HL Deb 06 April 1955 vol 192 cc393-8

6.53 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move that this Bill be now read a third time. I do not want to detain your Lordships long in so doing, but there are three things I should like to say. The first is to thank noble Lords for the assistance they have given the Government in dealing with this Bill in its earlier stages. I believe this has resulted in the improvement of the Bill by the Amendments we have made. We have dealt with the difficult point of costs in borderline actions, and we have clarified the position in cases where contributory negligence arises.

There are two points with which it was impossible to deal on Report stage and to which I should like to refer. The first is the question of the number of judges which the Bill authorises. I have had a reassessment made and I should like the indulgence of your Lordships so that I may discuss the number of judges with the interested parties and the various functioning organs of the Government before Second Reading in another place. I ask your Lordships to allow me to do that. The second point is one which the noble and learned Earl the Leader of the Opposition raised on Committee stage. He asked whether I was satisfied that there was power to have a court in London to which the longer cases could be transferred. I think that the power under Order 16, Rule 1, will deal with this matter. As I indicated, it is a point to which we are giving careful and considerable attention. An obvious court which I think deserves consideration is Westminster, but I am also taking Southwark into account. I did not want to detain your Lordships but I felt I should mention these points. Having mentioned them, I beg to move that the Bill be row read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to apologise for the inability of my noble and learned friend Lord Jowitt to be here. I know he would have liked to express to the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor his appreciation of the way in which the discussions on this Bill have been dealt with. This has not been in any sense a controversial Bill. Its passage through the House has been one of those occasions which see this House at its best, when all sections get together to see how they can improve a Bill. I think that as a result of the discussions this Bill emerges a better Bill. Most of the difficulties about which we were concerned have been dealt with and little is left which remains unresolved, but there are two points to which I should like to refer.

The first point relates to the number of judges. I do not want to repeat what I said at an earlier stage, but I am concerned that we should not tie ourselves down too rigidly to the number of judges which will be needed for this vastly expanded jurisdiction. One can sit in an office and make paper calculations, but my own experience is that all those paper calculations invariably turn out to be underestimates. Incidentally—this is an amusing illustration—I have found that in the last twenty years a considerable number of town halls have been built in different parts of the country, but not one single town hall has been found to be adequate for its purpose. Before they have been completed they have been found to be too small. I presume that the same sort of calculations of the requirements of local authorities as to the number of rooms and the amount of work to be done, have been made as in this case when deciding the number of judges required; yet before the buildings have been completed they have been found to be inadequate and local authorities have gone around searching for additional accommodation. In this case, if the number of judges is found to be inadequate—and I am convinced that the number mentioned in the Bill is inadequate—the only way to remedy it is by further legislation, which, as the noble and learned Viscount knows, is a difficult process. I should be grateful if he could find some way by which an increase could be effected, perhaps by a simple Order in Council. Nobody is going to run amok in this matter. If the case is made out, there will be no difficulty at all, and there will be no need to come to the House unless a case is made out.

The second point is one I raised on Second Reading, and I appreciate that there may be some difficulty in giving an answer here and now, certainly in this House. That question is about the remuneration of judges, to which I do not think the noble and learned Viscount referred when he replied to the Second Reading debate. I am sure the noble and learned Viscount would admit privately, even if he cannot admit publicly, that county court judges are hopelessly underpaid. Their salaries were fixed at a time when the value of the pound was far different. At that time the position of a county court judge held financial and other attractions. While it is true that there has been an alleged increase, it certainly has not met the increase in the cost of living. I say "alleged increase," because I am told by county court judges that for acting as commissioners in connection with divorce cases they had been getting certain fees which amounted to £1,000 a year, and that amount was commuted to £800 a year; therefore, the increase from £2,000 to £2,800 in the case of many judges meant a reduction of £200 a year. However, I do not want to make too much of that point, whether it is so or not. The fact is that at the best the increase in the remuneration of the county court judge since many years ago when that remuneration was fixed has been £800 a year.

While this is a great hardship on the existing judges, I am equally concerned with the judges of the future. Are we really going to get county court judges of the right quality and the right capability and temperament at the remuneration which is being offered today? Knowing something about the profession, and something about the calibre of the men at our disposal (not, of course, so much as the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack knows) I feel quite sure that we shall have great difficulty with the existing remuneration in recruiting the right type of person as a county court judge. After all, we are increasing the jurisdiction and bringing in a wide range of cases that they will have to deal with. The work of a county court judge will be rendered infinitely more difficult than it has been hitherto. As a result of the extension of the jurisdiction there will be appearing before the judges counsel of considerably higher calibre and more highly paid than those who appear at the present time, and in certain cases silks will be appearing before them. It is essential that the dignity and respect that is due to a county court judge should be maintained, and that the judge should be the equal of the barristers who appear before him. I greatly fear that that will not be the case, and that the prestige of the county courts will thereby be reduced.

There is one other fact, and it is a practical one. No one knows better than the Lord Chancellor that if you have a weak judiciary of first instance you get an increased number of appeals, and if your county court judges are not of the right calibre, then certainly there will be a larger number of appeals to be dealt with by the court of appeal. If that should happen and the number of appeals is substantially increased, then the noble and learned Viscount will appreciate that it takes three judges to hear an appeal, and it is not really good business to have three highly paid Lords of Appeal having to hear appeals which might have been unnecessary if there had been judges of the right calibre in the first instance. For all these reasons, I ask the noble and learned Viscount to give serious consideration to the question of county court judges. I have no personal interest in the matter—I have no hopes of becoming a county court judge—but I am concerned with the dignity of our judiciary, with its efficiency and with the great importance of its giving satisfaction to the increasing number of people who will in future have recourse to it. I hope that, whether it can be done under this Bill in another place or whether it will have to be done in some other way, the remuneration of this important section of the community will be seriously reconsidered.

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that most interesting and instructive speech. On the first point, the number of judges, as I indicated in moving the Third Reading, I am still considering that matter, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for his suggestion about dealing with it by way of an Order in Council and an Affirmative Resolution. I fully appreciate the point that it is a difficult matter, in the ordinary Session, to get another Bill but that time can sometimes be found for an Affirmative Resolution.

On the question of remuneration, I am afraid that I cannot go further than to promise again that it shall receive the most careful consideration. The noble Lord will appreciate that there are a number of judicial offices, I am not going to say of exactly the same type, but in somewhat the same salary bracket, and I have to consider the whole position, and also the question of relativity. However, I assure the noble Lord that it is a matter which will receive careful attention. It is, as I said on Second Reading, one of the effects of a high taxation that pensions become of more importance than they were before. If we have heard once today that pensions and retired pay are part of remuneration, we have heard it twenty times. It is a fact that has to be taken into account. On the other hand, I would assure the noble Lord that, so far as I am concerned, I am anxious that we should produce a local judiciary, if I may so term it, of the highest possible calibre, and that litigants, whether their claim be large or small, whether they be poor or rich, should receive a standard of justice which will be of credit to our country. With those words, I repeat my thanks to noble Lords for their help on the Bill, and I hope your Lordships will now give it a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read 3a: an Amendment (privilege) made; Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.