HC Deb 23 July 1975 vol 896 cc713-7

10.46 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Peter Archer)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 7, line 6, leave out from 'force' to end of line 7 and insert 'on 1st September 1975'.

At this stage the House will not welcome a long explanation. But there are clear advantages in a Bill of this nature coming into operation during the Long Vacation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The Question is, That the amendment be made—

Mr, Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to discuss other provisions relating to the Bill? If not, may I make some observations with reference to this amendment?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may discuss the amendment if he wishes. Any other matters will have to be discussed on Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read—

Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent signified.—[The Solicitor-General.]

10.48 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

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

Again at this stage I say merely that most of the matters which have been in the minds of hon. Members have been discussed—

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister who is not a Privy Councillor to signify the Queen's consent and the Prince of Wales's consent? I think that it is not. Therefore, we have not had the consents given.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thought, quite honestly, that the hon. and learned Gentleman was a Privy Councillor. However, I see that the learned Attorney-General is now present.

Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent signified.—[The Attorney-General.]

The Solicitor-General

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

This is a Bill which I should have hoped would not give rise to opposition among hon. Members. It is agreed on all sides of the House that it is desirable and in the public interest. All the matters which have been raised so far have been discussed fully in previous stages.

At this stage I propose to move the Bill formally, and if the House thinks it is desirable, I shall reply to any points that are raised.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Bill. I entirely agree with the Solicitor-General. I welcome the Bill immensely. It provides, in the period until the Pearson Commission, I hope, proposes the abolition of the need to establish negligence as the basis of a claim for damages for personal injuries, help to eliminate some of the anomalies in the present law.

Much as I welcome the Bill as it stands, I have certain reservations and anxieties. I am a little apprehensive about Clause 2A(7). This is the provision which says that in deciding whether the plaintiff ought to have brought his action earlier, what he needed to know was whether the injury that he sustained was significant. Clause 2A(7) as it stands, says: For the purposes of this section an injury is significant if the plaintiff would reasonably have considered it sufficiently serious to justify his instituting prceedings for damages against a defendant who did not dispute liability and was able to satisfy a judgment. As that stands, it means that a plaintiff who knew that he had received a blow on the chest, which had caused him discomfort for a week and perhaps a week's absence from work, who would have had a cause of action sufficient to justify the institution of proceedings in the County Court or a small claims court—a claim for £40 or £50—would be barred from proceeding later, however serious the effects might ultimately prove to be.

I have certain specific cases in mind where injuries which were thought to be trifling at the time proved, later on, and in one case only, after death, to have been immensely serious. Under the Bill as it stands, they would have resulted in a subsequent claim being barred because the individual would have known that the injury was "significant" within the meaning of the Bill. I accept that under Clause 20 there would be a discretion, but I urge my hon. Friends to consider whether the terms of Clause 2A(7) might not limit that discretion.

As the Government amendment involves amendments being put in the Lords, would it be practicable for my hon. and learned Friend to insert in page 2, line 34 of Clause 2A(7), after the word "proceedings", the words "in the High Court"? This would ensure that the knowledge of an injury would not be a bar if it would only have supported a claim for trifling damages—but one which would nevertheless be worth making if the defendant had no defence and money to pay, even though the majority of people would not make it.

That is probably the most important defect that still remains in the Bill. I also urge my hon. Friend to seek to ensure that the rules of the Supreme Court are amended to ensure that in the same way as discretion under Clause 2D can be exercised to enable plaintiffs to issue a writ after the time has expired, the discretion should also be exercised to enable a plaintiff to serve a writ which has not been served within the 12 months of the date when it was issued. At present the courts exercise a restrictive approach to the granting of leave to serve a writ in these circumstances, and I trust that in the light of the more relaxed attitude towards limitation that the Bill is generating, the courts will now adopt a somewhat more relaxed approach to the entitlement to serve a writ out of time, where there is reasonable cause for the delay and where the interest of the defendant has not been prejudiced.

The only remedy for a plaintiff trapped by the Limitation Acts at present is in proceedings against solicitors where there has been default. I am a practising solicitor, so I should declare my interest. Although I have never been proceeded against or threatened with proceedings in those circumstances. I have had to take or threaten proceedings in cases where solicitors have failed to exercise their functions properly on behalf of plaintiffs and I am aware of the immense difficulties of proving that the plaintiff would have recovered damages had it not been for the, often admitted, negligence of his former solicitors. That remedy is a wholly inadequate substitute for proceeding against the defendants originally responsible.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to see that the necessary measures are taken to ensure that this desirable Bill is made even more effective than it is at present.

10.55 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I take the two points which my hon. Friend has raised in relation to the proper limits of the significance test and in relation to the discretion as to the time for service of a writ. I have taken part in too many personal injury cases not to appreciate the importance of these two matters. But I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate my difficulty—namely, that I knew that he would be raising these points only a few moments ago. He was kind enough to tell me before the debate, but it was only a few moments before.

Clearly, I cannot give any undertakings tonight, except to say that the Bill will fall to be considered in another place and between now and then I undertake to mention these matters to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and to consult him as to what can be done.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

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