HL Deb 16 July 1903 vol 125 cc824-34


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of the Bill which I now have the honour to submit to your Lordships is to extend the ordinary jurisdiction of County Courts from £50 to £100. The modern system of County Courts was created in the year 1846. At first these new Courts had jurisdiction only in Common Law cases in which the amount in dispute did not exceed £20. In the year 1850 the limit was raised to £50, and in 1856 these Courts were enabled to try almost any question by consent of both parties. In 1857 their jurisdiction was extended to actions relating to wills or intestacy where the property in dispute did not exceed £200 if personal and £300 if real. In 1865 they were empowered to deal with equitable claims of every kind so long as the amount involved did not exceed £500. At the present time the County Courts have original jurisdiction in numerous matters of which the principal are the following:—(1) Personal actions in which the debt, demand or damage claimed is not more than £50; (2) ejectment actions in which neither the annual value nor rent exceeds £50—this may represent a capital value of £1,000 or more; (3) equity actions and matters such as trusts, partnerships, foreclosure and redemption of mortgages, if the amount involved does not exceed £500; (4) claims under the Workmen's Compensation Act; (5) Admiralty matters (limited to forty-four Courts only) including salvage up to £1,000; towage and necessaries up to £150; damage to cargo and ship up to £300; (6) companies winding up (limited to 146 Courts) when the company's capital does not exceed £10,000; and (7) bankruptcy (limited to 146 Courts.)

It will be seen, therefore, that in several cases these Courts are already empowered to deal with sums far exceeding £50. In the year 1901, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 30,040 proceedings commenced in the County Courts other than proceedings for the recovery of sums not exceeding £20. It is thus evident that the County Courts have ceased to be Courts merely for the recovery of small debts. Moreover, Section 65 of the County Courts Act, 1888, provides that where in any action of contract brought in the High Court the claim endorsed on the writ does not exceed £100 it shall be lawful for either party to apply to a Judge of the High Court to order such action to be tried in the County Court, and on the hearing of the application the Judge shall, unless there is good cause to the contrary, order such action to be tried accordingly. In the year 1901, 1,351 actions were remitted from the High Court to the County Court and the five years average is 1,329.

There are numerous cases over £50 entered in the County Court by agreement of the parties; that is to say, cases in which both parties wish the trial to take place in the County Court. These cases averaged 403 in 1876–1880; and 1604 in 1897–1901. In the year 1901 they numbered 1949. It will be seen, therefore, that in considering the effect of the Bill the following proceedings must be left out of account inasmuch as they are already in the County Court—viz.,(taking the figures for 1901)—Remitted from High Court—actions of contract from £50 to £100, 1,351; actions for damages, 111; and actions from £50 to £100 entered by agreement, 1949; making a total of 3,411. It is evident that if, as a result of this Bill, there is an increase of work thrown on County Courts it will tend to relieve the Judges of the High Court from some of the work they now have to do, and this will be an advantage, provided it can be secured without, at the same time overburdening the Judges of the County Courts. Moreover, the County Court Judges sit on an average fewer days in the year than High Court Judges and cannot reasonably complain if their work is slightly increased.

It has been shown that the County Court has ceased to be a Court merely for the recovery of small debts. The County Court Judges have for many years dealt with cases involving large amounts; their work may be increased, but that will not interfere with the recovery of small debts, for the really small cases are heard by the Registrar and not by the Judge. In the year 1901 the Registrars heard 392,898 cases and the Judges heard 48,023. The House of Commons received 144 petitions in favour of the Bill, including 104 from Municipal Corporations, and twenty-four from Law Societies. The Chambers of Commerce are, with one exception, unanimous in desiring this Bill to pass. Liverpool is, I believe, the only Chamber of Commerce which does not support the Bill. But Liverpool has the Court of Passage and special facilities. With that particular exception the commercial community strongly support the measure. I may say that within the last few days I have had an opportunity of conferring with the representatives of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce on the Association of Chambers of Commerce, and they have authorised me to say that, subject to satisfactory arrangements as to working, they would not desire to offer any opposition to the passage of the Bill. I beg to move the Second Reading.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a—(Lord Avebury.)


