HL Deb 28 July 1846 vol 88 cc109-13

, after presenting several petitions in favour of this Bill, moved that it be now read a Second Time. The scheme proposed in the present Bill had its origin in the Report made by the Law Commissioners in 1833. The present Lord Chief Baron and Mr. Justice Wightman were members of that Commission, which, after a diligent examination of the whole subject, recommended a plan identical with that now submitted for their Lordships' approbation. The recommendation could come from no higher authority. In 1839, a Bill was introduced in the House of Commons for the amendment of the law relating to the recovery of small debts, which was referred to a Select Committee, of which the late and the present Home Secretaries of State were Members. The whole subject was reconsidered, and the result was the adoption of the scheme set forth in the Report of the Commission above mentioned; and the Bill, as altered by the Committee, was adopted by the House of Commons, but the pressure of business prevented the Bill being carried into effect during that Session. At the commencement of 1842, he (the Lord Chancellor) introduced a Bill founded on the same principle, and designed to carry the same plan into effect; but it was stopped in its progress by the announcement that the late Government meant to carry into effect a similar Bill; and in the June of that year a Bill was brought in by his noble and learned predecessor, embodying the identical provisions of the present one. The Bill passed through that House, and went down to the Commons; but, owing to the pressure of public business it met the same fate as the antecedent one. Nothing further was done upon this subject until June of this year, when the Bill to which he was now calling their Lordships' attention was introduced by the noble Duke the late President of the Council. Upon examination it was found to contain the same provisions as those recommended in the Report of the Commission of 1833, with the Report of the Committee of 1839, and with the various Bills brought in by successive Governments. Knowing, therefore, how much the country stood in need of such a measure, and seeing that successive Governments had directed their attention to the same object, and having had repeated and numerous applications for separate Acts of Parliament for the establishment of local courts, which had been stopped by the expectation of a general measure, he thought it his duty, notwithstanding the late period of the Session at which they had arrived, to urge on their Lordships the necessity for carrying this measure into effect. Having stated the origin of the Bill, he would now shortly describe its nature; and he would in the first instance mention what was the present state of the law. County courts for the recovery of small sums were of very early origin; the earliest of which they had any record, was in the reign of King Edward I. The amount over which they could have jurisdiction was fixed at not exceeding 40s., then no inconsiderable sum, and stated in the Report of the Law Commissioners to be equivalent to 20l. of the present day. The nominal amount had never since been altered—the county courts were still confined in their jurisdiction to 40s. But although the amount remained the same, the expenses of prosecution were very much altered; sometimes the expenses amounted to 6l., so that it was little wonder a man would rather forfeit a debt of 2l. than incur costs amounting to 6l. There were many courts of a similar character which existed by prescription. Manorial courts were of very ancient establishment, and though the sum they had jurisdiction over was small, the costs were always large. The difficulty and hardship of proceeding in these courts, led to many applications for local Acts of Parliament, for the purpose of establishing others in the districts in which they were found necessary. In consequence, courts of conscience, or courts of request, as they were called, had been established in many places. It frequently happened that these courts were presided over by commissioners altogether ignorant of the law; but unfortunately too often acquainted with the parties who came before them. It would be, therefore, necessary to appoint competent judges in whom the public could place confidence. If anything were wanting to show the necessity there existed for establishing judicatories for this purpose, it was abundantly manifest in the number of these courts of request which had obtained private Acts of Parliament. The process for obtaining one of these Acts was a slow and an expensive one to the petitioners, and the maintenance of the courts involved a considerable expense. Taken altogether, there were about 100 of these small debt local courts, of which since 1801 forty-six had been established under local and separate Acts of Parliament. A map had been published, by which their Lordships would at a glance see those which existed, and those places in which the want of them was felt. That want was especially experienced in the manufacturing districts, where the population was dense. Many of these districts, as well as many of the central districts, were now without any such court, and the greatest inconvenience was sustained. Having thus stated the evil, about which there could be no dispute, the next question was, how to provide an adequate and an efficient remedy. The number of judges at present presiding over these courts, he had not been able to ascertain, because many of them had no judges at all, but were presided over by commissioners, and in many cases one judge presided over several of these courts. He proposed to restore the original jurisdiction to these courts, namely, giving them power to decide now, for the same amount as they did, in fact, though not in name, in King Edward's time, namely, 20l. When the debt was over 20l. their jurisdiction would not apply. It might be said that parties could now apply to the superior courts at Westminster Hall for the recovery of any sum between 2l. and 20l.; but the fact was, that the expense attending process in those courts was so great, that where the sum was under 20l., the judges discouraged proceeding there. These superior courts were inapplicable to small matters, so that there was, in some instances, what amounted to a denial of justice. The scheme he proposed was, that the Queen in Council should divide the country into districts, and establish courts in those districts according to the wants of the people. In the densely populated manufacturing parts, those districts would be, of course, much smaller than in the more thinly populated agricultural counties. His object was to place those courts within a reasonable distance of one another; but although there would be a very large number of districts, it did not follow that there would be a corresponding large number of judges. He could not state exactly the number of districts; but he did not think it right that a poor man in a rural district should be obliged to travel more than ten miles to get justice. As regarded the number of judges, he could not fix it; but, as he had already observed, they would not correspond with the number of courts, for these courts would not require to be always sitting; once a week or once a fortnight might be sufficient, according to the occasion; and when the judge had disposed of the business in one place, he could go to another. In this way justice would not be denied, delayed, or obstructed. He proposed to continue the present judges in all cases; and that as many more might be appointed as were needful for the due discharge of the business. He thought a much greater number of those judges would not be requisite than those which were actually in existence. There were at present forty or fifty judges in these courts, who were duly qualified—he meant in such of these courts as had been established by recent Acts of Parliament. It had been suggested that the appointment of these judges ought to rest with the Lords Lieutenant of the various counties; but he did not think such a disposal of patronage would be proper, for he could not see how Lords Lieutenant of counties could be competent to select fit and proper persons to preside over legal tribunals. He was of opinion that the appointment should rest with the Lord Chancellor or the Secretary of State for the Home Department for the time being. He did not covet the office, for he had often found such selections an invidious and a disagreeable task. There were clauses in the Bill by which the provisions of various recent Acts of Parliament, in regard to the recovery of small sums, were reenacted. In proposing this Bill, he did not mean to trench in any way on the recent Acts respecting insolvency or bankruptcy, which had of late years obtained the sanction of the Legislature, though he must at the same time observe, that he by no means approved of these Acts, which were inconsistent and contradictory in many of their provisions; and it frequently happened under them, that three or four totally different systems were applicable to the same case. These Acts, he must say, in passing, required revision. He would not say more at present. The evil he proposed to remedy, was great in its nature, and generally felt—it had crept throughout the country, and required an immediate remedy. He trusted, therefore, that their Lordships would concur with him, notwithstanding the lateness of the Session, in the propriety of passing this measure into a law before its close.

Bill read 2a.

House adjourned.