sit in private and to admit evidence which would not otherwise be admissible in the courts. We know that courts are allowed to sit in private in certain exceptional cases, but I cannot think of anything which can be transacted in a commercial court which calls for this exceptional privacy.
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) referred to the letter published in The Times yesterday and written by Mr. Desmond Ackner, Q.C., the Chairman of the General Council of the Bar of England and Wales, and the President of the Law Society, which contains this passage:No doubt very many people would prefer to have their disputes adjudged behind closed doors, but in this country we have hitherto believed that it is essential to the maintenance of unimpeachable standards of justice, and therefore in the interests of the public and of litigants themselves, that cases should be decided in public".There is also the well-known precept that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. In many divorce cases the parties hate to have their linen washed in public but have to do so because justice must be seen to be done and must be public. There is no justification for making any inroad into this well-tried and established rule—that justice must be public. This should apply to the Commercial Court as well.
The same goes for evidence which is received in these courts. The well-known rules of evidence must apply. There is no justification for any alteration there.
484 I welcome the Attorney-General's announcement that he is considering an Amendment to the Bill regarding the harassment of debtors. I did not know about the red terrors or blue terrors, or whatever he called them, but am glad to be informed of them. I knew full well that debtors were considerably harassed by creditors.
I would ask my right hon. and learned Friend also to give consideration to paragraphs 912–932 of the Report of the Payne Committee, which suggest that distress for rent due should be abolished.
Subject to these points, I welcome the Bill.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
It is perhaps of great significance that every hon. Member who has spoken so far, including myself, is a member of one or other of the two branches of the legal profession. I say this because it is a pity that we do not hear a lay view on a Bill that will have a tremendous impact on people's everyday lives.
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
The House will hear a lay view if I succeed in catching the eye of the Chair.
§ Mr. Hooson
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for interrupting me, but I never regard her views as exactly lay. I always regard them as unique.
For example, there has been a good deal of discussion about the saving of judges' time, which is rightly regarded as very important. I wonder whether it would assume such great importance in the eyes of the layman. Litigation is concerned also with the time of witnesses—doctors, engineers, and so on. A sense of balance must be preserved.
I am thinking particularly of Clause 6, which anticipates to some extent the implementation of the recommendations of the Beeching Commission. In the main, I agree with some of those recommendations. Nevertheless, in its investigations the Beeching Commission found that there was a great difference between some parts of the country and others.
Not long ago a High Court judge who has now retired told me of a case that had been transferred into his list at Derby as a matter of convenience. Convenience for whom? It was for the convenience of 485 the lawyers who were conducting the case. The judge discovered that one of the parties to the action—a farm worker—and his wife had had to get up at quarter past five in the morning in order to reach the court at 10.30. Particularly in areas such as mine where public communications are very bad, matters such as these are important, and I hope that they will be borne in mind when a decision is taken upon the use of the power embodied in Clause 6.
Generally I am in favour of the provisions of the Bill, which are largely a tidying operation which will entail the rearrangement of court business in a more logical and practical way. I am greatly in favour of setting up the family type of court. However, I agree with the regret expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom. There is much to be said for setting up family courts at the lower level first. Magistrates' courts, and even courts of quarter session, are so concerned nowadays with matters that have largely a social content that the right place to start forming a family court is at that level rather than at the level of the High Court.
For example, many appeals which will be directed to the Family Court should properly go to a court of quarter session. The High Court is such a high level and is so expensive in comparison with the other courts that a Government intent upon doing their best for the lay community should start at a much lower level with the family courts, but this is not in any way to say that I regret the introduction of the Family Division of the High Court.
The attribution of non-contentious probate work to the Family Division and of contentious probate work to the Chancery Division raises an important question. I suspect that there has been a good deal of in-fighting between the Divisions, with the Chancery Division claiming its share of the probate work and the Family Division claiming its share. When and how will the line be drawn between contentious and non-contentious probate work?
On circuit there is a certain amount of probate work. That work is often concerned with family disputes. As often as 486 not these cases are settled, especially when they are in the hands of people who are not specialists in probate work, on a family settlement basis.
There is much to be said for leaving contentious probate work, certainly of small estates, in the hands of the family court. I would be inclined to put the whole of probate work in the Family Division rather than divide it as proposed in the Bill.
I welcome, as others have welcomed, the start made in the Bill in the abolition of imprisonment for commercial debts and in the constitution of attachment orders. I thoroughly disagree here with the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West, who made a passionately reactionary speech in favour of imprisonment for debt, in which he was supported from the most radical quarter of the House—
§ Mr. Hooson
—and by the most reactionary quarter of the House. The point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman disregarded the findings of the Payne Committee about the nature of those sent to prison for debt—their inadequacy, and so on. In Scotland, where there never has been imprisonment for debt, the number of debtors is no greater as a percentage of population than it is in England and Wales.
