HL Deb 04 March 1890 vol 341 cc1761-4

My Lords, the main object of the Bill to which I have to ask you to give a Second Reading is to make a more satisfactory arrangement as regards the constitution of Vice Admiralty Courts in the colonies, and to confer upon the chief Courts of the colonies the Admiralty jurisdiction which is now possessed and exercised by the High Court of Justice in England. The existing state of things is shortly as follows: By the Act of the 30 and 31 Vict. cap. 45 a Vice Admiralty Court may be established in any colony, whether it be a Crown Colony or a colony possessing a representative and independent Legislature, but the Court is Imperial and not Colonial. The appeal from it, speaking generally, is direct to the Queen in Council. The Admiralty have the power of appointing the Judges and officers to that Court; but, as a rule, they very rarely exercise that power. In the absence of any appointment by the Admiralty, the Chief Justice or the highest Judicial officer in the colony is the Judge of the Court ex officio; and it rests with him also, in the absence of any appointment by the Admiralty, to appoint officers and registrars to the Court. The Chief Justice may also appoint one of the puisne Judges to act as Deputy Judge; but, of course, that Judge acts as Judge of an Imperial Court, although he is also a Judge of the Colonial Civil Court, and no appeal lies from any judgment, or decision of his given in Admiralty matters to the full Court of the colony, but only direct to the Queen in Council. This state of things is not satisfactory. We have thus in a colony two Courts side by side—the Civil Colonial Court and the Imperial Vice Admiralty Court, with separate Rules of Procedure, and separate Judges and officers, and although the same persons are acting as Judges and officers of the two Courts, yet it is clear from what I have brought to you Lordships' attention, that they are acting under separate jurisdictions and authorities. This matter is somewhat more complicated from the fact that the Colonial Civil Court and the Vice Admiralty Court in the colony have very often concurrent jurisdiction, as, for instance, in cases arising under the Customs Acts. In 1883 a proposal was sent out to the colonies for consolidating, and in some measure extending, the jurisdiction of the Vice Admiralty Courts in the colonies, but not altering the constitution of those Courts, or taking away their Imperial character. When the replies were received to that Circular Despatch, the question arose whether it would not be better to altogether abolish Vice Admiralty Courts in the colonies, and to transfer all their jurisdiction to the Chief Courts in the colonies. The replies showed, in fact, that the Vice Admiralty Court was more and more regarded as a Colonial Court—a Court of the colony—and that the Colonial Courts required more and more Admiralty jurisdiction to be vested in them. Her Majesty's then Government decided in favour of this scheme; and a Bill was drafted and sent out to the colonies by the noble Lord the Earl of Derby with a Despatch in March, 1885. That Bill was, in substance, the same as is now under the consideration of your Lordships. It was accepted by all the colonies but four—Victoria, New South Wales, British Honduras, and St. Helena. The first two of those colonies are, of course, colonies of great importance, and their fear seemed to be lest Imperial control was to be exercised over the Colonial Courts; a fear which, I think, arises from a misapprehension of the provisions of the Bill. However, I need not trouble your Lordships further with any objections that were raised, because those four colonies have been placed in Schedule 1 of this Bill; and the Act will not apply to them unless they subsequently desire to be admitted under it. Broadly speaking, then, the object of this Bill is to do away with the Imperial Vice Admiralty Courts in the colonies, and to transfer the Admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court of Justice in England to the Colonial Courts, and also to allow inferior Courts in the colonies, if the colonies so desire it, to exercise the partial and limited Admiralty jurisdiction which the County Courts in England exercise. It is provided, therefore, by the 3rd section of this Bill that the Colonial Legislatures may declare what Courts of unlimited jurisdiction shall act as Colonial Courts of Admiralty, and also what inferior Courts shall have that partial and limited jurisdiction to which I have referred. By Clause 4 the laws upon this point are to be reserved for Her Majesty's pleasure, or else there is to be a suspending clause which will prevent their coming into operation until Her Majesty's assent has been signified. By Section 5 an appeal is given to the local Court from decisions of the Admiralty Court, thus avoiding the necessity of a direct appeal to the Queen in Council; but in case there is no local appeal, or in casa there is no further local appeal, the right to appeal to the Queen in Council is preserved. I think I need hardly trouble your Lordships with any further details upon the sections of this Bill. But perhaps I might bring one point under the notice of your Lordships: As the Admiralty jurisdiction is one of an Imperial character, and as it deals with acts committed on the high seas all over the world, and as, therefore, it may affect our relations with foreign nations, and thereby place some responsibility upon the Imperial Government, it is thought right that some control should be reserved over these Colonial Courts of Admiralty. Such control is clearly important for the purpose of securing uniformity of practice through the Empire, and of laying down the lines by which the Courts would be guided in the exercise of their jurisdiction when dealing with questions of International Law. That control is secured partly by a provision which requires that all Rules of Procedure, except Rules of mere detail of Procedure, shall, in the first instance, be submitted to the Queen in Council, and partly by providing that the Crown shall have the right, as heretofore, of creating a Vice Admiralty Court in any colony. It is manifest that with regard to some small colonies—as, for instance, in Heligoland, where the Governor is Chief Justice, as he is also in the Falkland Islands and St. Helena—it would be important to make provision, if the necessity should arise, for constituting a Vice Admiralty Court for the time, and to appoint thereto a man having a legal training. My Lords, the Bill is one of considerable importance; but I refrain from going now further into the details of the question because, if your Lordships will grant the Second Reading of the Bill, I propose to refer it to the Committee on Law.

Bill read 2a (according to order), and committed to the Standing Committee for Bills relating to Law, &c.