HL Deb 21 February 1924 vol 56 cc249-52

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, one of the interesting features of this Bill, perhaps in some ways the most interesting, is the illustration it affords of continuity in a certain Department of State. At the Foreign Office it has been long the tradition that there should be continuity as far as practicable. That arises from the unwritten character of our Constitution and the need and the necessity of adapting it to the circumstances of the world. In the office of Lord Chancellor there has been a similar continuity. No great legislation is over carried through Parliament without the cooperation of successive Lord Chancellors. The genesis and history of the Law of Property Act, the great Act of my coble and learned friend, Lord Birkenhead, is an illustration. He succeeded in carrying it through, and he had the co-operation of other previous occupants of the office which he held. So it is with this Bill. Many of its ideas were inherited from the administration—I am talking of the administration rather than the legislation—of my noble and learned friend Lord Birkenhead. Then came my noble and learned friend Lord Cave, who translated these ideas and added others of his own. Ho embodied them in a Bill which came before your Lordships' House.

It is my duty and my privilege to-day to present a Bill which, I think I may say, represents that continuity of which I have spoken with the work of my predecessors. In this Bill there is very little that indicates much change from the policy of the late Government who introduced the Bill and carried it to a considerable stage of progress. First of all, there is one misapprehension about it of which I should like to get rid. In an excellent, though too brief, article in The Times newspaper the Hill was explained and explained very lucidly; but the complaint was made against it that it was drawn in a fashion which made too many references to other Statutes and made it almost impossible for those who were not lawyers to follow it. That was quite true so far as it went. But what I think the writer did not quite appreciate was that the Bill was merely, a Bill to bring the law into such a condition that we could embody it in a consolidating Statute. That consolidating Statute is now in preparation. When it is introduced your Lordships will find that all those references to other Acts will disappear, that you will have before you a single whole which will embody the, law relating to the administration of justice, into which the existing Statutes will be fitted without any alteration of the law being made, and that the provisions of this Bill will be retained along with those of other Statutes. Therefore, it is only temporarily that you have the Bill in its present form before you. A little later on you will have it in a more intelligible form.

As to the substance of the Bill, it is very little that I have to say. The first point is one for which I am indebted to my noble and learned friend Lord Cave. During the war trial by jury had virtually to be abolished. Cases were tried by the Judges. This Bill proposes to restore the right of the British subject to be tried by a jury as he possessed it before the war and the only alteration is that almost of necessity a power is given to the Judge to say that the case is one which is of a nature quite unfitted to allow trial by a jury; just such a case, for example, as one depending on intricate accounts being taken. At pre- sent that would be forced to a reference. Our words in the Bill provide for it. The Judge is given a discretion to say whether the case is one which is likely to prove fit for trial by jury. That is not a great alteration of the law as it stood. We thought it well to make that provision in the interests of the litigants, in order to save them the expense of preparing for a trial twice, over.

Two Committees have reported since Lord Cave drafted this Bill. The Reports of these Committees relate mainly, but not entirely, to administrative questions. For instance, if an infant recovers damages in an action it is provided, as recommended by the Committee, that instead of the money being paid to the Public Trustee—an awkward proceeding—it should be paid into a county court, which will deal with it in the way that county courts now deal with money paid in under the Workmen's Compensation Act. Mr. Justice Branson's Committee recommended that that was the proper way to deal with it, and the Government have adopted that view, and made provision for it in the Bill.

The changes in the substance of the law are very small and there is only one part of the Bill which I think I need mention. The administration of the staffs of the High Court has come to be under the control of the Lord Chancellor, who is now provided with a highly competent staff for looking after them. In earlier days, they used to be partly under the Treasury, and at the desire of the Treasury we are now taking these matters over. The clause which relates to these changes lays down certain provisions which will make the conditions of the appointments more akin to those of the Civil Service in regard to old age pensions and other matters. I venture to submit to your Lordships that that is a very great improvement, which Lord Cave proposed and which I have adopted. I think that I have dealt with the main features of the Bill. The questions that will arise are such as can be more properly dealt with in Committee. The principle of the Bill is of course one which your Lordships have had before you, and I venture to submit that it should be read a second time. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, after what has been said by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack I need not say much more than that I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is, in substance, the Bill which your Lordships passed through all its stages last year, with certain alterations which do not detract from, but rather add to, the value of the Bill. I will only make an observation upon one clause—the second clause—which deals with trial by jury, because that clause, I think, hardly received sufficiently careful and friendly consideration in another place last year. The effect of the clause is to restore to a very great extent the right of the subject, which existed before the war, to have his case tried by a jury if he so desires. In all cases where personal character is involved, such as cases of libel, or slander, or false imprisonment, or matters of that kind, the right is absolute. In other cases it is also absolute, unless it is made out to the satisfaction of the Judge that the case is more fit to be tried without a jury than with a jury. The existing Act contains an exception in these words : that if it is made out that the case can more conveniently be tried without a jury that may be done. The expression "conveniently" was the cause of some misapprehension, because it was held—wrongly, I think—to refer to some extent to the convenience of the Court. Of course, that is not a proper consideration. The real consideration is the fitness of the case itself to be tried with or without a jury, and the test is adopted, that it must be "more fit to be tried without a jury." I support the Second Beading of this Bill.

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