This has been found to be an inadequate sanction, and, with the enormous pressure on prison space for much more important matters than this, it is high time that imprisonment for debt was abolished. There is no reason for retaining the sanction of imprisonment for debt of Crown debts. If it is abolished at all, it should be abolished across the board.
§ Mr. Bruce Campbell
Surely the test is the number of cases in which a debt is paid after a suspended committal order is made. A judge frequently says, "You will go to prison for six weeks unless you pay within seven days". The test must be the number of cheques that come in within the seven days, and, clearly, very many do.
§ Mr. Hooson
I do not agree. This is a matter of judgment, and the hon. and learned Gentleman's and mine differ in 487 this respect. Obviously, if imprisonment for debt is abolished, it must be replaced with something else. The introduction of the attachment order and the extension from the ordinary maintenance order is excellent.
However, I cannot understand why the Government have not implemented the Payne Report recommendation for an enforcement office and an enforcement office procedure. That is an essential part of the changes, and I would like to know the real reasons why the Government have not implemented this recommendation. We have had no explanation so far, and it is important to know what it is.
I turn now to the Commercial Court, which has aroused great controversy in the legal profession. I disagree with the majority view expressed in this House today. The reason why we have a Commercial Court is to meet a public need. Certain parties wish to litigate about a commercial matter and, normally, people in commerce want a quicker decision than our legal procedures often allow for, which is why so many revert to arbitration. They want a decision given by a man or men of standing and integrity, and they want the decision to be such that it is generally acceptable in the commercial world, which knows no national boundaries.
Most people in the Common Law Bar do not sufficiently appreciate the international nature of the Commercial Court. Only today I was told by a distinguished "silk" at the Commercial Bar of two arbitarations in which he has appeared recently. In one, the presiding arbitrator was a distinguished member of the Swiss high court. In the other, a distinguished member of the Dutch high court presided. Both judges had been encouraged by their Governments to accept the arbitrations. The one where the Dutch judge presided involved a dispute between two countries. It is highly desirable that British judges, who could acquit themselves so well in this position, should be allowed to do so. I know of one retired judge who is sought after constantly to act as an arbitrator. It is right that the Government should release judges to be arbitrators. It would add to the lustre of the English judicial system for some 488 of our judges to become arbitrators in the great international disputes.
I am also in favour of the provision that, on occasion, commercial judges can sit in secret and dispense with the strict adherence to the rules of evidence. This is necessary because of the nature of the litigation in the Commercial Court, and it is significant that there has been strong pressure for such a provision from those who use our Commercial Court. We have to keep up to date. The opinions of those who may be parties and those who practise in the Commercial Court are of greater value than the views of those of us who do not and who tend to generalise about such matters when we have very little knowledge of them.
§ Mr. Raphael Tuck
Is there anything more sacrosanct about a commercial matter which gives it the right of privacy than about a matrimonial matter or a matter of contract or tort? If people want to go to arbitraion, let them go.
§ Mr. Hooson
There is a great demand in commercial circles for this kind of provision. Of course, people can go to arbitration. However, unless we bring our Commercial Court LID to date, we shall find it continually by-passed, with parties going to arbitration or taking their disputes to other courts in Europe. There is considerable competition for commercial litigation. This country got an early lead in it, and it is important that the practices of our Commercial Court should be brought into line with those of other countries; otherwise we shall lose a great deal of this litigation.
At the beginning of my speech, I adverted to the absence so far of a lay contribution. It is a pity that the Government do not provide more time for general debates on such matters as the Beeching Report and some of the reports of the Law Commission. We should have these general debates before we come to debate Bills which, in part, are based on those reports. It is in that kind of debate that we are likely to obtain the views of the whole House and not just chose of a specialised section of it. The Government have been remiss in pressing on too quickly with this legislation without having the debate on the general principles which should precede it.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Mr. A. H. Macdonald (Chislehurst)
I. am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), because I felt a little apprehensive about intervening in a debate concerned with technical legal matters, and I was glad to hear him say that there should be contributions from laymen. I am conscious of my defects, and, therefore, I propose to make only a few brief remarks on one part of the Bill. That is Part III, dealing with disclosure.
I do not feel entirely at ease with the provisions in Part III. As I understand them, the Clauses provide for the disclosure in some cases possibly of medical evidence. That is a private matter, and I am sure that all hon. Members would at any rate begin with the conviction that matters which are private should not be disclosed publicly unless it is absolutely necessary.
In the evidence given to the Winn Committee there was a statement by the representative of the Transport and General Workers Union on this point. He said that people bringing legal actions for damages should have nothing to hide. I agree with that proposition, but I quarrel with the inference which seems to be drawn that because there is nothing shameful and nothing to be hidden in these matters, it is proper that they should be disclosed to the public without the plaintiff's approval or consent.
