HL Deb 14 February 1893 vol 8 cc1341-4

called attention to the subject of committals under the Debtors' Act, and moved for the appointment of a Select Committee. He said, many persons were imprisoned under the Act year by year. Popularly it was spoken of as imprisonment for debt, but that popular description was not accurate as applied to imprisonment for non-payment of debt. The present law, passed in 1869, provided that in future there should be no imprisonment for making default in payment of a sum of money with exceptions which had no reference to this subject, being with regard to fraudulent Trustees, attorneys, and other persons. The Act, however, provided that the Court might commit to prison for a term not exceeding, six weeks, or until payment, any person who made default in payment of debts under orders or judgments, that jurisdiction to be exercised only where it was proved to the satisfaction of the Court that the person making default had means and refused to pay. So that imprisonment for non-payment of debt was only to take place where the non-payment was really what might properly be called fraudulent; for a person owing money which he could pay, but refused to pay even under an order of the Court, might obviously be regarded as in the category of fraudulent persons. Exception could hardly be taken to the law as intended by Parliament, but it was one thing that imprisonment should only be carried out in particular cases and quite another to secure that that should always be the result. No less than 8,955 persons were thus imprisoned in the year ending 31st March, 1892, and of those cases 5,852 were under judgments in the County Courts. Those were large figures, and evidently the matter was of considerable moment. A large majority of the committals were by the County Courts. First, an order was made for payment of a debt, then an examination took place as to the debtor's means; an order was thereupon generally made for payment by instalments. It an instalment were not paid, an inquiry took place whether the default had arisen from want of means, and if not the debtor was sent to prison for a term not exceeding six weeks. Of course, the difficulty was in many cases great of the County Court Judge satisfying himself as to what the debtor's means really were. Those Judges made the best inquiries they could, but it was certain that in many cases they did not get at the facts, and that not infrequently those who had no means to pay, and were, therefore, not to be regarded as fraudulent, were so imprisoned for non-payment of their debts. No doubt the power of imprisonment compelled payment of many debts which would probably otherwise remain unpaid; but it was not always because the debtor himself had the means of payment, but frequently that friends or relations rather than see hint, the breadwinner of his family, sent to prison, paid the debt or instalment ordered. Consequently, this power of committal often resulted not in punishing fraudulent people, as was intended, but in putting pressure on relations and friends. There was really no substantial difference of opinion in this matter among County Court Judges or even Judges of the Superior Courts. Recommendations had been made that this power of committa1 for non-payment of money should be altogether put an end to. That course had found many advocates, who maintained that it would really in the end hurt neither the trader nor those who were often driven to obtain goods on credit, that traders would be still able to obtain payment of their just debts when their debtors had the means. On the other hand, many believed the working classes would be deprived of the power of obtaining the credit they require owing to want or slackness of work or other circumstances. These two contending opinions he placed before their Lordships without expressing any views of his owns upon them. The subject was of great interest, alike to the working classes and to traders. While the abolition of this power of imprisonment would tend to diminish credit, it must be ad- mitted that a politic system of credit would be advantageous to both trader and debtor; and many persons thought that if this power were abolished the respectable working-man, conducting himself honestly, would not fail to get credit merely because there existed no longer this last resort against debtors, who had the means and did not pay. In view of the controversy to which this subject had given rise, and the great interest which was taken in it by the working classes of the country, he ventured to recommend to their Lordships the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the question. No one could doubt that great advantages would arise from the abolition of the present system, unless it brought with it those mischiefs which some feared in the direction of lessened credit to a disadvantageous extent; and their Lordships, by ascertaining the views of those who administered the law, and of those who represented the working-classes of this country, whose opinions would undoubtedly throw considerable light on the subject, would be able to get a very great amount of useful information which would guide the Legislature, and be of great value in assisting them to determine whether to abolish, or in some way modify the existing law under the Debtors' Act. Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subject of committals under the Debtors'Act."—(The Lord Chancellor.)


said, he had a perfectly open mind on the subject; but he was aware there had been, as the noble and leaned Lord said, a rather sharp conflict of opinion upon it, and he thought, therefore, that the appointment of a Select Committee would be advantageous, particularly as it would enable the views and experience of competent persons to be ascertained, and would enable Members of the Committee to carefully consider their evidence upon the subject, and report upon it to their Lordships.


said, he bad received a communication on the subject from a County Court Judge at Liverpool, who lied made thousands of orders of this kind. The power of committal was given by the Statute when the debtor either has or has had since the order was made the means of payment.

At Liverpool, at all events, both the County Court Judges thought it undesirable to commit in the latter case, amid that they were only warranted in committing when satisfied on the evidence that the debtor has at the moment means of obeying the order for payment and refuses to do so. They also felt the difficulty of making a distinction between one man and another who can but will not pay a debt; and they were inclined to think it the creditor's right to obtain, if he pleased, an immediate warrant for the debtor's committal if he has it in his power to make payment. Butt if the debtor is dependant on weekly wages the creditor usually agrees to postpone the committal warrant for a fortnight or a month, so that it would not take effect for that time. It was thought that the Statute should empower the Judges to suspend the issue of the warrant in any cases where they thought fit, and should lay down certain rules on the subject. The practice differed. Many County Court Judges were guided by certain decisions, by which other Judges refused to be bound, and the statistics of commitment varied in consequence enormously in different County Courts. In Sheffield, out of 30,000 complaints issued in 1891, only 364 committal orders were made, and only 50 persons went to prison; while out of 34,000 at Leeds 5,133 such orders were issued, nail 362 persons were sent to prison. Another difficulty with the Judges was the proof of means. Under the Debtors' Act of 1869 the proof was on the creditor, whereas in certain proceedings under the Bankruptcy Act of 1883 the debtor had to prove affirmatively that he could not pay in order to avoid committal, and in the circumstances it was necessary there should now be appointed a Committee of Inquiry into the whole matter.

Motion agreed to.