HL Deb 07 February 1939 vol 111 cc677-82

THE LORD CHANCELLOR rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty representing that the state of business in the King's Bench Division requires that two vacancies 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 vacancies accordingly, in pursuance of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925, as amended by any subsequent enactment.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Resolution which stands in my name. The present position with regard to the Judges of the King's Bench Division is as follows. The Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Act, 1935, authorised nineteen Puisne Judges of the King's Bench Division, but if the existing number is seventeen or more, the vacancies cannot be filled except on an Address to His Majesty from both House of Parliament, representing that the state of business in the Division requires that the vacancies should be filled. Both in London and at Assizes there has been during the last year or two a substantial increase in the number of cases for trial, and the position is now such that more Judges are required in order to prevent arrears accumulating. At the beginning of the present term there were 1,447 cases awaiting trial in the King's Bench Division. If the Judges are to keep abreast of this work in London it is clearly impossible for them to spend more days at Assizes than they do at present.

But the work at Assizes has also greatly increased, largely in consequence of the operation of the Matrimonial Causes Act. The divorce lists at Assizes are now somewhere between 50 and 100 per cent. greater than in previous years, and in some of the circuits, especially the Northern and the Midland, more Judges are urgently required if congestion is to be avoided. During the twelve months ending July 31 last, it was necessary to appoint four Commissioners of Assize. Two of these sat at Manchester to deal with heavy lists, and the other two were sent to the Midland Circuit. In November last it was necessary to send a third Judge to Manchester, where there was a list of 190 civil cases and 227 divorce caes, in addition to forty prisoners. I do not think I need trouble your Lordships with further figures, because I think you will have no difficulty in recognising the necessity for the present Resolution. It was considered in another place last week and the need for more Judges was recognised on all sides. Indeed it was suggested by several speakers that even more should be done than is now proposed.

But may I remind your Lordships that this is not the only step which has been taken to provide means of dealing with the increase of work in the High Court? Several important changes have recently been made, all of which, although their effect cannot be immediately apparent, will help to improve the present position. In the first place, at the end of 1937 when my noble and learned predecessor, Lord Hailsham, was Lord Chancellor, an Act was passed which increased to five the number of Judges in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. Further, the Administration of Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which was passed in July last, effected two important reforms. On the one hand, the jurisdiction of Quarter Sessions was substantially increased and many offences can now be tried at Quarter Sessions which previously had to be tried at Assizes. This change came into force on January 1 last, and it is too early yet to attempt to calculate its effect, but it is reasonable to hope that it will lead to a substantial decrease in the work on Assizes. By the same Act the jurisdiction of County Courts in actions of contract or tort or for money recoverable by Statute was increased from £100 to £100, subject to the right of the defendant, if the amount of the claim exceeds £100, to object to the action being tried in the County Court. As in the case of Quarter Sessions, it is not yet possible to quantify the effect of this reform, but it will certainly afford relief to the King's Bench Division.

Finally, yet another Act which affords assistance to the King's Bench Division was passed in July last. This Act, the Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Act, increased the number of Judges of the Court of Appeal from five to eight, and provided that the duties of a Judge of the Court of Appeal appointed after the commencement of the Act should include the duties of sitting as a Judge of the High Court when requested so to do. The three additional Lords Justices are accordingly available from time to time to assist in the King's Bench Division, and some of them are in fact doing so during the present term. I have ventured to remind your Lordships of these various reforms, because I do not want you to be under the impression that the present proposal for two additional Judges is the only step which has been taken. The cumulative effect of the other reforms to which I have referred will, I think, be substantial, and if the present Resolution for two new Judges is agreed to by your Lordships I have every hope that delay in the hearings of actions, both in the King's Bench Division and at Assizes, will be largely reduced in the near future.

It should be added that the large increase in divorce lists is not expected to be permanent, for that is due to a considerable extent to petitions for divorce by persons who for many years past have been unable to apply for relief owing to the then state of the law. In other words, the Courts are now dealing in a sense with certain arrears, which naturally tend to swell these lists. On the other hand, I will for myself express a hope that the very great number of cases arising out of accidents attributed to motor vehicles of various types still tend to diminish. It seems to me difficult to believe that the country will long rest content with the present condition of things—namely, an annual total of accidents resulting in some 6,600 deaths and 226,000 persons injured. If divorce cases and accident cases were appreciably reduced there should be, if your Lordships agree to this Resolution, sufficient Judge-power to deal with the cases for trial in London and on Assize without delays and in a satisfactory manner. But if this hope is disappointed, I shall have no hesitation in placing before my colleagues the need for making a further addition to the Judicial Bench until that Bench has been shown to be adequate to the duties which it has to discharge.

It should, however, be clearly understood that the expenditure incurred upon the appointment of further Judges is not to be measured solely by the salaries necessary to be paid to them. Any substantial addition to the Bench entails additional expenditure upon the subordinate staff. The additions I have already mentioned have involved considerable alterations, and will involve considerable additions, to the large building in the Strand with which your Lordships are well acquainted. We are advised by those most competent to form an opinion that no further extension of that remarkable structure is possible beyond those already contemplated. When the four new Courts now in hand are completed no more buildings can be erected on the present site. The mere cost of converting the Bar Library into a third Court of Appeal was £3,650. The original estimate for four new Courts was £42,500, exclusive of the cost of furniture. Any further expansion means the purchase of land in a very expensive part of London and the erection of a completely new building upon it. That building must be close to the existing Courts if great public inconvenience to those who resort to the Courts is to be avoided. It would be rash for me to indicate any figure; but your Lordships will readily appreciate that very large sums of money would be required for the purpose. This, as I think your Lordships will agree, is not the time for embarking on such a large expenditure unless it were certain, which I think it is not, that the recent measures and steps to which I have referred will be insufficient to remove the causes of complaint as regards the disposal of cases in the High Court. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty representing that the state of business in the King's Bench Division requires that two vacancies 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 vacancies accordingly, in pursuance of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925, as amended by any subsequent enactment.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


May I ask the noble and learned Lord what is the reason and nature of this extra work? The Lord Chancellor has given us an exhaustive statement with regard to the Matrimonial Causes Act, and has informed the House that the excessive amount of work caused by that legislation is likely to come to an end shortly. What are the other causes of this great influx of extra work?


My Lords, the divorce work, as I have said, has been increased by reason of the recent Act, and it is hoped and believed that that work will greatly diminish in the course of the next year or eighteen months. The other work which has so largely increased is work in connection with motor vehicle accidents. I have made some inquiry as to the reason for that because that work, until comparatively lately, had fallen off very much owing to the habit of the insurance companies engaged on both sides of the litigation arising out of these accidents making agreements between themselves and settling the claims. It seems that owing to a change in the habits of juries in regard to the amount of damages which they assess in respect of these accidents, and to some extent owing to the different view being taken—perhaps on account of that—as to the right amount of damages given by Judges sitting alone, it has been found, I presume, by plaintiffs in these actions that to proceed with an action is often better business than to settle. They have therefore brought pressure to bear on their insurance companies to fight a considerably greater number of accidents than used to be the case. That, as far as I can make out, is the reason for the very remarkable increase in the number of these actions, but your Lordships will understand that the view I have given you, though perhaps a plausible conjecture, is not much more than a conjecture, because there is no way of ascertaining the precise facts regarding a large number of accidents all over the country and the reason why they are being fought instead of being settled. That is the best answer I can give to the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and the said Address ordered to be presented to His Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before five o'clock.