To say that a matter is private is not the same as saying that it is shameful. There must be any number of medical matters which are not shameful but which people do not necessarily want blazoned forth in public courts.
All this is commonplace, but I remind the House that not long ago my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. Walden) introduced a Bill on the right of privacy. It received widespread support. Towards the conclusion of the debate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated that it was a serious matter which should be considered in depth and he proposed the appointment of a commission to examine it. This proposal also met with widespread support, and the Bill was withdrawn. If that commission is to look into privacy and consider what should be disclosed and in what circumstances, 490 I am a little surprised to see a Bill coming forward now making provision for the disclosure of these matters without waiting to consider what the commission will say.
I fully recognise that in the context of this Bill we are considering the case of a plaintiff bringing legal action. Therefore, in some cases it may be necessary for medical information to be disclosed. But I am not happy about the safeguards.
The Winn Committee Report, on which I take it this part of the Bill is based, in paragraph 295 states that medical records may in many cases be illegible because they are hastily scribbled notes in a hospital; in some cases they may even be inaccurate because they were perhaps made by some junior, or even by a nurse, and the original diagnosis may have been over-ridden or amended by a later consultant.
I remind the House that the Winn Committee's Report was not unanimous on this point. In the minority report, to which I direct attention, further arguments were adduced. It pointed out that if compulsory disclosure is to be made in this way the plaintiff will apparently have no opportunity to contest whether the information so disclosed is or is not relevant to the case that is being considered.
It is conceivable that in some cases the plaintiff might wish to bring some medical authority other than the doctor who initially examined him in hospital. This would not necessarily be reprehensible, but it might create a curious situation where evidence of the plaintiff's condition by one doctor was submitted and a different doctor was testifying in court.
These arguments and others will be found in paragraph 93 of the minority report, but I do not want to dwell further on those matters because, clearly, this could be better gone into in more detail in Committee.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend's argument. Would he agree that the greatest possible protection is given in the Bill, because this disclosure can only be made on application to the court in accordance with the rules of court? There is no wild disclosure. Great care would be taken by the court, surely, to prevent any improper disclosure.
§ Mr. Macdonald
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was about to turn to that point. There is provision that it shall only be in accordance with provisions to be made under the rules of court.
§ Mr. Hooson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the advantages to the man or woman who is injured are greater than to the employer? The man or woman who has been injured will normally be taken away to hospital. Therefore, the employer is left with the photographs, the equipment, the accident report, and so on. Those things are in the employer's possession or that of a third party. Therefore, these rules will help rather than injure an intending litigant.
§ Mr. Macdonald
But we have not yet seen these rules. Presumably they have not yet been drawn up. Therefore, I do not see how we can say that the rules will necessarily help the plaintiff. Further, the defendant, the employer, is already in possession of a great deal of information. The proposal is that further information shall compulsorily be disclosed by the plaintiff to the defendant. But the defendant is already in a strong position, and I do not see any corresponding provision that these matters shall be disclosed the other way.
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) made some remarks about the rules of court which encouraged me, so far as a layman can understand these technical matters. The right hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to be giving some support to the case that I am making; namely, that if there is to be this disclosure—I have ventured to advance reasons why this should not be taken for granted—the conditions under which it should take place should be set out in the Bill rather than in the rules of court. We do not know of what these rules will consist. It appears to be a compulsory disclosure by the plaintiff towards the defence with no compensating disclosure the other way. I am not happy about the proposal that private matters shall be disclosed.
For example, the medical examination of somebody who has been injured might take account of some other illness, defect or injury that that person had which has nothing to do with the circumstances of the case. I do not suggest anything 492 shameful; I mean something private. If a man has some disability or defect, it is a private matter. Yet such a matter would naturally appear in the medical report of the examination of that person. If it were compulsory for these matters to be disclosed, that additional irrelevant information would be available to the defence. I cannot think that that is right.
I have ventured to put forward arguments for thinking that further thought should be given to these proposals. I can see the arguments in favour of them; but, having looked at the Winn Committee's Report, which casts doubt in my mind, and having looked at the minority report, which added to my doubt, I suggest that there are dangers and difficulties in these proposals.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I am sure that the House will sympathise with me because I feel rather out of my depth. I always feel somewhat out of my depth when a great many legal arguments are going on. But I have a conscience. That is why I intervene in the debate.
I am a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations. I got a letter from that association today asking me to raise one or two points on the Bill. As I consider it an honour to be a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations and as nobody has made any reference to its views, I felt that I should try to do my duty by it. But I say at once that I am putting forward the association's views, not necessarily mine. I do not necessarily agree with its views, partly because I have not got the basic legal knowledge to understand whether they are sensible, though I expect they are. However, I am sure that the Attorney-General will give full account to the association's views.
