HL Deb 14 December 1965 vol 271 cc606-11

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper be agreed to. The object of this Order is to increase the jurisdiction of the county courts in actions of tort and contract from £400 to £500. Before the war, or, to be precise, in 1938, the jurisdiction of the county courts was £200, and in spite of the fall in the value of money during the war that figure was not increased until 1955, by which time the 1938 pound was worth 7s. 10½d. Accordingly, if in 1955 the jurisdiction of the county court had been put back to what it was, in terms of money, in 1938, it would have justified an increase from £200 to something between £500 and £600. But it was thought very doubtful whether the existing county court judges could cope with the increase in work, and accordingly in 1955 the then Government —very sensibly, if I may say so—said, "Well, we will double it. We will increase the jurisdiction to £400 and see how far the judges can deal with that, and we will in the Act give power by Order, if affirmed by both Houses of Parliament, to increase it by a further £100, to £500."

Time has passed again, and if one were to increase the existing limit of £400 in accordance with the fall in the value of money since 1938 one would raise the limit to about £666. But, of course, there is no jurisdiction to do that without legislation. What, however, can be done is to make use of the power in the Act to increase it to £500. That is what this Order would do. Paragraph 1 does that, but also makes some eight consequential Amendments. Six of those eight Amendments consist merely of replacing, in other parts of both the County Courts Act 1959 and the Solicitors Act 1957, the figure of £400 by £500. I have mentioned the County Courts Act 1959. The previous increase, as I have said, was under the County Courts Act 1955. The 1959 Act was a consolidating Act which took its place.

There are two other increases to which I ought to refer. Under Section 44 of the Act of 1959, which enables a defendant to require a county court action for more than £40 to be transferred to the High Court, on giving security for the amount claimed and costs, the figure in that Act was £450, reflecting the maximum amount that could be claimed and costs, and it is proposed by this Order to substitute the figure of £550 for the figure of £450. Then, under Section 47 of the Act of 1959, which provides that if a plaintiff in the High Court recovers less than £300 he shall not be entitled, unless the High Court otherwise provides, to more than county court costs, the sum of £400 is substituted for the sum of £300.

It is intended that the draft Order should come into force on January 1, 1966. The Schedule contains transitional provisions authorised by Section 192(3) of the Act of 1959 and modelled on those contained in Part III of the First Schedule to the County Courts Act 1955. In general, the amendments made by the Order will apply to proceedings begun before, as well as on or after, January 1, 1966. The amendment made to Section 47 of the Act of 1959 will not, however, apply to proceedings begun before that date. So that a plaintiff in an action brought in the High Court before that date, who recovers damages even after that date for a sum exceeding £300, but not exceeding £400, will not be restricted to county court costs.

Paragraph 5 of the Schedule deals with the position in the City of London courts, and I do not think I need particularly draw your Lordships' attention to it in detail. The Order does not deal with the question of the costs recoverable in cases under this extended jurisdiction, because this is a matter for the County Court Rules Committee. At their meeting on November 19, 1965, they passed an amendment to a rule which will enable the registrar when taxing the costs in such a case to allow such larger sum as he thinks reasonable in respect of the principal items in Scale IV of the scale of costs.

The Special Orders Committee of your Lordships' House which considered this Draft Order has reported That in their opinion the provisions of the Order do not raise any important questions of policy or principle: That the Order is not founded on precedent:"— of course, that is simply because the power under this Act to increase the figure of £400 to £500 has not been exercised before—and That in the opinion of the Committee the Order can be passed by the House without special attention. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1965, laid before the House on November 22, be approved.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on this side of the House, I should just like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his explanation, with which my noble friends on these Benches are in full agreement.


My Lords, I should like to say the same from these Benches. I speak as a layman, and I ask this question only by way of inquiry. Does not the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor consider that this Order allows two bites at the cherry, and does he therefore intend to present legislation later on to raise the limit from £500 to £660, or something higher than that?


