HL Deb 15 May 1918 vol 29 cc1111-4

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I propose very shortly to state the nature of its provisions. It relates to trial by jury in civil but not in criminal cases, to the age at which jurymen may serve, and to the subject of coroner's inquests. The pressure on subjects of His Majesty to serve as jurymen has been more acutely felt during this war than previously. In many a house of business the staff is very much depleted, and it is important that the head of the business should be able to give his personal attention to its affairs, and if he is taken away to serve on a jury—a service which may last for a considerable time—there may be very grave hardship inflicted upon him. The scope of the Bill is for the duration of the war and six months thereafter. It does not propose any permanent change, but it is to meet a grievance which is felt during the pressure which the war occasions upon the time of men of business.

The question of the propriety of having juries in so many cases has been a good deal considered, even before the war. A Committee was appointed in 1911 which sat for some years and reported, after having many sittings and taking a great deal of evidence; it was under the chairmanship of my noble and learned friend Lord Mersey, who is well known to all your Lordships. The Committee had a great deal of evidence on the very subject with which this Bill proposes to deal, although only for the duration of the war. Their recommendations were of a permanent nature. If your Lordships will allow me I will read a few sentences from their Report presented in 1913 (page 31, paragraph 191)— In view of facts such as these we found an almost complete agreement among the witnesses that the time has now come to make the right to trial by jury in civil cases far less absolute. And when they state their conclusion at page 36, paragraphs 220 and 221, we find this— Henceforth trial by jury, whether special or common, should be allowed as of right only when both parties to a suit concur in demanding this mode of trial. In the absence of such mutual consent it should be settled by the Judge whether the particular action is one that calls for the assistance of a jury, and whether a special jury is necessary. At the same time, we must make one exception to the principle we have suggested. It is, we think, accepted—and for our part we agree—that in eases affecting personal character, such as actions for fraud, defamation, malicious prosecution, etc., either party should be entitled to appeal to a jury. I have referred to these recommendations, which the Committee made so long ago as the year 1913, for the purpose of enabling your Lordships to realise how closely this Bill follows on the lines of what the Committee recommended should be the permanent state of affairs. This Bill, as I have said, is temporary.

Clauses 1 and 2 deal with juries in civil cases in the High Court. Clause 1 provides that the normal mode of trial should be a Judge alone, without a jury. On the other hand, it provides that nothing is to affect any power to order a trial by two or more Judges or by a Judge with assessors, or by an official or special referee with or without assessors, or by an officer of the Court. Then Clause 1 goes on to embody the recommendation of Lord Mersey's Committee— In the case of any action, counter-claim, issue, cause or matter in which fraud is alleged or in which there is a claim in respect of libel, slander, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, seduction, or breach of promise of marriage, either party shall, on making application for the purpose in accordance with rules of court, be entitled as of right to a trial with a jury. This preserves the absolute right to a jury where such questions of character are involved. Then the clause goes on to reserve to the Court the general power to order the case to be tried with a jury if a Court or a Judge on application come to the conclusion that the case is more fit to be tried with a jury than without. Then, of course, there is the reservation of the right to a jury under the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1837, and the right of a heir at law cited to appear in connection with a probate action to a trial with a jury if he makes application in accordance with the rules.

Clause 2 is supplementary to Clause 1, and provides for dispensing with juries for the purpose of assessing damages in civil cases, but the right to the jury is to be retained where the damages are to be assessed in actions of the description to which I have referred as giving a right to a trial by jury at the option of either of the parties.

Clauses 3 and 4 make similar provisions with regard to County Courts and other inferior Courts in England. In regard to County Courts it is provided that there should be no right to a jury unless the amount claimed exceeds £5, and the claim or counter-claim is one in the case of which under this Bill either party would in the High Court be entitled to a trial with a jury. There is also the same discretionary power to the Judge. I need not read the provisions of Clause 4 which relate to other inferior Courts.

Clause 5 deals with the second of the heads which I have mentioned—the age up to which men are to be liable to serve on juries. The age is at present sixty. Lord Mersey's Committee reported that there was a general consensus that men were quite fit to be jurymen over the age of sixty, and suggested that the age should be raised to sixty-five. Accordingly, this Bill proposes to raise the limit of age to sixty-five during the war and for six months after, so as to relieve a little the pressure upon the jury lists.

The last head dealt with in the Bill is that which is treated in Clause 6. Your Lordships are aware that under the Coroners Act, 1887, wherever a body is found within the district and it appears that the death was not due to natural causes, or that the death was sudden and the cause is unknown, the duty of the coroner is to summon a jury. The verdict must be that of twelve men, and the coroner's jury consists of not fewer than twelve and not more than twenty-three. It is felt that in a great many cases it is wholly unncessary to call a number of gentlemen from their businesses for the purpose of attending inquests. As the matter is one of some importance, I should like to call your attention to the terms of the clause in this Bill dealing with it— Subject to the provisions of this section, a coroner within whose jurisdiction the dead body of a person is lying, if he is satisfied that having regard to all the circumstances of the case it is proper so to do, may, in lieu of summoning a jury in manner required by section three of the Coroners Act, 1887, for the purpose of inquiring into the death of that person, hold an inquest on the body without a jury: Provided that (a) the foregoing provision shall not apply in any case in which the death has occurred in prison or in such place or under such circumstances as to require an inquest under any Act other than the Coroners Act, 1887; and (b) if before proceeding to hold an inquest or in the course of holding an inquest without a jury there appears to the coroner to be any reason to suspect that the deceased came by his death by murder or manslaughter, he shall proceed to summon a jury in the manner required by the Coroners Act, 1857. And then there are certain subsidiary provisions. I submit to your Lordships that these provisions sufficiently guard the rights of the subject in this matter, and that it is desirable to afford the considerable relief which the dispensing with juries in cases where they are not really wanted would give. A short while ago an application was made to me by a coroner with regard to dispensing with the summoning of a jury in cases where the cause of death was obvious. I had to say that this was impossible, as it was a matter of statutory obligation. However, in dealing with the subject purely generally it has been thought proper to introduce this provision which, like the rest of the Bill, is to have effect only during the period of the war and for six months afterwards, In these circumstances I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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

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