§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, in asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill I may, perhaps, receive your indulgence if I make a short explanation of its effect; because any measure which adds to the efficiency with which the County Courts do their work or which strengthens the position of the Judges is one of enormous interest to the community as a whole.
Section 24 of the County Courts Act, 1888, gives power to the Lord Chancellor to recommend to the Treasury the payment to any County Court Judge who shall be afflicted with some permanent disability that interferes with the due execution of his office and who is desirous of resigning, of a pension not exceeding two-thirds of his salary, and any pension so granted is charged upon the Consolidated Fund. Constant difficulties have arisen between the Lord Chancellor and the Treasury as to the interpretation of this section. My predecessors have contended that the Treasury are bound to act on the Lord Chancellor's recommendation, and the Treasury have argued that they are free to grant a sum less than that recommended. It is hardly necessary for me to say that I do not entertain the slightest doubt that my predecessors were right and that the Treasury were wrong in those protracted controversies.
318 But apart from these difficulties, the arrangements with regard to the pensions of County Court Judges under the section are unsatisfactory in a variety of respects. In the first place, a Judge can acquire a pension only on being afflicted with a permanent disability. As a result of this, many Judges continue to hold office up to a time of life at which it would be desirable both in the public interest and in their own that they should resign; they are unwilling, and possibly unable, to furnish evidence that they are permanently disabled. In the next place, it is felt to be a great hardship by the Judges that they should not be entitled, in the same way as High Court Judges are entitled, to retire on a pension after having served a reasonable number of years, apart from any question of disability; and while, of course, the pension that would be given would be a smaller amount, it is very difficult to see on principle why a different method should be adopted in the case of County Court Judges from that which has been so long our practice in dealing with Judges of the High Court. It is found as a matter of practice that Judges sometimes break down after only a short period of service, and obtain pensions in excess of what is reasonable having regard to the number of years they have served. In these circumstances my predecessors have felt a difficulty in recommending a pension smaller than the maximum, and the Treasury, though they did not like granting the maximum in such cases, have usually succumbed to the representations of those who have sat before me on this seat.
It is believed that the present Bill will introduce reforms of considerable value. It has been prepared with the object of regularising the position, and of granting to County Court Judges the right to a pension in proportion to the length of service. I am glad to say that the Bill has been agreed between myself and the Treasury, and it has been prepared with the assistance and the hearty assent of the Council of County Court Judges, who welcome its provisions with cordiality and gratitude.
The Bill has three main provisions. In the first place it proposes a retiring age of 72, which can be extended to 75 if the Lord Chancellor sees fit. Disputation may take place as to the proper age for a Judge to retire. We have all learned by experience 319 that while it is convenient to have a time limit, the great danger is to dogmatise in its application to individuals However, convenience suggests that on the whole we ought to adopt it as a general rule. If I am told that my venerable, sagacious, and most learned friend Lord Halsbury, who made, as he did, when over 90—I think he was 92—a great contribution to an important case which was tried in this House, would have been excluded under this rule, I can only plead that instances of such vitality at an age so advanced are very rare. "It is not given to every one to bend the bow of Odysseus." On the whole, I am sanguine that the House will come to the conclusion that in taking the age of 72 we have selected an age which corresponds with the experience of human life.
In the second place, the Bill grants a pension on a sliding scale up to a maximum of two-thirds of the salary. Any Judge who has both attained the age of 65 and served 15 years is at any time hereafter entitled to retire with a two-thirds pension. If he breaks down in health before he has served 15 years and has attained the age of 65, he is entitled to a proportionate pension as set out in the Schedule. In the third place, the Bill grants power to pay a deputy employed in consequence of the illness of a Judge. At present any deputy has to be paid by the Judge himself. This has long been felt by the County Court Judges—I think rightly—to be harsh, especially having regard to the size of the Judge's salary; and I may say, in this connection, that a similar provision has long been part of the law of Scotland.
