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I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill is introduced pursuant to a pledge, given not only by this Government but also by the preceding Government, to remedy the very genuine and very real grievance which exists to a very large number of people employed in the administration of the County Courts. I very much hope that this Bill will prove to be non-controversial in any sense, and, in so far as I can meet any objections which have already occurred to me, I propose to try and meet them in the few words that I have to say this afternoon. The principles underlying the Bill are largely technical, and I do not propose to go in any detail into the technicalities, but I think it will be desirable that I should, in a few sentences, try to make plain to the House the ills which this Bill seeks to remedy, and the method which it proposes to adopt in order to effect those remedies. There are two classes of persons who are mainly affected by this Bill. They are the higher and the lower officials of the County Courts, and, as the House knows, the work done by the County Courts now is of the very greatest importance, but, unfortunately, the method of appointment, of remuneration and of regulating employment is not only very unsatisfactory, but it has become chaotic. In 1919 a Committee was set up by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, and presided over by Mr. Justice Swift, with a view of ventilating these grievances, and seeing what remedy could be suggested to meet them. The Committee reported in 1920, and the Bill before the House to-day is mainly based upon its recommendations.
I propose, therefore, to say, first of all, what are the evils underlying the position of the superior officials, and amongst those I include the Registrars of the County Courts; and, secondly, the evils and grievances which are being suffered by the minor officials, such as the clerks and others. The whole principle underlying the appointment and remuneration of these servants and officials is based upon the old County Courts Act, 1888, and the evils which have been pointed out are mainly these. Registrars are divided into two entirely different but purely arbitrary classes—namely, those in Courts where there have been more than 6,000 plaints lodged in one year, and those in Courts where there has not been that number. The distinction has become quite academic, and quite valueless, and there is no reason at all for its maintenance. County Court Registrars have been appointed hitherto by County Court Judges, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, a method which has been found, on the whole, to be very unsatisfastory, in so far as it is eminently desirable that these officials, who are of great importance in the administration of the County Courts, should be appointed from a central source, and it is obviously desirable that that should be the Lord Chancellor's Department itself.
Having been appointed in that way, there is a most unsatisfactory method of remuneration. Taking County Court Registrars to-day, generally—and I hope the House will not think, because I do not go into minute details of the remuneration, that there is any desire to keep anything back—there are many different ways in which they are remunerated, but the real, fundamental method of remuneration in most cases is this: It depends largely, if not wholly, upon the number of plaints which are issued in the respective County Courts, and the result is that every County Court Registrar may be said—and if not said, may be thought, which is as bad—to be interested in the amount of litigation in his own Court before he arrives at his own remuneration. And it has another obvious disadvantage. There may be cases in which a particular County Court Judge may be, rightly or wrongly, thought to be favourable to the issue of judgment summonses, and the more plaints that are made, the more the remuneration, which is eminently undesirable. In addition to that, another great grievance was that there was no superannuation for registrars. There was no method under which they could receive pensions. As I say, the methods of their appointment were unsatisfactory, their remuneration was unsatisfactory, and the absence of superannuation was eminently unsatisfactory.
That is largely from the public point of view. But there was, in addition, a very serious grievance on the part of those officers themselves, because, supposing for some reason there was a serious loss of work, either in one Court or generally, practically the entire remuneration of the Registrar might disappear. In fact, the Committee reported that there was a drop in the War period to such an extent that a Registrar who previously got £1,100 only received £230. That is obviously most unsatisfactory, particularly as it became part of the duties of the Registrars to pay out of their own salaries the salaries of the clerks and officials whom they had to
employ, and it happened, I believe, on several occasions that the amount payable by the Registrar was not sufficient to enable him to pay the amount due to his clerks. That was a very serious state of affairs so far as the Registrar was concerned, but so far as the clerk was concerned, it was really infinitely worse. The principle under which the clerks work in the County Court is really exceptionally hard and exceptionally undesirable. In most cases the clerks were paid by the Registrar. They were paid in an intricate manner, partially by an allowance, which was allocated to the Registrars by the Treasury, although there was no restriction imposed on the way in which the money was expended, partly by a percentage of the fees which the Registrars got out of the Court, and partly by-allowances by the Registrars themselves. The result in innumerable cases has been—and I think I can satisfy the House—that they have been woefully underpaid. I am anxious to lay blame on no individual. I do not want it to be thought I am blaming the Registrars, particularly as an arrangement has been come to between all parties concerned, and I want particularly to guard myself against any such suggestion. It has been difficult to say whether they ought to apply to the Treasury or the Registrar. Whatever the fault may be, the position of these clerks cannot, I think, be better described than in the words of the Report of Mr. Justice Swift and his Committee. This is what they say about the clerks and their remuneration:
In some cases clerks with several years' experience are now paid less than the wage at the present day of an unskilled manual labourer. Such men cannot afford to retire, and they are kept on from motives of charity, after they have passed an age when they can render any efficient service. These men cannot, or will not, retire so long as they can walk or be carried into the Court.
