HC Deb 07 April 1971 vol 815 cc596-600

10.55 p.m.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 20, at end add: (2) If the damages claimed in an action under this section do not exceed £25, a court of summary jurisdiction may, after convicting a person of an offence in respect of failure to control the dog, order him to pay damages up to such an amount to the owner of the livestock. The Amendment seeks to remedy the one blemish on a good Bill. Section 1(3) of the Dogs Act, 1906, provided that if the damages claimed do not exceed £5 they may be recovered under the Summary Jurisdiction Acts as a civil debt. Subsection (4) provided that: Where a dog is proved to have injured cattle or chased sheep, it may be dealt with under section two of the Dogs Act, 1871, as a dangerous dog. Some 9,000 sheep a year are killed by dogs, and an equal number of poultry. When Lord Goddard's Committee in 1953 examined these provisions of the Dogs Act, it came to the not surprising conclusion that because of inflation £5 was inadequate. But when the Law Commission examined these provisions it cursorily provided for the replacement of Section 1 of the Dogs Act by the provisions that have been adopted in this Bill.

I raised this matter in Committee, pointing out the inconvenience caused in rural areas. In the old days when the value of the sheep or the head of poultry was nearer the limit set by the 1906 Act this provision could be used, but nowadays it would be better to raise the limit to the modern value of the sheep or injured livestock.

The Attorney-General, not surprisingly, as he must look after his profession and is anxious to propagate litigation, suggested that these matters should always be conducted in the county court before the registrar. This may be so in some areas, but in a rural area when a person is charged with having a dog which is out of control and has damaged livestock, it is not unreasonable at the end of the case that the magistrates, apart from making such order in respect of the dog as may be necessary, should award damages up to a reasonable amount to the owner of the livestock. The Attorney-General said that he would consider this point between Committee and Report. I therefore bring up this matter again, having slightly altered the wording of my Amendment to relate it more specifically to a case in a magistrates' court where a person is being charged in respect of damage done by a dog which is out of control. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will accept the Amendment. If he does not, a great deal of hardship will arise.

The limit of £5 has meant recently that very few cases can be brought under section 1(3) of the Dogs Act, 1906. There is a great demand by those who own sheep and poultry that this limit should be raised to a more reasonable sum, such as £25. It would, therefore, be a great convenience generally and save the time of the county courts and registrars, who are busy people, if my right hon. and learned Friend would accept the Amendment.

11.0 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Peter Rawlinson)

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) should have interpreted my defence of a position which I thought was a principle of law into one of propagating the interest or advantage of my own profession. He is far more likely to find a member of my profession defending someone before a criminal court or a magistrates' court than before the registrar of a county court.

I appreciate what my right hon. Friend has in mind—to produce, as it were, a short, sharp and effective method of dealing with persons whose dogs, out of control, cause damage to livestock. He is right to say that little recourse has been made in latter years to Section 1 of the Dogs Act. In the years 1965 to 1969 there were only three cases where people have been to the magistrates' court. It may well be that the sum of £5 is so low that it is not worth while going to court. If that is so, then farmers either have not thought it worth while and have let the matter go or, I suppose, may have gone to the registrar of the county court.

The Bill establishes a code of civil liability. It is the whole trend of the law at present that the magistrates' court—many people attach opprobrium to being brought before the magistrates' court, which is a criminal court—should hear only criminal cases or, as a family division, domestic cases, and that all civil liability and all civil claims should go to the appropriate civil court, which is the county court.

The Amendment would give to a court of summary jurisdiction, after conviction of an offence, the power to order the person to pay damages. It would mean that the person would get a criminal conviction, whereas what he has been guilty of is a civil wrong which should in principle be dealt with by the civil court.

Mr. Turton

My right hon. and learned Friend must recognise that every magistrates' court in rural areas is constantly having cases brought where failure to control a dog has caused damage to livestock. That is happening today. But at the moment they can make some award if it is the right amount. The Amendment would not involve new charges.

The Attorney-General

My information is that between 1965 and 1969 only three awards were made under Section 1(3) of the Dogs Act, 1906. Either people do not think it worth while—and I accept that this is probably because the damages are low—or they are going to another court. But the principle which should be established and which we should be reluctant to depart from is that nowadays magistrates' courts have no experience of civil claims and are not trained for them. The public associate these courts with criminal matters, save where they concern the family division, and the enforcement of an order involves police, who should be doing other tasks. The Payne Committee has made recommendations regarding the recovery of judgment debts, and it would be anomalous, therefore, for cases for the recovery of sums to be brought before the magistrates' court when the claims are civil in origin. The whole theme of the law is away from using the magistrates' court to using the civil court for civil claims.

I am recommending to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that he should consider with great care the report of his Advisory Council on the Penal System, which recommends that there should be power to order compensation in respect of damages to or loss of property resulting from certain criminal offences. I therefore invite my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton—who put his case with great vigour—to agree that we should not in this case divert ourselves from the principle of hearing criminal offences in the criminal courts and civil offences in the civil courts. It is with reluctance but absolute firmness that I ask the House to reject the Amendment.

Mr. Turton

On the undertaking that this matter will be referred to the Home Secretary as a matter of reparation and compensation for a criminal act, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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