The letter is not very long, and I think that it is important for me to read it. I always rather enjoy expressing my own views, even though, as the hon. Gentleman said, they are not always in accord with normal practice, and it would be a pity if I were to misrepresent the views held by the association.
It says:The Bill gives effect to a number of recommendations of the Committee on the Enforcement of Judgment Debts—the 'Payne Committee '—; the particular recommendations implemented in this Bill are—with one exception—not of direct concern to local authorities, 493 but this first instalment, and the indication that further legislation will follow to implement the rest of that report, leads the Association to ask for an assurance that local authorities will be consulted before any change is made in matters where these authorities have direct responsibilities. For example, the Association is strongly opposed to the Payne Committee's recommended transfer of the jurisdiction of the magistrates' courts to the county courts in general rate recovery proceedings, and to the abolition of imprisonment for nonpayment of the general rate.I hope that the Attorney-General will give that assurance, because, in a variety of subjects which I try to follow as carefully as I can, I sometimes find that the necessary consultations do not take place. I am sure that it will be helpful to the association if it can be given the assurance for which it has asked. I do not know whether I ought to take it from the association's expression of views that on general matters affecting questions of imprisonment, and so on, it has been consulted.
I agreed with what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell). Perhaps my only reason, apart from conscience, for intervening in the debate is that I happen to be a magistrate. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in any way, but I think that the courts of summary jurisdiction provide purely rough and ready justice. I sometimes think that it is not appropriate for magistrates on the bench to cross-examine witnesses, though sometimes I can hardly restrain myself from doing so, but I support what my hon. and learned Friend said about imprisonment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) thinks that he has a broad progressive view. I sat with him in the Committee considering the Divorce Bill, and I thought he felt that he had a progressive view. I am glad that imprisonment for the non-payment of maintenance orders is to be retained, because I am sure that this will be supported by women magistrates. I have spoken to a large number of them, and I know that they feel very strongly on the matter. I expect that they have expressed their views to the Attorney-General, and I am delighted that he has taken note of what they have said. I have an idea that the Magistrates' Association takes the same view, although there was some com- 494 plication about it, and I am glad that this part of the Bill has been retained.
The other matter which presents tremendous difficulties is the non-payment of debts by motorists. I understand that because of the new arrangements motorists who are charged with rather minor infringements of the law can write and explain the position to the magistrate—
§ Dame Irene Ward
I am dealing with the non-payment of fines in motoring cases. Motoring fines do not now have the significance that they used to have because motorists do not always have to attend court when they are charged with an offence.
I ask the Attorney-General to institute an inquiry into the situation with regard to magistrates' clerks. I support the view that they are facing great difficulties because of a tremendous shortage of staff. I do not know whether they received a sympathetic answer to the observations made about the provision of staff to carry out the administration of the courts of summary jurisdiction.
When I sit as a magistrate, and I have to make an order in a case which is proved against someone, I always give whacking fines, and a long time to pay, because that impresses on the offender—or at least I hope it does—that he—or she—has to go on paying for quite a long time, and I hope that it encourages him to behave better in the future. But I know that that kind of decision is not particularly acceptable to those who administer the courts, because for a very much longer time they have to try to ensure that weekly, fortnightly, or whatever it may be, the fine is paid into court. I hope that in the administration of justice, which is the purpose of the Bill, a little more sympathy will be extended to magistrates' clerks because of the difficulties with which they are confronted when there are not sufficient staff to cope with the demands made on them.
I sit on the Newcastle-on-Tyne bench, though naturally not in my own constituency, and I can therefore speak freely. Newcastle-upon-Tyne has a pretty bad record, and I therefore think that it would be a good idea to examine the 495 position of the staff of the courts of summary jurisdiction. I should like the Attorney-General to make a real examination of the question of motoring fines, because a lot of money could be spent on some of the things in which many of us are interested. Perhaps the Attorney-General will let me know his ideas about collection.