I am told that that is not an exaggeration, and that there have been cases where some of these public servants have had literally to be carried into Court, because too old or too ill themselves to walk, and they have not been in a position to retire. I say that is a state of affairs that we ought not to allow to continue. In addition, there was no pension for these men. At the end of their service—some of them are now 80 years of age—they do not get a penny when they retire. They are not
civil servants, and, in fact, their state is one which, I believe, will receive the sympathy of every Member of this House.
I want to say a word about what has happened since this Report came out. The Lord Chancellor's Department and the Treasury got into communication with the Association of Registrars and the association of the clerks and minor officials, of whom I have been speaking, and an agreement has been made which largely carries into effect the Committee's Report. It is one which has been accepted by the Treasury, the clerks, and the registrars, and it is the wish of those who are responsible for the Department over which the Lord Chancellor presides that some public recognition should be made of the loyalty—the unswerving and honourable loyalty—with which the clerks in particular—and I am not minimising our obligations towards others—have loyally stood by the agreement which was made, and was ready to come before this House in 1922. There are these old men, some of whom, I am told, have literally died in the street, through poverty and distress, since the time that the agreement was reached. They were told that the only thing that prevented their legitimate grievances coming before the House of Commons was the difficulty of finding Parliamentary time. In spite of their grievances, they have loyally held to the agreement they made. They have said, "We have made it, and we will go on without raising any protest or striking, trusting that the House of Commons will give effect to the agreement." I do not think anyone will desire that men who have suffered as these men have suffered, who have loyally kept to their agreement, should have their claims any longer deferred. I may say they have come to this building almost pleading for time to be found for a Bill to be passed through the House as quickly as possible. This Bill proposes, in regard to the registrars, that in future they shall all be appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and shall all be subject to superannuation.
Those are details, and are all matters of a scheme which has been agreed to between the registrars, the officials, the clerks, the Treasury and the Lord Chancellor, and, in as much as it is a matter of agreement, we feel bound, as far as that is and, inasmuch as it is a matter of agreement to which they have come. I hope no one will desire to criticise the agreement which has been made voluntarily by all of them. The principle underlying it is that there shall be a superannuation fund, and that the terms of it shall be subject to agreement between the various parties. Generally speaking, they are to be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. They are to be entitled to pensions. As far as possible they shall not be permitted to have private practice. They are to be paid a regular salary which shall not depend upon the work done, so that no person who is interested in County Court procedure and litigation can say that in any way the officers of the Court are being affected by the amount of work that is being done.
As far as the clerks are concerned, it is the intention that in almost every case in future they shall be permanent civil servants, that they shall be paid by the Treasury, that they shall all of them be put upon terms of having pensions, as in the case of the Civil Service, and, in fact, they shall be spared the old terror which haunted them of being unable to know-precisely who was their master and the terms of their appointment, and that they shall have some provision made for their old age. There is the case of those men at this moment of 80 years of age, and so on, whose pensions would be a difficult matter of arrangement. They have come to an agreement which, I think, is beneficial to all of them, that when they are retired, as they will be as soon as this Bill is passed, they shall be given a gratuity of a very substantial nature, which, I know, they will wholeheartedly welcome as removing the fear of poverty for the few remaining years of their lives.
I have purposely avoided going into the technical details of the scheme. I do not believe it would be the wish of the House that I should do so. It is the broad principle of the scheme which one wants to have clearly in mind. I think I am right in saying this, in a way, is as much the Bill of the party opposite as it is ours. I am told it was approved by my predecessor, and I am equally hopeful those below the Gangway will support it, because we do want to get it through. These people are waiting patiently for it to pass, because, unless it be passed, none of the reforms they desire can be carried. Those are the two points of the Bill.
