HL Deb 09 July 1974 vol 353 cc472-7

3.28 p.m.

THE LORD CHANCELLOR rose to move, That the Draft County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1974, laid before the House on June 25, be approved. The noble and learned Lord "aid: My Lords, the draft Order before t you has the merit of brevity and simplicity. Since 1846, when the county courts were first established, successive County Courts Acts have contained provisions defining the jurisdiction of the county courts by placing an upper limit upon the value of claims which may be brought in them. These limits have always recognised that the county courts j were designed as district courts, reasonably accessible to local communities throughout the country, where comparatively small civil claims could be pursued under a relatively simple and expeditious procedure, without incurring the expense and greater length of time involved in litigating in the High Court. The High Court was preferably reserved for the pursuit of larger and more complex claims requiring the greater judicial experience and expertise of a High Court Judge.

The steady erosicn of the value of money since the time when the county courts were first established has made it necessary progressively to raise the monetary limits of the county court jurisdiction to take account of it. In 1846 the upper limit of the county court jurisdiction in contract and tort cases was £20. This was raised to £50 in 1888, £100 in 1903, £200 in 1938, £400 in 1955 and £500 in 1966. The last time when this limit was raised was in 1970, when the jurisdiction of the county courts in contract and tort claims was brought up to its present level of £750. Since 1970, alas, the value of money has fallen by approximately one-third, and the purpose of the draft Order now before your Lordships is to reflect this fall in the value of money by raising the existing upper limit of the jurisdiction of the county courts in claims in contract and tort from £750 to £1,000.

For the same purpose, the draft Order also makes certain consequential changes to other monetary limits provided for in the County Courts Act in its present form. The amount which a plaintiff proceeding in the High Court must recover in order to be entitled to costs in the High Court scale is raised from £500 to £650, and the amount which such a plaintiff must recover in order to recover any costs at all is raised from £100 to £150. The draft Order also provides for the jurisdiction of county court registrars to be raised from £75 to £100, in order to keep the registrar's jurisdiction in balance with the new level of that of the judges.

The actual volume of judicial work which is likely to be transferred from the High Court to the county courts as a result of this Order is not very great. The number of writs for actions issued annually out of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court which fall within the new proposed jurisdiction of the county courts—that is to say, those which lie in the bracket between £750 and £1,000—is approximately 18,000. Even if all these cases were transferred to the county courts, the increase in their work would not be significant in a context in which they arc already dealing with some one and a half million plaints a year. Only a small proportion of these are likely to come to trial. Of all the actions commenced in the Queen's Bench Division only about 1½ per cent, are actually tried—a very happy state of affairs, otherwise the burden upon the courts themselves would be intolerably heavy. The overwhelming majority of actions are either dealt with summarily, settled out of court, or withdrawn. As to the raising of the registrars' jurisdiction, the effect of this again will not increase the overall work-load of the registrars by a significant amount.

Your Lordships may ask why, since we may in the future possibly have to face further falls in the value of our money, we do not anticipate that unhappy prospect to some extent by raising the county court jurisdiction above the new proposed limit of £1,000, to, say, £1,250 or £1,500. There are clearly arguments in favour of that. But there is one overriding consideration which militates against it. This consideration lies in the field of costs. The upper scale of county court costs is already not far below the High Court scale, so that if the county court jurisdiction was raised significantly above £i 000 it would be necessary to fix the upper limits of the county court costs at levels which would invade the High Court scale, and thus require a complete upwards revision of the High Court scale; otherwise the overlapping of the two scales would mean that there would be no saving of costs by suing in the county courts.

I should, I think, refer to one last consequence of the draft Order; namely, its effect upon the present useful provisions for arbitration in the county courts. The consequence of raising the jurisdiction of registrars from £75 to £100 will be to raise by a similar amount the present limits upon a claim which a registrar may, on his own authority and without need to obtain a judge's consent, refer to himself as arbitrartor under the new arbitration procedure.