My Lords, I think the Bill furnishes an example—to which I would direct the attention of my noble friend Lord Tweedmouth—of how very ineffectual are warnings given by the Government in the other House as to the difficulties of particular legislation. Both the Law Officers repeatedly declared in the other House that this Bill in its present form is quite unworkable; and no one acquainted with the administration of the County Courts can entertain the smallest doubt that that is the fact. The effect of passing the Bill as it stands—if it could be worked at all—would be gradually to take away from the poor man's Court the whole of its present jurisdiction, because it would be squeezed out, in order to substitute another which does not concern the poor man. The number of Judges and Registrars, and the number of places in which the administration of the law is to go on, is fixed by statute, and this Bill makes no provision for their increase. This question of adding to the jurisdiction is intimately connected with the fixed amount of the Judges' salaries; and I say at once that the amount of jurisdiction which has already been added and which it is proposed to increase still further by this Bill, will undoubtedly make it impossible for many of the Judges in many districts to do their duty. And if you cannot increase the number of Judges or Registrars a state of confusion will be produced which is highly undesirable.

On the other hand, the Government do not wish to place any impediment in the way of increased jurisdiction, if it is desired. I think it would have been much better to leave it to the Government themselves to bring forward a Bill, as has been in contemplation, to deal with the jurisdiction of the County Courts. To say, as has been said in another place, that all the provisions necessary to make the present Bill workable can be added in this House, exhibits a marvellous ignorance of what your Lordships can do and what the Treasury can do. It seems to be supposed that the Treasury is possessed of some uncounted store which it can distribute at pleasure. I should have thought that members of the House of Commons might have ascertained the fact that neither the Treasury nor any one else can deal with public money without the sanction of Parliament, and that your Lordships have certainly no jurisdiction to initiate financial proposals. The Bill now comes before your Lordships on July 16th, and it is impossible to send it back again so that the questions of the supply of money or of making the Bill capable of being worked may be dealt with. We are therefore placed in this dilemma—either your Lordships must let an unworkable Bill pass or reject it, thereby showing great indifference to the wish expressed by a large majority in the other House. I am in some difficulty as to what to do in the matter, but what has occurred to me is this. If the Bill is allowed to pass now, the only way I can suggest to make it workable is to postpone the date of its operation until the House of Commons can do next session what it ought to have done this session—namely, supply funds and administration by which the measure can be made workable. If the Bill passes I shall move, in Committee, that the operation of it be postponed till such a time as will enable that to be done by the House of Commons.


As the Lord Chancellor has drawn attention to the form in which this Bill has been introduced, I desire to say a few words on that subject. I express no opinion on the merits of the Bill itself, but the Bill, in its present form, is absolutely unintelligible, and the Amendment which the noble Lord has put on the Paper is also unintelligible unless one can bear in mind at one time the County Courts Act, which consist of 200 clauses, and several other Acts of Parliament. If this were a solitary instance of a Bill being drafted in this way I should say nothing on the subject, but I do not think there has been a single Bill brought forward during the past session which has not had the drafting defects of this Bill. Many of the Bills brought forward are nothing more than a series of conundrums, with copious references to other Acts, which have to be worked out at great expense to the public. It is sometimes necessary—and I would refer to the Cruelty to Children Bill and the Motor-Cars Bill as instances of what I mean—to know a large part of the Statute book before being enabled to comprehend the meaning of a particular Bill. I believe I have had more experience than any man living in drawing Acts of Parliament, and I altogether deny that to make Bills unintelligible is the best way to pass them. I have found throughout my long experience that the most likely way to carry an Act is to arrange it well and to make its provisions quite plain. I daresay my observations will be imputed to the pedantry of an old man. I admit it may be so. The noble Lord very clearly explained the measure, and I think that if two sentences had been extracted from his speech and put into the Bill, probably we should have understood the measure. As it is, I complain that this system of drafting unintelligible Bills is unjust to the subject and unjust to your Lordships, who are carrying measures day after day which I defy you to understand without reference to documents which are not before the House.