There are in the Bill two or three subsidiary matters about which I just want to say a word. The first of these subsidiary matters is referred to in Clauses 6, 7 and 8. Clause 6 is one which deals with certain fees in the County Court, particularly in regard to workmen's compensation cases. The object of the Clause, and it was intended to be so drafted, was to lessen, if possible, the amount of expenses and fees that might have to be paid by workmen in workmen's compensation cases. There is to my mind in the Clause very great ground for doubt as to the real meaning of the words, for instance, in Sub-section (4) of Clause 6, which repeals portions of the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1906, and that portion of the Schedule which provides that no fees shall be payable upon the application for an award. May I just say to the House that I shall be glad if hon. Members can see their way to accept this, because it is my intention that nothing at all shall go into this Bill which shall have a prejudicial effect upon workmen under the law. I am told by the draftsman that this paragraph was intended to have directly the contrary effect.
Personally, I do not think that it is carried out, but it is my intention, if the House will accept it from me, that if Amendments are put forward in relation to these paragraphs, I shall be prepared to consider them—Amendments from all sides, for I am in no way bound, nor is the Office of the Lord Chancellor in any way bound, to the Clause which we have here. I hope that it will not be thought necessary to have any undue discussion upon the principles underlying Clause 6 to-night, because the matter can be fully debated in Committee, and there will be nothing permitted to remain, and no Amendment will be opposed by me—and, indeed, will be accepted by me—with the object of ensuring that no additional liability or risk of liability under the Workmen's Compensation Act is imposed by any part of this Bill. I will go further and say that I will take Clause 6 out rather than anything should hamper the passing of the Act, although I hope I shall not be pressed on that point. We want to get the Bill through.
I make a similar observation about Clause 7, because there is some technical objection to certain provisions relating to the old County Court Act in regard to actions for ejectment or for obtaining possession. These are highly technical; and in regard to Clause 7, I may say that I am not wedded in any shape or form to it. When we get into Committee, which I cannot help thinking will be the better time for discussing it, there will be no reason at all to suppose that this Clause cannot be amended so as to get rid of any special difficulties which occur to me or are brought to my notice. These are matters subsidiary to the main object of the Bill; but I do not want the House to think that these Clauses have been introduced hastily. They were in the original Bill introduced by the Coalition Government, and in the Bill ready for passing by the late Government. My view has been that it was far better to bring the Bill in in the form substantially agreed, which can be put right. Having regard to the promise I have given I hope the House will see its way to give this Bill a Second Reading.
I would congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his appearance on the Front Bench after his recent illness. Perhaps it is also a coincidence that he should present a Bill of this sort at this moment. Those who, like the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) and myself, know something of the conditions—as I do intimately—under which the County Court officials have continued to work for many years, their devoted service, and the inadequate remuneration which they have received, know that there is some need for reform. Their conditions have not always been the fault of their immediate masters. Very often the conditions were that the registrar or the high bailiff has been in the past dependent upon commissions upon the issue of plaints, and the return has been so meagre, especially in the smaller country districts, that it has been impossible to maintain the requisite staff; thus these men were paid what to-day would be regarded as an inadequate living wage. Therefore I am sure that all practitioners who have known these officials so long, and who have been brought into daily contact with them, will be pleased to think that a limit is now going to be put to the period of their sacrifices. They are exceedingly capable people, well versed in all the rules of County Court procedure, and are worthy of a salary which a professional man should command in a profession.
The Bill recognises, I am glad to see, the undesirability of continuing payment by commissions upon plaints. I hope that in the future justice will be done to those officers who have been dependent upon such a special method of remuneration—the senior officers. I trust that in Committee we shall take care that due protection is given. I am told that the head bailiff in one of the important Metropolitan Courts, unless protecting words can be put in, stands permanently to lose. In this particular Court the plaint issue in 1922 was nearly half a million, that is, 449,783, less than in 1913—that was the effect of the War, while the fees paid to the Treasury in 1922, the highest ever earned in a year, were £517,417. It would be more equitable to add 5 per cent. to provide for the increased work that is going gradually to return than to take that percentage off. Therefore I hope that in Committee a proviso will be added that, at any rate, these officers who made great sacrifices during the War to maintain their clerks will be secured in receipt of a sum not less than they have received during the year which has just closed. If that be done, substantial justice will have been done to them; otherwise they stand to be permanently penalised.