Noble Lords may wish to know that before this draft Order was laid the principal official bodies affected by it were fully consulted. Among those whose views were sought were the Bar Council, The Law Society, the Council of Circuit Judges, the Association of County Court Registrars, and the Under Sheriffs' Association—so that the ground has indeed been well traversed. I am happy to say that the principle underlying this Order; namely, that the jurisdiction of the county courts should be raised in order to reflect the fall in the value of money, has proved without exception to be acceptable to all those whose opinion was sought. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1974, laid before the House on June 25, be approved.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I anticipate that the House will be prepared without very much discussion to give assent to what the noble and learned Lord has just proposed, and I think I can say without much hesitation that had affairs been different I should have taken the same course. The immediate proposal is of | course acceptable on the grounds that the noble and learned Lord has stated; namely, that it is really only rather tardily following in the wake of the erosion in the value of money which has been constant and increasing. Therefore, the noble and learned Lord is really only running up a moving staircase which is running down, and what has been done is rather less than to preserve the status quo.

There are two comments which I should like to make, one of which relates to what the noble and learned Lord has said and one of which relates to what he did not say. As regards the first, it is of course true that quite apart from the erosion in the value of money, which is the principal reason why the noble and learned Lord has progressed from £750 to £1,000, the jurisdiction of the county court has been immensely increased in area since both of us went to the Bar. On the whole, this has been a matter of great advantage, particularly to those who live in the Provinces. I myself would have seen no overriding objection to raising the county court limit higher than the noble and learned Lord has seen fit to do. It is of course true that that would have led to some overlap with High Court costs, but in simple cases there would still have been considerable advantage in suing in the county court, both on the grounds of proximity and on the grounds of convenience to parties and witnesses.

The other comment I want to make—and I think this is an appropriate moment to make it—is that my own conviction, as a result of my experiences in the office which the noble and learned Lord now holds, has been that the whole business of High Court and county court jurisdiction is really ripe for a development analogous to that which we carried out three years ago on the criminal jurisdiction of the Assizes and quarter sessions. There is, really an overwhelming case for amalgamating the two jurisdictions and assigning cases to a district court or to a central court with a suitable judge, not on the basis of the level of the claim only, but on the basis of convenience or difficulty. We have come a very long way since 1846 when the county court was started in its present form and the old £20 claim, because on any view of inflation the development in the value of money has not been of that order.

I think the time has really come when the Lord Chancellor's office ought to consider carefully whether an exercise comparable to that caried out in the Courts Act 1971 ought to be carried out in relation to our civil jurisdiction, and I hope the noble and learned Lord will consider that suggestion carefully. I believe that many ancillary advantages would be found, although a great deal of work would be involved, both in the preliminary inquiries and consultations, and in the difficulties which, necessarily, always accompany a structural change. I am happy to commend this Motion to the House, but I hope that the noble and learned Lord will take account of what I have said.


. My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his acceptance and welcome of this Order. The difficulty about raising the figure of jurisdiction is its impact on costs, but it is a matter to which we gave consideration. As to the suggestion that the time may now be ripe to review the respective functions of the civil court, I will certainly take that suggestion on board and we will examine the matter. Since the Courts Act was introduced by the noble and learned Lord, there has been a very great improvement in the criminal field and it may be that there are useful lessons to be learned in the civil field as well. We are grateful for the suggestion.


My Lords, I have only a simple question to put to the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack. From his observations and his anticipations of a future erosion in the value of money—which I am sure none of us would wish to contradict—it follows that from now onwards, as the value of money deteriorates by, say, 15 per cent, or 20 per cent, in the next twelve months, the area covered by the present Order will be altered. Without committing myself at all to the fashionable nostrum of universal indexation I should like to inquire whether thought has been given to attaching a figure to an easily constructible index number, which would obviate the necessity for introducing a similar Order in twelve months' time.


My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion. The difficulty, as I said, is that the jurisdictional figure is linked with the costs figure, which presents certain problems. One does not want to see an unnecessary upturn in the costs side because of an increase in the jurisdictional side, but we will certainly look at the suggestion. The declining value of money presents us all with a kind of stone of Sisyphus—we never quite cope with the situation—but this is the best we can do at the moment without causing a substantial increase in the costs of litigation, which I am sure noble Lords would not welcome.


My Lords, with the deepest respect to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, I suggest to your Lordships that every additional thing which is subjected to indexation—which I think is the new word and which is directly related to increases in the cost of living—is just one more brick in the edifice of continuing inflation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.