HL Deb 16 February 1932 vol 83 cc581-7

THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT SANKEY) moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty representing that the state of business in the King's Bench Division requires that a vacancy in the number of Puisne Judges of the King's Bench Division should be filled, and praying that His Majesty will be graciously pleased to fill such vacancy accordingly, in pursuance of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925.

The noble and learned Viscount said: My Lords, with your permission I will say a few words as to the reason and necessity for this Motion. Under the Act of 1925, to which reference is made in the Motion, the number of King's Bench Judges is fixed at 18—that is to say, a Chief Justice and 17 Puisne Judges, with the proviso that if at any time there are as many as 15 Judges on the Bench a vacancy is not to be filled without an Address from both Houses of Parliament. This Address has already been passed in another place without any Division. In 1925 there were 17 Puisne Judges, and by the end of 1927 the number had fallen to the minimum of 15. Consequently, in February of 1928, there was an Address from both Houses of Parliament under the Act, and thereby the number of Puisne Judges was brought back to the proper number of 17. Since that time two vacancies have occurred. The first was within a year of the passing of the Address, and was refilled, restoring the number to 17. The second was caused by the resignation of the late Mr. Justice Shearman after the expiration of the year—in October, 1929—and that vacancy has not been filled. It has been from motives of economy that no recommendation has been made to fill this vacancy.

It was hoped that 16 Puisne Judges might be enough to do the work. That hope, unfortunately, has not been realised. The filling of the two vacancies in February, 1928, had a beneficial effect, and the improvement was almost maintained up to the end of 1930. But the result of the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mr. Justice Shearman was that arrears began to pile up, and at the beginning of this year the number of actions awaiting trial in London had risen to 1,133—that is, about 400 more than those awaiting trial at the beginning of 1929 or the beginning of 1930. The numbers awaiting trial on Saturday were 1,086. That is a slight improvement, and is entirely due to the fact that three Chancery Judges have been able to sit in the King's Bench Division for the trial of non-jury actions. The list of those actions is the one fairly satisfactory feature. It stands at 219, but the common jury actions—I regret to have to trouble your Lordships with statistics—awaiting trial are no fewer than 486 in number, and some of them were set down as long ago as last April. For ten months they have been awaiting trial. The special jury actions number 246, and some of them were set down as long ago us May of last year, and over and above that there is a substantial list of appeals from inferior courts, numbering over 100.

Your Lordships will, I think, agree that this is a state of affairs which gives all those responsible for the administration of the law great anxiety. That when a case is ready for trial the parties should have to wait ten months before it is reached is something approaching a denial of justice. Those who have suffered wrong, or those who are seeking to get their rights, should not only be able to obtain justice, but to obtain It promptly, and it must be remembered that many of these plaintiffs have suffered personal injuries from traffic accidents. I am informed, but I have not checked it, that nearly three quarters of the common jury actions and nearly half of the special jury actions are what we call running-down cases, and, further, that taken together this class of case amounts to rather more than half of those tried in the Courts.

There are many causes for the arrears. The present number of Judges in the King's Bench Division is only just sufficient to cope with the normal amount of work in normal times. Any sickness among the Judges, any unusual amount of work either in London or at the Assizes immediately causes arrears. One must expect that among eighteen Judges there will be a certain amount of illness, but within the last twelve months the absence of Judges through illness has been exceptional. There were as many as ninety-seven judicial days lost in London. Other judicial days were lost through illness at the Assizes, which necessitated the appointment of as many as five Commissioners being sent on circuit to take their places at a cost of £2,500. There are not wanting those who think that too much time is spent by the Judges on circuit and too little in London, but Parliament has always been reluctant, and in my opinion quite rightly reluctant, to cut down in any substantial degree the facilities for trial at the Assizes. Power is given by Section 77 of the Judicature Act of 1925 to dispense with the holding of Assizes at any particular Assize town where the work is so unsubstantial as to warrant an order dispensing with the holding of Assizes. I agree that this power should be utilised to the full; but it is extremely difficult to take away from an Assize town, which has been accustomed to the presence of a Judge regularly for generations, the right of having the system continued.

Over and above that, the lists of cases at the Assizes have recently been very heavy and in great centres like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Cardiff the cases awaiting trial have been of an exceptionally numerous character. In one way the Assizes have benefited at the expense of London, for it is possible for a litigant to know within a day or two when his case will come on for hearing, and his case will certainly be tried in a month or two; whereas in London it may happen that it is quite uncertain at what time a case will be tried, and indeed very often there is no Court in London sitting for the trial of a particular sort of case. Take, for example, the position yesterday. The Court of Criminal Appeal was sitting. Only one other King's Bench Judge was in London. There was not a single Court either for special jury cases or common jury cases, and only one for non-jury cases, over which we had been able-to get a Chancery Judge to preside.