I do not wish to prolong my observations now, but I congratulate the House that they have got this Measure before them. All parties are agreed as to the need of a remedy for what undoubtedly has been the state of things prevailing for many years past. To a very large extent this has been unavoidable. It is not a question of sweating, but because of the conditions which obtain among County Court officials who for long in many Courts in the Metropolis and the larger towns have been wholly employed. There is no reason why these officers should not be paid a reasonable sum. All their work is done for the Crown. The results of their labours go directly to the Treasury, who are responsible for the maintenance of the buildings in which they work. Under these conditions I am glad to say that at least they are going to be released from the uncertainty which has faced them in the past. I give the Bill a very hearty welcome, and I hope it will be rapidly passed through Committee and the House.
This Bill is a subject for congratulation, and I congratulate the Attorney-General upon introducing it. This is the type of thing and the sort of revolution that the Labour party wants, in so far as it is going to do good where it has been long overdue. There is one point I should like to put in connection with what the Attorney-General stated, and which I should like cleared up. He stated that the older servants in the County Courts, if this Bill were passed, would receive a gratuity. It was not made quite plain whether in addition to that they would also be in receipt of a pension. I am not quite sure about it, and I should like the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make it clear.
I desire to bring to the notice of the House two points which seem to me not unimportant. I have had an experience which most Members of the House have at one time or another, and that is my first point has been put more clearly, perhaps, than I could have put it by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ealing. Therefore, I only desire to say on that that I endorse very cordially every single word which fell from my right hon. and learned Friend under that head. Clause 2 will require careful revision, because as I read the Clause—whilst the old system of payment is to be condemned on almost every ground—I am not at all certain that the principle in Clause 2 might not in the future perpetuate similar difficulties. There is, I am informed, a great amount of apprehension; or shall I say that if the Clause remains unamended that apprehension may widen into discontent? The Clause itself merely says that payment of the registrar and high bailiff shall be such as the Lord Chancellor may, from time to time, with the consent of the Treasury, direct. Upon what basis is that payment to be made? Is it to be upon some form of commutation of the varying salaries paid to these officers? Is it to be a commutation of that kind based upon a certain year. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ealing (Sir H. Nield) has described the difficulties of these servants, and if this Clause remains in that form it is a matter of practical certainty that many of these servants will suffer a great injustice if a year is taken for commutation which is unfavourable to them.
The Attorney-General referred to the Report of the Committee presided over by Mr. Justice Swift. That Committee reported and recommended that there should be paid a bonus upon the salaries, and that bonus has never been paid, although some grant has been made in respect of the heavy losses these officers suffered. As far as Clause 2 is concerned, I endorse what has been said as to the necessity of inserting a proper proviso in that Clause to safeguard the rights to which these servants are entitled. In the Act of 1888, under Section 45, to which the Attorney-General referred as the basis of payment, there is at the conclusion of that Section a proviso which reads:
Provided that no such Order shall be made with respect to any registrar appointed before the passing of this Act without the consent of such registrar.
That might form a good precedent for the proviso to safeguard the rights of these men. My other point is one which may have received the consideration of the Attorney-General, but I raise it because if it has not received his consideration, he may deem it worthy of consideration now. Under Sub-section (1) of Clause 3 it is provided that
The Lord Chancellor may, with the concurrence of the Treasury as to numbers and salaries, appoint in connection with any Court such assistant registrars, clerks, bailiffs, ushers and messengers as he may consider necessary for carrying out the work of the Court.
In Clause 5, Sub-section (1), it is provided that
Subject to the provisions of this Section employment in Court service shall, in the case of a person as respects whom a direction in that behalf is given by the Lord Chancellor with the concurrence of the Treasury, and whether the employment commenced before or after the commencement of this Act, be deemed to be for all purposes employment in the Civil Service of the State.
Then under Clause 1, Sub-section (5) of this Bill, there is the following provision:
Where after the commencement of this Act a vacancy occurs in the office of high-bailiff
of a Court no person shall be appointed to that office, and thereafter the registrar of that Court shall by virtue of his office be the high-bailiff of the Court.
As I understand this Bill, it provides that the present office of high bailiff shall be continued, and the present occupants of that position shall be continued, but as and when a vacancy occurs, then the registrar of the Court shall become the registrar and the high bailiff, and in course of time the office of the high bailiff shall disappear. Section 35 of the Act of 1888, which is not repealed in the new Bill, will require some Amendment, because the concluding paragraph of that Act provides that the high bailiff shall be responsible for the acts of those appointed to assist him. It is not very desirable that in those circumstances the high bailiff shall be responsible for the acts of people he does not appoint and who are, in fact, civil servants. Those are the points I wish to raise.
