§ [No. 39.]
§ After Clause 35, insert the following new clause:
§ Punishment for unlawful harassment of debtors
§ "—(1) A person commits an offence if with the object of coercing another person to pay money claimed from the other as a debt due under a contract he—
- (a) harasses the other with demands for payment which, in respect of their frequency or the manner or occasion of making any such demand, or of any threat or publicity by which any demand is accompanied, are calculated to subject him or members of his family or household to alarm, distress or humiliation;
- (b) falsely represents, in relation to the money claimed, that criminal proceedings lie for failure to pay it;
- (c) falsely represents himself to be authorised in some official capacity to claim or enforce payment; or
- (d) utters a document falsely represented by him to have some official character or purporting to have some official character which he knows it has not.
§ (2) A person may be guilty of an offence by virtue of subsection (1)(a) above if he concerts with others in the taking of such action as is described in that paragraph, notwithstanding that his own course of conduct does not by itself amount to harassment.
§ (3) Subsection (1)(a) above does not apply to anything done by a person which is reasonable (and otherwise permissible in law) for the purpose—
- (a) of securing the discharge of an obligation due, or believed by him to be due,
1023 to himself or to persons for whom he acts, or protecting himself or them from future loss; or
- (b) of the enforcement of any liability by legal process.
§ (4) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than £100, and on a second or subsequent conviction to a fine of not more than £400."
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 39. Some of your Lordships may remember that on the Second Reading of the Bill my noble friend Lord Lloyd of Hampstead and some other noble Lords expressed great disappointment that we had not dealt in the Bill with one of the recommendations of the Payne Committee; namely, that there should be legislation against unfair harassment of debtors. I encouraged my noble friend, while at the same time saying that it was a difficult field and I was unable to introduce any such clause in your Lordships' House. But a good deal of consideration has been given to the matter and this new clause has now emerged, rather on the post, in the other House.
Your Lordships may remember that the Payne Committee gave certain examples of harassment, which included the "blue frightener" and the "red frightener", being printed notices announcing an intention to institute proceedings or demand payment and intended to be mistaken for a county court summons or otherwise calculated to alarm the debtor. Secondly, they referred to frequent calls at the home of the debtor, leaving threatening cards, or calling accompanied by an Alsatian dog. A third example was of persons informing neighbours, or local shopkeepers trading with the debtor, of his indebtedness, under the guise of seeking information, or by sending obvious demand notes wrongly addressed to those persons instead of to the debtor; and fourthly, threatening to paint a motor car possessed by the debtor with the statement that it is the property of the creditor, or threatening to paint the debtor's premises.
The Committee were satisfied that some creditors will go to any lengths to harass or intimidate debtors in order to collect debts, and they thought the conclusion 1024 inescapable that some practices are employed with the object of instilling fear and panic in debtors, causing them anguish and driving them to desperation in trying to pay off their debts.
At the same time, my Lords, one has to remember that the debtor owes the money. The person who is making the claim is claiming something to which he is entitled, and I think it was both natural and right that there was a full argument in the other place as to whether the new clause really covered the debt which ought to be covered and dealt with it in a practical way. I think it does, and I therefore commend it to the House. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said Amendment.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Hampstead, is not in his place, but I have no doubt that he will be very glad to see this new clause here. There are two questions that I should like to put to the noble and learned Lord, one of which he can perhaps answer to-day. The other I shall be content to be told about at any time. First of all, I think I am right in saying that this offence covers not only cases where there is a debt but cases where the person who is doing the harassment claims that there is a debt; in other words, it may cover cases where there is not in fact a debt at all, and it could possibly impinge upon the area of the Inertia Selling Bill, which I understand we are not proceeding with, because the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, did not proceed with the Second Reading yesterday. This is a point of some importance, particularly if the Inertia Selling Bill is not going through.
The other point, which is not intended as a criticism of this Government, is that since the noble and learned Lord has been upon the Woolsack (and it has not only been his doing, but that of his colleagues as well) we have had a number of new offences created relating to harassment. There is the one for the tenants, originally under the Prevention of Eviction Act, and now under the Rent Act. There is one for caravan dwellers, which may cause extreme difficulty in perfectly proper cases of caravans on sites run by local authorities. Now we have 1025 this, and had it not been for the impending Dissolution of Parliament we should have had the Inertia Selling Bill. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord could ask somebody to find out if this range of offences has been causing difficulty in the magistrates' courts.
The definitions have never been very solid. I remember myself doing an appeal to quarter sessions under the original Prevention of Eviction Act, and it was very difficult to know what was meant to be included under the definition of "harassment", which was inevitably wide because of the nature of the offence. We have had since further indications, of which this is the last, that this is an area of the criminal law which is spreading; and as these cases are never reported anywhere—certainly not magistrates' courts cases, so far as I know—it would be of interest, at any rate to me, if it is not too much trouble, to know whether there have been difficulties over definition; whether magistrates' courts have found trouble in interpreting these sections and whether anything needs to be done about it. I leave it there not for answer to-day, but if the noble and learned Lord has time before more pressing events come upon him I should like an answer.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, on the first point, the clause does cover the case where there is not a debt. On the second point, I will have inquiries made and will write to the noble Viscount. The Inertia Selling Bill, I take it, is not being proceeded with because it had not started at all in your Lordships' House. The Committee in the other place on that Bill tried its hand at a harassment clause but found it very difficult, and eventually we said, "If we are to have one in this Bill why not leave it to us?" So they did so.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.