My Lords, my impression is that we could well further extend the jurisdiction beyond the £500; but, as in the case of the previous Government, as that cannot be done without legislation, I think we had perhaps better wait a short time to see how far the extended jurisdiction is assimilated by the judges.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like from this side of the House, as has been done from the other two sides of the House, to welcome this Order. I believe that the county courts are not being used to the fullest possible capacity at the present time As one who, years ago, practised a good deal in the county courts, I have found that the standard of justice administered in those courts is as high as in any other courts in the country; and I have always been unable to understand why we have not given the county courts fuller jurisdiction. I am glad that this step is being taken, and I should be prepared to welcome a further extension, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rea, beyond the £500. But if the Government are basing the figure on the cost of living, then I understand the situation, and it may be—I hope it will not be—that before long they will have to come again and once more raise the standard.

I see from the Memorandum that there is a suggestion that more county court judges might be necessary, and I understand there is provision for that possibility. I would ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether there will not be a saving in the time of High Court Judges. I do not know whether he is able to say now the extent to which the time of High Court Judges is taken up in dealing with cases between £400 and £500, and how much of their time will be saved by this amendment of the provisions, but I should have thought there would be a corresponding saving in the time of High Court Judges to compensate for the additional time to be taken up by the county court judges; and to that extent—though I am sure this is not the purpose of the Order—there should be a saving of costs.

There is one other point. Here I am strictly out of order, but since no one is able to call me to order, except the House, I should like to mention this point. The other day we had a debate on the Law Commission. In the course of that debate a noble and learned Law Lord said that the time of the High Court was fully occupied and he would like to see a transfer of some of their functions to the county courts. Well, this has been done. I interrupted him and asked him whether that transfer should not apply also to divorce cases, and I understood him to say that only over his dead body would he permit divorce cases to be transferred to the county courts.

I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack whether any consideration is being given at the present time to the transfer of divorce cases, even if only undefended cases (although I should be prepared to go further) to the county courts. I do not want to make a big issue of it, but one has to realise that in every single undefended divorce case the petitioner has to come to London to have the case dealt with. It is a great burden on many people to come here and have their cases dealt with in this way, and there is really no need for it. I think the standard of our county court judges is high enough to justify that course. But at least, as a start, why not deal with undefended cases in the county courts? I apologise to the House for going rather beyond the terms of this Order. I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor could say a word on that matter.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, in the first place, I do not think that to give effect to this Order it will be necessary to increase the number of county court judges, because I do not think the number of actions involving sums of between £400 and £500 is substantial. It is estimated, I believe, to be only 200 a year. But, of course, per contra, not much of the time of the High Court Judges would be saved.

I should like to acknowledge what was said, and say how much I agree with it, by my noble friend Lord Silkin in the opinion he has just expressed as to the standards of the County Court Bench. I am of the opinion that we ought to make more use of those courts than we do, and I should be in favour of doing so. But I am unable to promise any legislation in that field for this Session. So far as divorce cases are concerned, the Government are favourably considering the transfer of undefended divorce cases to the county courts. I hope I did not give any impression that 1 was irrevocably against this change. On the contrary, I can remember giving evidence before the Committee presided over by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, I think in 1949, and being then in favour of that course.

Your Lordships know that more than nine out of ten divorce cases—indeed, about 30,000 out of 33,000—are undefended. Nearly all of these cases are already heard by the county court judges; so that they would be decided in the same way, and in fact by the same men; only, instead of, as now, either coming up to the Law Courts, in the Strand, or going to the local assize court and having the status of a High Court Judge for the day, and being called "My Lord" instead of "Your Honour", county court judges would act in exactly the same way, but in their own courts. And this would, of course, be of much more convenient access to the parties and to the witnesses. But I must not make now the speech which I should make in the event of this legislation being moved.


Would the change require legislation?


Yes; it would require legislation.


My Lords, I take it from the Lord Chancellor's reply that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was not quite accurate when he said that every petitioner had to come to London.


They have to come either to the High Court in London or to their local assize court. Of course, a substantial number of these cases are, in fact, already dealt with in the Provinces.

On Question, Motion agreed to.