With regard to the remainder of the Bill, very possibly there are one or two matters which may require to be discussed at a later stage. I am not so sure that it is wise to deprive the local County Court Judge of all his interest in the appointment of registrars. Many of the local County Court Judges have a good knowledge of the locality in which they preside over the Courts, and their legal knowledge and intimate personal knowledge of the people in the locality may be of the greatest service in selecting suitable registrars for those localities. Although the power now is given to the Lord Chancellor, and practically the County Court Judge is now deprived of all interest in these appointments, it may very well be that it would be of great service to the administration of justice in the local County Court if by some means the interest and personal knowledge of the local, County Court Judges were placed at the disposal of the Lord Chancellor in making those appointments.
The other matter I wish to raise would, in a Bill of this kind, involve too large an area to include, and if any redress is needed I think that we ought to have a proper County Courts Bill making provision for an increase in the remuneration of County Court Judges. When you are making provision to protect the registrars and the high bailiffs may I point out that not one penny would come out of public funds, because the fees received are enough to provide for that, and I suggest that they are ample to increase the remuneration of the County Court Judges, which has not been altered since the year 1888? I very cordially support the Second Reading of this Bill.
I am sure the House has heard the speech of the hon. Member who has just sat down with the greatest possible interest, and most of us agree with many of the statements which he has made. On behalf of a number of people with whom I am acquainted who are interested in this Bill, I thank the Attorney-General for the excellent speech with which he has introduced this Measure, and particularly such commendation, coming from the highest officer of the legal profession, will be greatly appreciated by a very large number of hardworking officials up and down the country. In this connection, I should like to include the services and the work of our County Court Judge. It has quite rightly been said in this Debate that, to-day, having regard to the increased cost of living, and everything else connected with the ordinary affairs of life, the case of the County Court Judges deserves very careful consideration, especially from this House, because whenever we get into a difficulty in connection with domestic problems which are constantly arising—and I have in my mind all those perplexities in connection with housing and rent restrictions—we generally leave it to the County Court Judges to make the best arrangements they possibly can.
Even within the last few months the Bill of which we passed the final stages only the other day threw upon County Court Judges the solution of the difficult problems with which we were then confronted, and I hope the words which have been used in this connection by my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Birkett) will have due weight in the proper quarter, and that the services of County Court Judges will be properly recognised. There is no institution in the country which enjoys more public confidence than the administration of justice in cur County Courts, and I know no body of men who more sympathetically and fairly carry out their duties than the Judges, Registrars, and officials of our County Courts. Speaking with some little experience, I can safely say that you rarely find either of the parties in a County Court case saying that they have-not had a fair show. The patience of some of our County Court Judges is a worthy example for many Ministers and Members of this House. Therefore, I welcome very much the fact that at any rate something is going to be done for the Registrars and many of these officials.
I hardly share my hon. Friend's view-that in some way or other the Lord Chancellor should consult the County Court Judges in regard to the appointment of Registrars, and I am afraid that would lead to considerable difficulty. I share the view that it is better on the whole for the Lord Chancellor to appoint the Registrars up and down the country. I think it is open to considerable misconception that the County Court Judge should appoint the officials of a Court of Justice, and especially an officer who has to work directly in conjunction with him. I think that is a very desirable feature in this Bill. There is no doubt that the method of remuneration of the Registrars and officials of the County Court is open to some objection, but nobody could possibly defend the present method, and the provision made in this respect is wrong.
My right hon. and learned Friend below me (Sir H. Nield) made a most excellent point on the question of the superannuation of some of the older officials. I dare say he has had representations made to him, as I have, that, at any rate, some of the older men who are employed in the County Courts, and who have served very many years, would really not receive very much consideration under the provisions of this Bill. I hope the Attorney-General will be prepared to listen to the statements in regard to the position of these older officials during the Committee stage. As a matter of fact, some of these older men who (have served 20 or 30 years are not going to get more than a bonus perhaps equivalent to two years' service as a consequence of this provision. It may be that the difficulties are too great for anything further to be done, but I hope the Attorney-General will have some regard to their case when the matter comes to be considered more in detail.