I will not follow the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken in his interesting historical reminiscences, beyond saying this, that I think I could call attention to some Acts drawn by himself which offend against the canon he has laid down. This Bill relates to a subject which I have had often to consider, both as Law Officer and whilst practising at the Bar, and I must say that I think His Majesty's Government have acted with great indulgence to the promoters of the Bill, inasmuch as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has not moved its rejection. I am perfectly certain that nothing could be worse than that this Bill should pass in its present form. It has already been said—it is no exaggeration—and I wish to repeat the statement, that as the Bill is now framed it would be absolutely unworkable, would make things infinitely worse than they are at present, and would not achieve the result the promoters wish. But that is not the only ground on which I protest against the measure in its present shape. If you are going to interfere to a large extent with the jurisdiction of County Courts and extend it, you must do so upon some principle which will have regard to the exigencies of the Courts and the circumstances under which the work is done. The mere increase of the amount from £50 to £100 is no real guarantee that you will only have cases going to the County Court which will not occupy a large amount of time. There are numbers of cases in which the amount at issue is comparatively small, and yet the inquiry into them, and the examination involve a considerable amount of time. I think it would be far better to send to the County Court certain classes of cases in which it is plain, from the way the questions are raised, that there is not likely to be any serious amount of time involved, rather than simply to raise the pecuniary limit to £100.

It is correct to say that jurisdiction has already been conferred on County Courts in respect of even larger amounts, but the result has been to strain the present system to the utmost, and to restrict the time of Courts to deal with small cases. Therefore I venture to protest against the consideration of this subject from the point of view only of increasing the amount involved to £100.

If this Bill is going to pass, it is absolutely necessary that the matters referred to by the Lord Chancellor should be considered. The position of the Judges, the work of their Courts, their salaries, their Registrars, and other matters must be taken into consideration if you are going to send to the County Courts anything like a considerable proportion of the cases now heard in the High Courts. There is an extraordinary provision in this Bill, that in cases which are sent to the County Courts under the Bill—that is, between £50 and £100—there should be a jury of nine, whereas, in ordinary cases, there is only a jury of five. How that provision is to be worked I have not the smallest idea. The provision was not in the Bill originally, and I rather gather that it was inserted for some of those political reasons which do occur in another place. There are many Judges and counsel who hold the opinion that a jury of five is the worst possible tribunal on questions of fact. But if we are going to consider the question of an alteration in the number of the jury, I hope it will be looked at from a broader point of view.

Again, the last clause would result in cases being tried at Courts distant from where the parties reside, which would be a direct contravention of the system on which we have always proceeded, that the County Courts should be brought to the doors of the parties. The Bill contains a departure altogether from the system upon which the County Courts have been organised for the past thirty or forty years, and introduces changes which I am perfectly satisfied will be found to defeat the very object which the promoters have in view. I hope, if the Bill is to pass, that it will not be allowed to come into operation until January 1st, 1905, in order that the financial aspect, the convenience of suitors, and the real effect of the large transfer of cases to the County Court may be considered by persons practically acquainted with the matter. I am strongly in favour of an extension of the jurisdiction of County Courts. I have seen enough to know that there are considerable classes of cases which might with advantage be tried in the County Courts, but a money limit is no test as to the time a case will last or the questions that will be raised. I trust that the Government will look at the matter from a practical point of view, and that legislation for the extension of the jurisdiction of County Courts will not be left to a private Member.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that my noble and learned friends who have addressed your Lordships have somewhat exaggerated the difficulties of this Bill. It is as well to state over again the sole object of the Bill. The only change it makes is that whereas only actions of contract in which £50 is claimed can now be tried in the County Court, it is proposed that actions of the same kind should be tried in the County Court up to a limit of £100. I suppose my noble and learned friends who have placed before your Lordships objections to this Bill are in possession of some estimate of the increase of work it is likely to bring about.