I must get back to the Association of Municipal Corporations. Mr. Swaffield goes on to say:There is one matter in this Bill with which the Association is directly concerned. Clause 32 implements the Payne Committee's recommendation that the courts should be given power to postpone the operation of any order for possession obtained by a mortgagee where the borrower has failed to comply with the conditions of the mortgage.This is where my legal knowledge is very weak.The recommendation on which this Clause is based would, however, have exempted local authority lenders on the grounds that they are not liable to the restrictions imposed by the Rent Acts on landlords. The Association infers that the Payne Committee drew an analogy between local authorities as landlords and as lenders of money to assist house purchase and, in common with the Payne Committee, considers that local authorities should have been exempted from this Clause. The Lord Chancellor"—I am not sure that I am a great friend of the Lord Chancellor, because he never seems to do what I want him to do, and that does not commend him to me—in the course of a debate on an amendment moved in the other House … and in correspondence with the Association, sought to equate local authorities with other lenders because `they are under no obligation to lend money and when lending are in a similar position to building societies or any other mortgagee.' The Association, on the other hand, submits that local authorities are expected to provide loans for house purchase for those unable to obtain help from building societies or elsewhere this is part of the entire housing responsibility of local authorities who have virtually become lenders of last resort and are fulfilling a social need in advancing money for house purchase; local authorities are dealing with public money; and no case has been made out for including local authority lenders in this Clause and diminishing the discretion of the local authority while increasing that of the court. It therefore hopes that an admendment excluding local authorities from this Clause will be made.Mr. Swaffield goes on:This is, I feel, a Committee point in substance, and if it is one with which you can sympathise"—496 I do not know whether I can—and if you will be good enough to let me know I will write to you again with a view to proposing an appropriate amendment at that stage.I hope that I shall not be on the Committee, because my legal knowledge is not sufficient to make it worth while. I therefore thought that I had better raise this matter today, in the hope that somebody will take it up for and on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, because to that association it is an important matter, and as a vice-president I should state its case.
§ The Attorney-General
It would be most helpful if the hon. Lady would supply me with a copy of this correspondence.
§ Dame Irene Ward
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It will all appear in HANSARD, but I shall be delighted to hand the right hon. and learned Gentleman any correspondence. As his helpful remark will appear in HANSARD, I am sure that the association will get in touch with him, and then I shall take the view that for once I have done something to justify my re-election over the years as vice-president of the association.
That is all I want to say. This is a very important Bill. It has many appropriate Clauses. I hope that the good Clauses will go through without amendment and that the bad Clauses will be appropriately amended.
§ 6.53 p.m.
§ Sir John Foster (Northwich)
I want to make a few points in connection with two or three Clauses.
It seems to me that in connection with Part III the fears of the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Macdonald) can be allayed. Clause 27 applies to a person who might be a party to proceedings and the court thinks he might have in his possession certain documents concerning the proceedings. That Clause will work mostly in favour of the plaintiff. A plaintiff who has been injured in an industrial accident or on the road may not know what happened —especially if he has been seriously injured—and he may therefore be behindhand, in which case, in order to enable him to decide whether or not he should start an action or whether it will 497 be a waste of legal aid, he can usefully cause an application to be made to discover what the facts are. In many cases the other side will produce the required documents rather than fight a useless application.
The hon. Member for Chislehurst was misinformed in thinking that private matters might be revealed. Only relevant matters will be revealed. The rules of court do not have to say that. The things that will be revealed are such things as the facts of a person's medical examination, and any account of the accident. I imagine that material that normally has absolute privilege from disclosure—things like documents prepared with a view to litigation—will not have to be disclosed. If there were to be a breach of that rule some debate would be required in this House. I am assuming that things which are privileged —communications with solicitors, or reports prepared by solicitors with regard to an accident—will not be revealed. What is wanted is a report of what happened at the time of the accident. The apprehensions of the hon. Member about Clause 27 are, therefore, groundless.
As for the hon. Member's fears about Clause 28, the Clause provides that where proceedings have been started and it is thought that some third person has documents which may help, the court shall have powers to serve upon that person a subpoena duces tecum. Before the case starts it may not be known whether such a third party has any relevant documents, and if he is unwilling to co-operate he can refuse to disclose them beforehand. He is not a party to the proceedings, so the rule about discovery does not work against him. It is therefore necessary to wait until the proceedings come on for hearing, at which point the third party can be served with a subpoena duces tecum to bring the documents into court so that the applicant can examine them there. I am talking about a third party who will not co-operate. I imagine that Clause 28 is designed to take care of that circumstance. If a court is satisfied that a third party has such a document and that it is relevant—and that it is not absolutely privileged, which in the circumstances I am sure it would not be—it can order him to produce it to the applicant.
498 The other Clause to which I wish to refer is Clause 3, which provides that in the proposed Commercial Court there will be a power to admit any evidence which would not otherwise be admissible under the rules of evidence. That power is contained in subsection (3)(a). In my submission, the rules of evidence ought not to exist in any case. It seems curious that the Commercial Court, which deals with important matters, can disregard rules of evidence. As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) rightly said, this was done because we have a lot of international commercial litigation and other countries do not have rules of evidence. People would therefore be disinclined to come to English courts where rules of evidence are normally in existence. In my view, rules of evidence are medixyal rules, introduced to protect medieval juries—who were witnesses as well—from being misled. The rules of evidence are technically irrelevant and often exclude the truth. There are no rules of evidence in foreign legislation; the judge decides what is relevant and what is not. The tribunal is quite able to protect itself against being misled.