The only other observation I want to make on my hon. Friend's speech is that I do not think it is quite correct to say that our County Courts are being conducted with a surplus at the end of each year. A very excellent Committee not long ago examined this question, and they investigated the subject as to whether there was any money being made out of the County Courts, or whether anything was going to the Exchequer. I see from the figures produced in this Report, which I have no doubt are accurate, that in the year 1922 the excess of expenditure over receipts was nearly £500,000. Therefore, my hon. Friend will have to look in another direction if he is going to help the County Court Judges.
I wanted particularly to call attention to some of the provisions with which the Attorney-General rather lightly dealt. I refer particularly to Clause 6. I do not know whether it is quite intentional or not, but the Attorney-General seemed to give the impression, at any rate to me, that Clause 6 was a somewhat ill-conceived and hastily-devised Clause which had been badly drafted and did not express the true intentions of the Government. In fact, Clause 6 most correctly, if I may venture to say so, carries out the recommendation of my hon. Friend's Committee. That is a Committee which was appointed to look into the question of County Court fees, and gave very serious consideration to the position of compensation cases. As most Members of this House know, when the Workmen's Compensation Act was introduced, and when it was carried into law, one of its perhaps peculiar features, if you like so to term it, was that there should be no fees payable in respect of proceedings brought by workmen. I think there is a good deal to be said for that. An exception can be made on that account, because a man who meets with an accident of any kind, it seems to me, ought to be able to go direct to the Court and put the machinery in motion to receive his compensation without having to make a payment. At any rate, I take it that was the intention of the Legislature in 1897 when the Workmen's Compensation Act became law. Ever since then in all these proceedings under the Workmen's Compensation Act there have been no Court fees payable as in ordinary cases, and when a workman issues his application for arbitration he does not have to pay the ordinary Court fees. He can issue it at the Court without depositing any money at all. I think, personally, that practice should be continued.
But my hon. Friend's Committee no doubt had in mind the half-million deficiency on the County Courts every year, and, following the advice I think of Sir Eric Geddes' Committee, recommended that fees should be payable in workmen's compensation cases. I confess that at any rate from that point of view there is a good deal to be said for it. In this report—a very excellent report it is—it is pointed out that in the year 1921, for instance, there were no fewer than 3,962 applications for arbitration, and as stated here there seems to be no reason to anticipate that there will be any substantial diminution of this number in the future. My hon. Friend and his Committee say:
We think under all the circumstances and having regard to the finances of the County Court that the fees should now for the first time be introduced.
In the schedule to this report it is suggested, for instance, that when a workman issues his summons for arbitration he should pay a fee of 10s. and other fees are also suggested in the schedule. It was further suggested that in hard cases the Registrar should be allowed to remit the fee. It was pointed out by my hon. Friend and his colleagues that in the majority of cases, perhaps, the trade unions were concerned, and he did not see why a fee should not be charged as in the case of every other summons. Clause 6 very fairly carries out that recommendation. It is not a question about one part of it being contradictory of another as the Attorney-General suggested. This actually follows out, as far as I can see, the recommendations of this particular Committee.
It is a little surprising to me that a Labour Government should be introducing this provision. It is perhaps an astonishing act on the part of the first Socialist Attorney-General that under this Bill he should seek to impose further fines on the workmen of this country when they come to start their arbitration in court. As far as I am concerned, if I have an opportunity of voting on this matter, I think that on the whole, having regard to the fact that it is a special circumstance, a man who meets with an accident should be able to go direct to the Court without paying a Court fee of any kind. As I gathered from the Attorney-General, when the Committee stage of this Bill is reached, he is going to delete some parts of Clause 6, because this Clause very ingeniously in the end abolishes the provision which says that no fees are payable. I am not surprised this afternoon that the Attorney-General on reflection has decided to abandon that part of the Bill.