I may say that I have those figures, and had I thought it right to move the rejection of the Bill I should have called your Lordships' attention to them.


So far as I am able to form an opinion I do not believe the increase of work will be so large as is thought. I will tell your Lordships why. Lender the present law, actions up to £100 which are entered in the High Court can be, and are every day, sent to the County Court at the will of either of the parties, unless there be strong reason shown to the contrary; therefore, as a rule, actions up to the £100 limit, although they have to be commenced in the High Court, are, at the instance of either party, sent to the County Court. A number of such actions are sent annually in that way. I think the number last year was nearly 2,000.


The number was 1,400.


And, in addition to those cases, the High Court has power to remit to the County Court actions of contract which are unlimited, and a large number of those actions are also remitted. I do not, therefore, believe that the increase of work would be so large as it is supposed; but, of course, I bow to my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, who has sources of in formation which are not accessible to myself. Why is it that this Bill is said to be altogether unworkable and impracticable? Only, so far as I can understand, because it is contended that the increase of work will demand a large increase in the number of County Court Judges and Registrars. I confess that I should have thought the better course would be to pass the Bill and then ascertain by experience what the increase of work is. It would be possible then to make the provision required to meet any difficulty, if any difficulty arose. There is also the question of the remuneration of County Court Judges. This is not a new question. It has been the habit of Parliament to put new jurisdiction on to County Court Judges; that has been done recently with regard to the Workmen's Compensation Act and other Acts, and I must say that I think County Court Judges have a very good claim to some increase of remuneration. But I cannot believe that this Bill will constitute the "last straw on the camel's back," which will render the Judges unwilling to do the work which is assigned to them. I wish to add—and this is really my excuse for troubling your Lordships on the matter—that I have been entrusted with an official letter from the Incorporated Law Society of London, which, as your Lordships know, includes all the most eminent solicitors both in London and in the Provinces, asking me to support the Second Reading of this Bill, and I think the opinion of a body of men of that character, who are engaged in the practical work of litigation in all our Courts, is worthy of consideration. It is not suggested by them that the Bill is unworkable, or that it cannot be carried into effect, and I think their opinion, as well as that of the commercial classes whom my noble friend represents, is entitled to a great deal of weight. I am glad the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack does not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but I must say I regret that the date at which it will come into effect will be postponed for so long a period as is suggested.


My noble friend Lord Thring has been very severe in his remarks with regard to the drafting of this Bill, which he said nobody could understand. As a matter of fact, I did not see the Bill till it came to your Lordships' house from the House of Commons, but when I read it I was certainly under the impression that it was a comparatively simple Bill, and one the meaning of which could be very easily grasped. The essential provision is that the words "fifty pounds" shall be repealed, and that in lieu thereof there shall be inserted the words "one hundred pounds." I confess that that does not appear to me to be difficult to follow, nor can I see how such a provision can be described as unworkable. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice said he himself wished to extend the jurisdiction of County Courts. The commercial community wish it extended in the simple mode in which it is extended by this Bill. It has been said that this is a matter which ought not to have been left to a private Member. The Chambers of Commerce have for many years past been pressing the Government to take this matter up, and, as they could not get the Government to move, they had no alternative but to do it themselves. The Bill was opposed in the other House by the Attorney-General, but when he came to take a division only nine other Members voted with him against the Bill. That, I think, shows how strong the feeling of the commercial community is in this matter. I am speaking for the whole of the Chambers of Commerce, and my noble and learned friend Lord Davey spoke on behalf of the Incorporated Law Society. At the same time, I cannot but feel that the proposal made by the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack may be reasonable, and one which I cannot resist. I hope, however, that the operation of the Bill will not be postponed beyond a fixed date, and certainly not later than another year.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Thursday next.