§ 2.47 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD CONESFORD
My Lords, the purpose of this short Bill is to amend in the light of experience the statutory provisions dealing with vexatious actions. The statutory law on the subject, originally contained in the Vexatious Actions Act, 1896, is now found in Section 51 of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925, which is cited in the first clause of this Bill. That section enables the High Court, on an application made by the Attorney-General, to order that no legal proceedings may be instituted without the leave of the High Court or a Judge thereof by any person who has habitually and persistently and without any reasonable ground instituted vexatious proceedings in the High Court or in any inferior court, whether against the same person or against different persons.
The section goes on to provide that such leave is not to be given unless the Court or Judge is satisfied that the proceedings are not an abuse of the process 70 of the Court, and that there is prima facie ground for them. Applications under this section are heard by the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division. Your Lordships may like to know, too, that in the event of the person against whom such an order is sought being a poor person, the Court assigns counsel to him to argue his case.
This statutory provision extends the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to stay frivolous or vexatious proceedings so as to enable not only the current action to be stayed, but the institution of any further civil proceedings by the same litigant to be prohibited. Experience has shown that there are two defects or shortcomings in this legislation. In the first place, it does not prevent a person who has been refused leave to institute proceedings by a Judge, after such an order has been made under this section, from making a perfectly hopeless appeal to the Court of Appeal and even further. Secondly, it does not extend to existing proceedings which have already been begun by the person who is subsequently declared to be a vexatious litigant.
It may interest the House to know that the number of persons against whom it is found necessary to make such orders is very small. I think that only thirteen orders have been made since 1931. On an average there is rather less than one such order made every two years. There has recently been some tendency for the number to increase, and any noble Lord who is interested can see in The Times of the 10th of last month a report of one such case heard by the Lord Chief Justice and two other Judges.
Perhaps I might say a word on the two reforms that this Bill seeks to bring about. The reform to make the section apply to proceedings which have already been commenced by the person in question is desirable, because it is not only the trial that has to be considered but interlocutory proceedings, and such a person may think out an enormous number of quite hopeless interlocutory applications. The second and bigger reform, of course, is the reform which (after such an order has been made under this section of the Judicature Act requiring him to obtain the leave of a Judge to bring proceedings) makes the Judge's decision final; that, I think, is clearly desirable.
71 Knowing that noble Lords in every part of the House would be most unwilling to curb any liberty unnecessarily, I would remind them in conclusion of three facts: first, that the man against whom the order is sought is always represented by counsel before the Divisional Court before it makes an order. Secondly, if it makes an order against the man that order is subject to appeal in the ordinary way. He can go from the Divisional Court to the Court of Appeal and so on. Thirdly, as noble Lords who have had experience in the courts already know, I can assure the House that it is no kindness to the man himself to allow him to initiate a number of perfectly hopeless proceedings. In fact, a former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Alverstone, said in one of the earlier reported cases under this section that an order might not only protect the interests of those whom the litigant might seek to harass but also restrain him from wasting his own time and substance. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Conesford.)
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT KILMUIR)
My Lords, for the reasons which have been so clearly and fully stated by my noble and learned friend Lord Conesford, Her Majesty's Government welcome the introduction of this Bill. I have discussed it several times very fully with my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General, who thinks that it will be beneficial for the reasons that your Lordships have heard. Therefore the Government hope that your Lordships will welcome the Bill and help it on its way to the Statute Book.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.