English civil courts are not concerned with the truth; they are concerned only with the result of the battle between two protagonists, supported by their tournament helpers; namely, the witnesses. If a person who knows the truth about a case is in court but is not called by either side, the judge cannot call him. I have known cases in which the judge has said, "If I had had the advantage of hearing X I might well have decided black, but I have not heard his evidence, and so I decided white", whereas in another case, a judge may be able to say, "I have had the advantage of hearing X and I decide"—on the same point—"white". That does not shock most English lawyers, but it shocks me. A foreign court calls all the witnesses. The lawyer who takes a proof from the witnesses is disbarred, and the witnesses are witnesses of truth, and help to discover what the whole truth is. In an English court the truth is irrelevant; what counts is what is established in the evidence between the parties, which may or may not be the truth. That, I imagine, is why the Government have decided that in commercial cases, where such a state of things is shameful for 499 foreign litigants, they will disregard the rules of evidence.
§ Mr. Raphael Tuck
If the hon. and learned Member wants to waive those long-established rules in the interests of justice, why limit it to the commercial courts? Why should not justice be done in all courts, and these rules be waived in every court?
§ Sir J. Foster
I am sorry if I did not make the point of my speech clear. That is the point. I welcome this slight concession to the pure principle, but I wish that it had been applied to all litigation. I do not expect that my erstwhile confreres will agree with me, but I am glad that we have this small step forward. Another such step forward is that in certain directions a person can be made to incriminate himself. I think that English law will gradually adopt these things. I welcome the fact that the judge in these commercial cases will be able to waive the rules of evidence, but I wish that this had been extended to all litigation.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)
The Bill introduces a large number of subjects but it is unsatisfactory to have under the general heading of "Administration of Justice" such a large number of varying and important provisions. One wonders whether full justice has been done to the eminent gentlemen who have provided the varied reports on which the provisions of the Bill have been based. There have been a large number of these titled Bills over the years and this does not simplify the examination of the law. Important though the Bill is, greater consideration could have been given to many of these important provisions.
It is not entirely a legal point, for example, to consider the changes proposed under the Beeching Plan for assizes. These are matters of grave importance to private individuals with no particular knowledge of the law and very little interest, until they are compelled to have it in its procedures. Perhaps a different title could have been given to some of these matters rather than one global title for them all. No doubt the details can be studied in Committee, but 500 that is not adequate to the wider issue of these matters.
I am not certain how this matter of Part II stands financially. Once we decide that there should be no imprisonment for contractual debt, we must find an alternative. The Lord Chancellor, I think, said in another place that nine more registrars would be required, and the final financial statement says that there seems to be very little difference. I do not understand in what way staff will be saved. Perhaps this is another indication of the slap-happy attitude behind the Bill.
I hope that it is realised that employers, particularly small employers, will be landed in considerable difficulty, as will the staff of county courts. I doubt whether it will be financially possible to deal with these matters without private considerable cost. The cost to the country may be small: it is derisory to pay the employer "a bob a nob" to deal with these matters. The small employer faces many difficulties, and this will be just one more.
I am not sure that the system based on the Payne Report under Part II is right. Clause 17(1) says:Where, in any proceedings, the court has power to make an attachment of earnings order, it may—(a) order the debtor to give to the court, within a specified period, a statement signed by him of(i) the name and address of any person by whom earnings are paid to him".That sounds all right, but it does not happen like that with judgment debts in the county court. Many of these people do not turn up and cannot be found. We are concerned with cases which, but for the Bill, might involve imprisonment.
But, at the very portal of this scheme, if the debtor does not want to do anything about it, I do not see how he can be compelled. The only thing then is a reference to Clause 21(3), which says that a person committing an offence against the Clause will be liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than £25. Is it thought that a fellow owing a substantial debt will be compelled by the threat of such a fine to tell the county court who his employer is? Alternatively, he may be ordered by a judge of the High Court or of a county court to pay a fine of not more than £25 or to be imprisoned for not more than a 501 fortnight. I should like to ask the Attorney-General how many debtors have in the past been fined for failure to attend the court or sent to prison for more than 14 days for that offence. I have not been able to get the figures but I think it would be interesting to know.
It is perfectly true that we are doing away with imprisonment for contractual debt but we are substituting another sanction for it in Clause 21(3) as I see it. If that is so, we are really back to the idea of sentencing a person for contempt of court, and that has really been a similar basis on which matters have been dealt with prior to the Bill.
I think there is a fundamental weakness in the Bill because I do not think that the sort of person who is prepared to resist all the blandshiments to pay his debt will, in any sense, be worried or concerned about the fact that he has 14 days to serve because he did not do this or that. I think that part of the Bill is weak, and I hope that some consideration will be given to whether it can be strengthened. It seems to me that the only sanction available against a debtor who does not turn up as instructed and give the name and address of his employer and other requirements of Clause 17(1) is imprisonment.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
With the leave of the House, I should like to deal with some of the matters of substance which have been raised. I know that the House will forgive me if I do not deal with all the points raised. Several of them—such as, with respect, some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington)—are perhaps appropriate for consideration at the Committee stage at which I hope we shall have the pleasure of the hon. Gentleman's assistance.
