HL Deb 22 April 1971 vol 317 cc825-9

[Nos. 8–10]

Clause 20, page 16, line 12, leave out subsection (1) and insert — (1) Every Circuit judge shall, by virtue of his office, be capable of sitting as a judge for any county court district in England and Wales, and the Lord Chancellor shall assign one or more Circuit judges to each district and may from time to time vary the assignment of Circuit judges among the districts.

(1A) Subject to any directions given by or on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, in any case where more than one Circuit judge is assigned to a district under subsection (1) above, any function conferred by or under the County Courts Act 1959 on the judge for a district may he exercised by any of the Circuit judges for the time being assigned to that district." line 20, leave out from "Wales" to "if in line 21 and insert "and line 24, leave out subsection (3) and insert— ( ) Notwithstanding that he is not for the time being assigned to a particular district, a Circuit judge—

  1. (a) shall sit as a judge of that district at such times and on such occasions as the Lord Chancellor may direct; and
  2. (b) may sit as a judge of that district in any case where it appears to him that 826 the judge of that district is not, or none of the judges of that district is, available to deal with the case.
( ) So much of Part I of the County Courts Act 1959 as makes special provision in relation to county court districts within the Duchy of Lancaster shall cease to have effect.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10. I should like to take with them Nos. 30. 66, 67, 90, 116 and 167, which are all linked with them, although I shall formally put the Question on them later. These Amendments restate the provisions of Section 4 of the County Courts Act 1959 which deals with the assignment of judges to county court districts, and it does so in a form more appropriate to the Bill. It will also simplify the procedure whereby Circuit judges and deputies are to act as judges for county court districts. I could explain that at greater length but I think it is unnecessary to do so. It is a simple improvement to the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said Amendments. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, on this group of Amendments it is not my intention to ask your Lordships to disagree with the other House. However, I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor what his intentions are. It is within the spirit of the Beeching recommendations that we all badly want to get a greater degree of flexibility in the use of our judge power. Therefore, I do not object at all to what these Amendments do in form—namely, in the simplest way, enabling the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to ask any Circuit judge to act as a county court judge. But I would just like to know, if we may, how the Lord Chancellor proposes to use this power, because it is my earnest hope that this will happen only on very rare occasions.

I have often thought that in some ways a county court judge is more important than a High Court judge—or, rather, that he has a more difficult task: because, after all, the High Court judges have experienced counsel to explain the points and refer them to the relevant cases, and so on. The ordinary person is much more likely to find himself in a county court than in the High Court. Secondly, the judge in a county court has either solicitors or young counsel—or, often, no one—and the first thing the judge has to do, in an action, say, between two Jamaicans, is to discover what on earth the case is about. Also, he has to deal with whether people are to lose their homes, and other matters of importance. If the noble and learned Lord could wave a wand, one which I should have liked him to wave would be one that resulted in all the High Court judges acting for three months as county court judges, and all the county court judges acting for three months as High Court judges. I cannot help thinking that if that could happen both groups would learn a good deal.

Some county court judges sit occasionally on criminal cases at sessions, but their main work is of course civil; they are men who are appointed specifically with county court work in mind, and in my experience most of them are of a very high standard. I should not like to think that they would be taken away from that work to do criminal work (other than in very rare cases indeed) while a Circuit judge, who may never have been in a county court since his youth, is used as a county court judge. Therefore, if that is his intention, I would ask whether the noble and learned Lord will be good enough to confirm that, while the power will be there, he does not anticipate that it is one which will often require to be used.


My Lords, I hope I can satisfy the noble and learned Lord on this point. It is very difficult to generalise because the capacities, and the inclinations, of the various members of the Judiciary who will become Circuit judges when this Bill is passed vary almost infinitely. To take two extreme cases—and they are two extreme cases—the Vice-Chancellor of the County Palatine of Lancaster will be virtually a Chancery practitioner, and he will really be doing Chancery work there as he does now. The only thing is that he may have to do a little more of it than he does now, owing to the fact that he may have to undertake a few more days sittings in order to be able to take cases from a larger catchment area. On the other hand, the full-time chairman of London Sessions does practically nothing but criminal work, and I hope he will remain doing practically nothing but criminal work. Those are the two extreme cases; between those extremes there is almost every variation of individual difference. Some county court judges, as they now are, undertake quite a lot of criminal work as chairmen and deputy chairmen of quarter sessions. They will, therefore, be quite likely to continue the same work, presiding over their local Circuit courts as they do now, with justices sitting with them. In appointing Circuit judges, or their equivalent now, one looks for what the vacancy requires, and one provides a man to fit that vacancy so far as one can fit a round peg into a round hole.

The purpose of these powers is to enable them to be moved to deal with the unusual case, so that they all have the jurisdiction to act if they are required. If I may make one qualification to what the noble and learned Lord said, my own conviction—I do not know if it was his when he was Lord Chancellor—is that it is good for a judge not to get into a rut. One advantage of being a High Court judge is that you do both criminal and civil work, and it is very good indeed for a civil judge to have done criminal work and divorce work as well as his own civil assize work. I think the same is true in the county courts, and I think it was quite a bad thing when in my youth they were regarded as something of a backwater.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord that county court judges come into contact with the respectable public a great deal more than almost anybody else. But I think to have a knowledge of what is going on round the corner in the Crown court will do them nothing but good. Although one must be extremely sparing about it, because there is no specialised Bar quite so specialised as the criminal Bar in some of its reaches, I think it is very good for the criminal specialist occasionally to see what goes on in the county court, because you never know in a criminal court when you are going to meet a respectable man for once, and it is very important to be able to recognise him.

I will use the power sparingly. It is designed to give a common jurisdiction to a very wide range of judges who will be doing quite a variety of different types of work, but I think I can wholly accept the general proposition which the noble and learned Lord put.

On Question, Motion agreed to.