The King's Bench Division too, of which for so many years I had the honour of being a member, has always been rather the handyman of the law. There are times when one of its Judges is taken either to fill up the Court of Appeal or the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division in an emergency. Such, too, is the confidence reposed in His Majesty's Judges that a request is frequently made that they should be taken from their proper work to preside over this or that Commission. In my view this is a practice which should be used very sparingly, if not wholly discontinued. It not only depletes the personnel of the Bench, but very often exposes the Judge to very great personal difficulties. Some criticism has been made upon the age of the Judicial Bench. Comparisons are-odious, but I should like to put it upon record that the oldest Judges are doing their work with a freshness of brain, a wealth of experience and with an attendance uninterrupted by illness which may well be the pride and envy of their younger colleagues.

I am not without hope that in the very near future the Rules Committee of the Supreme Court may devise an alternative procedure with a view, if possible, to diminishing the cost and hastening the course of litigation. Parliament is responsible for making the laws of this country, but lawyers themselves are not only responsible for, but as I think ought to improve, its practice and procedure. However, even should this desirable result take place, the present number of King's Bench Judges is not sufficient to cope with the volume of work that comes before them. The estimated gross cost of appointing a new Judge is as follows: The statutory salary is £5,000 per annum. This has been reduced by the Economy Act to £4,000 per annum. The Income Tax on this salary, at the present rate, amounts to £1,000. In addition the Surtax reduces the net salary to a figure between £2,500 and £3,000. To this sum oust be added the salary of the Judge's clerk, £400 a year, carrying the Civil Service bonus. The Lord Chief Justice, who, unfortunately, is unable to be here this afternoon, has written to me asking me to say that he is in entire agreement with this Motion, except that he would like to see two Judges appointed instead of one. I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty representing that the state of business in the King's Bench Division requires that a vacancy in the number of Puisne Judges of the King's Bench Division should be filled, and praying that His Majesty will be graciously pleased to fill such vacancy accordingly, in pursuance of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I rise I need hardly say, to support, had it been necessary, the Motion which has been made by the Lord Chancellor. I rise also for another purpose. A similar Motion was debated in another place, and in the course of that debate statements were made which it is important to deal with. I therefore ask your Lordships' indulgence to deal with them. There are, as your Lordships know, a number of cases which come to the Courts in which the compensation payable to workmen has to be determined. Appeals are taken to the Court of Appeal. They come straight to the Court of Appeal from the County Court or the arbitrator who determines them, without passing through any intermediate or other Court.

The hon. Member for Leigh said this during the debate in another place: I want to say a few words on this matter, because, in the past, we have had cause to complain in Lancashire of cases that have been sent to London to the Court of Appeal having been held up for a considerable time. I refer to compensation cases. Many times they have been held up for months, and our men, who are not alive to what is really the cause, have felt that something requires to be altered. I think the hon. Member, if the facts justify that statement, is perfectly right in calling the attention of the House of Commons to it, and I think it is right to try to remove any feeling of disappointment that is caused to those who think or are told that their cases have long to wait. It so happens that those cases come to the Division of the Court of Appeal over which I have the honour to preside. Therefore, I have taken the trouble to see what sort of delay there has been in the cases that come from Lancashire.

The cases brought to the Court of Appeal are not very numerous. I think in the course of last year not more than fifty cases came to the Court of Appeal out of a total number of some 6,000 cases which were initiated in the County Courts and some 3,000 which were in fact dealt with by the County Courts. Your Lordships will see that this is not a very large number. The work in the Court of Appeal is not in arrear at all. It is always our practice to see that these workmen's compensation cases are finally disposed of in each term. We have already been sitting and have dealt with all the cases that were ready for us this term. So speedily have they been dealt with that in the case of an appeal which was set down on January 13 of this year it was heard and dealt with on February 11. It must be remembered that the notice of appeal is an eight days' notice, so that you cannot deal with the case until eight days have expired. The particular appeal to which I refer was only entered on January 13 and was heard on February 11.

I have looked at the number of cases of this class coming from Lancashire during the period from January, 1931, to January, 1932. There were five cases and no more. I am giving this information because I am a little concerned with regard to those persons who naturally want their cases heard, and heard speedily, persons who have suffered injury and the like, because it is disconcerting to be told that many of these cases have been held up for months and that "our men" "are not alive to what is really the cause" and feel that something requires to be altered. There is really no cause for alteration. There is no cause for disappointment. The cases are heard in each term and fully dealt with. The hon. Member must have been misinformed as to the facts when he made those statements, and I felt that your Lordships would be reassured if I gave that information this afternoon.

On Question, Motion agreed to, the Address to be presented by the Lords with White Staves.

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