I hope that in giving a Second Reading to this Bill your Lordships will come to the conclusion that these proposals are both reasonable and useful. I am happy to state that, balancing all the considerations which I have already mentioned, it is not anticipated that the result of this Bill will be to add at all appreciably to the general cost of the County Court Bench. As I said yesterday, your Lordships, and indeed Parliament generally are well-advised to do anything which is reasonably within your power to improve the status and to satisfy the demands of the County Court Bench. That Bench consists of a body of extremely efficient, public-spirited, and industrious men, and on the zeal and ability with which they discharge their functions the well-being of countless 320 thousands of our population depends. I now move that the Bill be read a second time.
Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, this is a very useful Bill, and on all the three points of which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has spoken it improves the present state of things. I think it is quite right to put a limit of 72 years as the age at which a County Court Judge should vacate his office unless the Lord Chancellor sees fit to keep him on. That is what I think the Royal Commission proposed with regard to High Court Judges too, and I hope it may be introduced with regard to them. But the difficulty in practice is this. As the Lord Chancellor said, some of the best work of Judges has been done when they were over 80. The work of a Judge is different from any other work; it requires a kind of disposition based on many years experience of the office, and it is very often not for 10 years that the Judge becomes really up to the level which his functions require. You may turn him away at 75 just when he is getting to perfection, and that has been the case with a good many Judges in the last 20 or 30 years. But, as the Lord Chancellor says, this is an agreed Bill. As there is no doubt the Treasury, which always likes the age as early as possible in the Civil Service, would prefer to keep in 75, it is perhaps better not to fight about it. For myself I regret that the upper age is in the Bill, as I would rather have left it to the discretion of the Lord Chancellor.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, I should like to say a word or two about this Bill, and having regard to my old familiarity with the work of County Courts I dare say the Lord Chancellor will not think I am presumptuous in offering a few remarks. The first thing that strikes me is that the Bill has come up from the House of Commons with apparently very little difficulty in getting it passed there, and it is perfectly obvious that it is going to be passed here. I trust that this is a good augury of what will happen to the other useful Bill which the Lord Chancellor has introduced, also on the subject of County Courts, and I hope to see that measure pass this session.
321 With regard to the particular provisions in this Bill, I should like to be allowed to express the respectful opinion that the scheme with regard to pensions is a very good one, very reasonable, and workable. I am not surprised to hear that it is the subject of general agreement, and is approved by the County Court Judges. I have no doubt that the noble and learned Lord is aware of the history of a particular case out of which some of these provisions arose. I had to appear myself before the Committee on Accounts in the House of Commons in order to be examined upon the subject of these very provisions. The result seems to be satisfactory, although I must say I was very much surprised to see one provision that has been inserted—namely, that as to getting evidence of the fitness in respect of health of a gentleman before he is appointed County Court Judge. It seems to me that that is an obvious thing which the Lord Chancellor would naturally do, and I am surprised that it should be thought necessary to include in the Bill a. provision for that purpose.
I feel sure that the provision as to the age of retirement will be most useful. It is the case, as I have known from my own experience, that some of the best Judges have done their best work when they have been over 72 years of age, but it is a question that has been very much discussed. It has been discussed by a Joint Committee of both Houses and by a Royal Commission with reference to High Court Judges, and the conclusion has been arrived at that it is on the whole better to run the risk of losing a very old Judge rather than run the risk of having a great many cases of men remaining in office who, splendid as their services have been before, fall off and are perhaps not always quite aware of the extent to which their faculties have diminished.
The only other point that requires observation, I think, is the very adequate and very just provision about paying for deputies in the case of County Court Judges falling sick. This has always been felt to be a difficult thing to manage. It will throw some difficulty upon the Lord Chancellor and upon those to whom he looks for assistance; but it is certainly not impracticable. In the great majority of cases it is a very great hardship upon County Court judges, who have very moderate salaries, that when the misfortune 322 of illness sometimes going on for a considerable period, falls upon them, they are obliged to pay their deputies out of their own pockets. I am very glad that the Lord Chancellor has seen his way to persuade the Treasury to allow this provision to be included, and I trust that your Lordships will do your best to pass as quickly as possible so excellent a Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.