The first part of the Bill, dealing with the reconstitution of the High Court, seems to have been well received on the whole by the House and there seems to have been general acceptance of the idea of a Family Court. The suggestion was made that perhaps the magistrates' courts, which will continue to have jurisdiction in domestic matters, were too tainted by their criminal jurisdiction to do so. But the House will know that the magis- 502 trates' domestic courts are specially constituted and follow a special and different procedure from that followed when the magistrates' courts are sitting in criminal matters. There are, in particular, restrictions on the persons who may be present when domestic business is discussed in the magistrates' courts.
I was asked by the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) why cases under the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act were not to be dealt with in the Family Court. This was considered but it was regarded as a borderline case, and on the whole it seemed better, as questions of property frequently arise in relation to these proceedings, to have them dealt with in the Chancery Division.
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Raphael Tuck), in connection with this part of the discussion, raised the question of the effect of the Divorce Reform Act on the magistrates' courts. The whole question of the magistrates' powers to make maintenance orders is under consideration by the Government in consultation with the Law Commission in the light of the Divorce Reform Act and of the Commission's recommendations on financial relief on divorce, which are contained in the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Bill.
It was also suggested during the debate that small contentious probate cases should go to the Family Court. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that the county court has jurisdiction in contentious probate cases where the value of the estate does not exceed £1,000.
The part of the Bill which came in for most criticism was that which related to the interesting provision as to the procedures in the Commercial Court. Until the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) rose, there was not a single welcoming voice, except my own, for the proposal that the Commercial Court should sit in private. I was rather hoping that the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) might have been tempted to give his support to this but I noticed that for once he maintained a silence which is perhaps the silence of discretion. I know not. At any rate, I must be thankful for the small mercy that the hon. and learned Gentleman approved the relaxation in the rules of 503 evidence, which he would extend elsewhere, as he suggested in his characteristically radical speech—radical as he is in all matters affecting the administration of justice.
I make this general point as to why the proposal to enable the Commercial Court to sit in private exists in the Bill and should be given to this class of litigants—those who litigate in the Commercial Court. The reason is simply that that class of litigant has long been recognised as constituting a special category of user of the legal system. Commercial litigation is in many respects very different from other kinds of proceedings. In particular, as has been said in criticism of Clause 3(3), the commercial community has the option of arbitration. That is not an argument against allowing it to litigate in private. On the contrary, it is one of the distinguishing marks which separate it from other kinds of dispute. In this special field it is not an unreasonable doctrine that the parties are entitled to the kind of hearing which they want unless overwhelming reasons to the contrary can be shown.
Surely the contention that the wishes of the parties are irrelevant goes much too far. It is, as is apparent from the relevant Clause, the Lord Chancellor's intention to submit to the Supreme Court Rule Committee the responsibility for advising on and drawing up the rules which will apply. It is his intention that those rules should confer a power upon the commercial judge to sit in private when all the parties to the litigation want it, and not simply when one party only desires it. The fact that the provisions are to be embodied in rules of court means that they will have to be approved, as I said in opening, by the representatives of the legal profession who will be present—the barristers and the solicitors.
I do not propose to resurrect the unhappy dispute as to what went on when the Matrimonial Causes Rules of 1968 were made. It was certainly a controversy which arose in very special circumstances indeed. But it is a grotesque caricature of what goes on in the Rule Committee to suggest that the Lord Chancellor simply rubber-stamps its decisions. Bearing in mind the quality of the members of the Rule Committee— 504 the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, the senior Chancery judge, and three puisne judges the idea that they would be railroaded to support rules which they thought would in the circumstances be contrary to the interests of justice is a grotesque fear. However, we shall look carefully at these proposals in regard to the Commercial Court when we come to the Committee stage.
There was a good deal of discussion of the provisions regarding attachment of wages. The main criticism which emerged, I think, was directed to the failure to set up the enforcement machinery recommended by the Payne Committee; that is, an enforcement office and machinery connected therewith. It is true that the Payne Committee envisaged that the enforcement office would have district offices attached to the main county court offices, that these would be under the control of the registrar, and that they would draw their staff from the local county court.
It has been suggested that, perhaps, imprisonment for debt should not be abolished and replaced by attachment of earnings before the enforcement office is set up. I think that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery was disposed to take that view. It would be impracticable to implement all the Payne Committee's recommendations at once. The Committee itself realised that it might well be necessary to proceed in stages, and examination of the problems involved has shown that to be right. The Committee suggested that priority should be given to the abolition of imprisonment for debt and the extension of attachment of earnings, and this is precisely what the Bill does.
