HL Deb 14 March 1907 vol 171 cc176-9


Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill I can confidently state contains nothing except what has already been assented to by your Lordships in other Bills. I will only refer to three points. The Bill provides that the duties of certain selected registrars in hearing cases may be extended. They are to be allowed to hear more small cases in order to relieve any congestion which may be produced by the new duties imposed on County Court Judges. Power is also given in the Bill to make rules for the purpose of providing for summary judgment against a defendant when there is really no defence. There is already a practice of that kind in the High Court of Justice. It is desired with proper safeguards to extend it to County Courts. It is also proposed to allow pensions to be given to Judges in certain circumstances, and to provide in the case of their having to find deputies that the cost should be borne by the Treasury. It is very hard that a County Court Judge whose income is only £1,500 a year, should be compelled to pay a deputy out of his own pocket when he is ill and has all the attendant expenses of his illness to defray.

I wish to refer to the absence of one proposal from the measure. I would have liked to make some provision with regard to the imprisonment under the Debtors Act of persons who are not able to pay and are now put in prison in increasing numbers. I am afraid that in some County Courts—though I do not impugn the good faith of the Judges—the administration of this law has led to great hardship. I regret that I cannot deal with the matter in this omnibus Bill. Perhaps I have laid myself open to the charge of irrelevancy in referring to the subject, but I believe many of your Lordships will sympathise with me in the irregularity.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, this Bill deals with a great many very important subjects, and the matter to which the noble and learned Lord referred at the close of his observations has excited the deepest possible interest in the country. There is a very strong feeling that the way in which the provisions in the Debtors Act relating to imprisonment for debt are sometimes administered might well be examined into with a view to considering whether a better and improved system could not be adopted in its place.

There are one or two points affecting this Bill which I hope my noble and learned friend will consider. There is under the Bill a power given of making rules. When solicitors are so much concerned in the administration of the County Courts I think it is right that they should have some voice in this matter. I have been repeatedly pressed on that subject in Ireland, and in Bills that I introduced I gave a status to the President of the Incorporated Society in Ireland to be consulted in the making of the rules. I would suggest that the President of the Incorporated Law Society here should have some voice in this direction. That is a matter which could very well be dealt with in this Bill without interfering with its structure.

Then the Treasury proposals are of the highest importance. The County Court Judges are an admirable body, and have a great deal of work to do, and I regret that there is no provision for considering whether an increase of salary might not be given in some cases. I am very glad the Bill proposes to provide pensions for Judges. We have in Ireland, where it is well sometimes to look for sound systems, a system under which County Court Judges can get two-third pensions; that system was in existence long before my time as Lord Chancellor, and now very tardily it is being introduced into England. There certainly ought to be a reasonable pension after a reasonable service. I agree that it is a reasonable thing that the State should pay deputy Judges, but I think they should be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. It is open to question whether it is wise, in calling into existence a system of paid deputies, to leave to the Judges themselves power to appoint the deputies. Therefore, when the Bill is in Committee I shall move, I hope with the sanction of my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, that all deputies shall be appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

There is a power given in the Bill to the Lord Chancellor to appoint assistant Judges. That is a departure from our system, which has always been that a Judge should be appointed permanently and during good behaviour, and here power is taken to appoint assistant Judges without any durability of tenure The only circumstance that I can see in mitigation of what might be a serious constitutional innovation is that there is a limitation put on the number and that they cannot exceed at any one time five. I am convinced that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack would never dream of appointing temporary Judges unless absolutely satisfied of the necessity, but I think this provision should be taken notice of as it is an innovation which requires much consideration.


My Lords, I simply rise to express my regret that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has not been able to introduce into this Bill some provision dealing with what is generally spoken of as imprisonment for debt. It is many years now since I sat on a Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into this hardship. I am satisfied that great hardship is caused by the law as it exists at present. Persons are imprisoned for what is described as contempt of court, though they are quite unable to purge that contempt, for they have no money with which to do so. Yet they are sent to prison practically for contempt of court. I regret extremely that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has not yet seen his way to introduce a clause making an alteration in this matter, but I hope that before the Bill does pass through your Lordships' House independent Peers at all events may suggest to His Majesty's Government some way of meeting this great difficulty.


My Lords, I desire to add a few words of encouragement to the Lord Chancellor. I hope and believe the noble and learned Lord will be strong enough to deal with this subject. If he does make any proposals he will receive support from many of those who have fully considered the matter. It is thirty-four years since I attempted to make some alteration in the law on this subject, and everything that has occurred since has caused me to think that an alteration would be satisfactory. This imprisonment for debt, for that is practically what it is, although it is called contempt of court, is a great hardship on the debtor. I recollect a County Court Judge telling of two men leaving prison together. One said to the other, "What have you been imprisoned for?" The reply was, "I have served fourteen days for stealing a duck." "Oh," said the first, "how very odd. I have had forty days for not paying for one."

The hardship on the debtor is not the only consideration. This is an economic question. If the system were got rid of the trader would resort to a ready-money system. In Scotland there is no imprisonment for small debts, with the result that the man who wants to buy a coat has to save his money before he buys it, and by paying ready money obtains it cheaply. The tradesman has no bad debts, and can sell his wares much more cheaply to the buyer. No money is spent at law, and goods can be obtained at a reasonable price. I hope attention will be given to the matter in every aspect, for the more it is inquired into the more certain I am that the evil that now exists will be shown to need a remedy.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.