Nothing is likely to be lost by not having an enforcement office at this stage. The enforcement of judgment debts by attachment of earnings can be channelled by rules of court into the debtor's local county court. The registrars and their staffs already give great assistance to debtors in helping them to fill in forms and tasks of that kind. Welfare officers with local authorities and other organisations provide most valuable services, and at about half a dozen courts, mainly in the London area, there are some voluntary welfare workers assigned to the 505 courts by arrangement with the judges, and these, too, have been doing valuable work during the past year or so.
These devices, if that be the right term, by which help can be given to debtors are available, and I consider that it was justifiable to proceed as we have done without waiting for the setting up of the full machinery recommended by the Payne Committee.
I was asked some questions about unpaid fines, and one hon. Member said that the total came to over £4 million. That figure, I am advised, includes fines the time for payment of which has not yet expired. In other words, it is simply the total of fines imposed which have not been paid at a particular time, even though some of the instalments are not yet due.
The problem of the enforcement of fines is extremely difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis), whom I see eager to leap to his feet, has been active in referring to this question. All I can say at the moment is that the problem is being studied by the Home Secretary's Advisory Council on the Penal System. In the meantime, we hope that the improvements in the attachment of earnings machinery provided by the Bill will reduce the arrears of unpaid fines.
§ Dame Irene Ward
For what it is worth, my experience of Home Office committees is that they go on for years and years. How soon does the right hon. and learned Gentleman expect a report from the Advisory Council to which he has referred? The £5 million cannot have been built up in just a short space of time, and I doubt that a great deal of that £5 million is represented by fines which are not quite due.
§ The Attorney-General
For once, the hon. Lady is being a little ungenerous. The Home Office applies itself with efficiency and vigour to these problems. I can only say that the report is expected as soon as may be. This serious problem is being actively considered.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
My right hon. and learned Friend was kind enough to refer to me. Will he suggest to the Home Office that where a person deliberately—I emphasise "deliberately"—refuses to pay a fine upon a fine, he 506 should at least be given the prospect of imprisonment? I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that there are many who deliberately refuse to pay fines upon fines because they know that no further action will be taken. If they knew that there was the possibility of imprisonment, many of them would pay up.
§ The Attorney-General
I shall see that that stern advice is most carefully considered.
The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) read the fascinating communication from the Association of Municipal Corporations. It raises some important questions. But all I say now is that the Bill does not touch the question of recovery in the magisstrates' courts of unpaid rates. Rate recovery is not affected by the Bill. However, I assure the hon. Lady that there will be consultation when this question is followed up with the local authorities.
The hon. Lady asked also whether requests from magistrates' courts for extra staff are sympathetically considered. I am told that they certainly are, and that the Home Office will give the most sympathetic consideration to such requests as are put to it. However, I must add the rider that that sympathetic consideration, and action following upon it, has unfortunately to be consistent with the need for economies in public expenditure, of which the hon. Lady and her party are the most eloquent advocates.
§ Dame Irene Ward
I am sorry to intervene again, but I wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman really knew and understood the difficulties which Newcastle-upon-Tyne had in getting an additional court. The building had been bought and everything prepared but it was a frightful business to have it heated and to get the court into operation. I did not have to raise the matter on the Floor of the House, but my letters on the subject will, I am sure, be of interest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, if he cares to look them up. It is all very well to say that we want good administration of justice, but some of the difficulties put in our way are appalling. Perhaps we could squeeze the money out of the £5 million owed in fines.
§ The Attorney-General
These problems are very grave, and the problem of 507 court accommodation is at the heart of the delays in the administration of justice. One of the difficulties is that the problem has been left to local authorities. Following Beeching, it will be centralised, and dealt with at the Lord Chancellor's Department's level. I hope that resources, both financial and personal, will be made available to speed up the provision of more court accommodation.
I share the sympathy that was expressed with the difficulties in which the procedures for the attachment of wages would involve employers. We have in the Bill attempted to help employers in several respects, and because I do not wish to weary the House with the various steps that have been taken, we will indicate in detail in Committee what we have done to make the burden which falls on them as light as possible. As the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) said, we are conscious that this is a burden which they did not seek, which they have not enjoyed having placed on them and which it is our duty to make as light as possible.
Anxiety was expressed about the provisions in regard to discovery. I suggest that those anxieties were answered adequately by the hon. and learned Member for Northwich and, if it be necessary, I can pursue the matter in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) raised difficult problems concerning the legal aid procedures. It was apparent that he had had some extremely vigorous, though rewarding, correspondence with the Lord Chancellor. I listened and noted his remarks, and I will communicate them to the Lord Chancellor.
I am grateful to the House for its indulgence in permitting me to deal with these matters, and I thank hon. Members for the welcome which the Bill has, on the whole, received.
§ 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).