I want to refer also to Clause 7. It is perhaps rather unkind to the House, but we have to deal with another clause under another Bill dealing with the question of evictions. This Clause, which is rather worthy of the attention of the House for a few minutes, says that Section 59 of the County Courts Act shall have a certain effect, and certain words are incorporated in this Bill which, as far as my brief perusal of that Section tells me, is to expedite eviction orders. In this Section 59 of the principal Act, in certain cases, a defendant had one month given him to apply for certain cases to be taken in the High Court, and, as I gather, the effect of the words that are substituted, which words are,
Such time as may be prescribed by Rules of Court.
is to diminish that period and make the defendant get along much more quickly in connection with proceedings against him with a view to obtaining possession of his property. That is the only reason, and perhaps there may something to be said for it. It is, of course, not indicated in this Clause whether the object of it is to make the time shorter or longer, but I cannot conceive that it is with the idea of making the time longer, and I suppose it is to make the defendant in proceedings for eviction take his choice and to come to his conclusion at a much earlier period. That no doubt can be discussed in Committee, but I hope the Attorney-General will pardon me if I offer the reflection that it is again rather curious that a Labour Government should be introducing a Clause which will have the effect of expediting the proceedings for eviction. But there it is.
Again, I desire to recognise the statement which the Attorney-General has made when he offered to discuss this matter favourably and sympathetically in Committee. Those are the only critical observations I desire to offer with regard to this Bill. Clauses 6 and 7, I think, are proper matters for discussion in Committee. No one desires to retard the Second Reading of this Bill because of those two Clauses which undoubtedly may be the subject of opinions on either side, but I hope personally that all Members of the House, especially those who sit behind the Attorney-General, will see that an alteration in this Bill is necessary and that matters in that connection should be put right. Speaking generally on behalf of a large body of men who, I believe, have rendered excellent service to the community which has not been recognised as much as it might have been because it is only in a humble part of life, and there is not a great deal of limelight, I believe that by the passage of this Bill the House will be doing something for a small body of hard-working individuals who deserve recognition from this House. I believe something will be done in this Bill to remedy many hard cases. One sometimes reads of lawyers' clerks in Dickens' novels. Lawyers' clerks exist in many cases to-day as they did then. A good many of them are County Court officials, men who work hard and are badly paid, and I look on this Bill as a step in this direction, and I welcome it.
I am very glad indeed that this Measure has received such general support from all sides of the House, but I should like to support what the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) has said with regard to the older servants, because it seems to me that they do not receive quite such generous treatment as they had a right to expect under this Measure. It is all very well that they should remain civil servants and that they should receive a pension, but I think the proviso in Clause 5 is not altogether fair:—
Provided that, except in so far as the Treasury may in any case direct, no account shall be taken for the purposes of this Section of Court service before the issue of the certificate.
As a result of that, however long service some of those clerks may have given, so far as their pension is concerned, they will start absolutely on a level with the youngest clerk in the office. As I understand, under the Superannuation Act, you had to serve 10 years as a civil servant before you qualified for pension
at all, and then you qualified for a pension equal to one-sixth of your salary, and you had to work for 40 years before you qualified for the full pension, which is two-thirds of the salary. That being so, though it is quite true that under Sub-section (3) of Clause 5 the old servant could, as a matter of generosity, receive from the Treasury a grant equal to two years' salary, it seems to me that a large number of these old servants, who have given very long service, will receive no pension at all.
The case of the servant in the district registry of the High Court is even harder than the servant in the County Court, because, after all, this Measure does also apply to the clerks in the district registries of the High Court. In some of these district registries, especially in those of Liverpool and Manchester, the work carried on is absolutely on a par, and in every way comparable, with the work carried on by the clerks in the High Court of Justice in the Strand. The clerks in the High Court of Justice have been, and are, regarded as civil servants, and they receive pensions, but the clerks in these district registries, such as those of Manchester and Liverpool, although they are doing the same responsible work, are not, so far, regarded as civil servants, and have not been able to qualify for pensions. This Bill will make them also civil servants, but they will not be able to qualify for pensions without considerable further service. There is one clerk of whom I know in one of these registries who has already put in some 47 years' service, but he will not be able, under this Measure, to qualify for full pension unless he puts in another 40 years' service, that is to say, 87 years' service in all. I would appeal to the Attorney-General that, if possible, more generous consideration should be given to these old servants in the County Courts, or, if that be not possible, at any rate to those in the district registries, who are doing exactly the same work as the civil servants in the High Court of Justice in the Strand.
I should like to join in the chorus of congratulation to the Attorney-General on this Bill and on the manner in which he has introduced it. No one who knows the facts can doubt that the methods by which the officials of the County Courts are appointed and remunerated call, and have called for a long time past, for reform. In the High Court the system of remunerating officers of Courts of Justice by the fees paid by the suitors was abolished many years ago. It is a bad system, which leads, or might lead, to very evil results, and no one can defend it in the County Courts. In the County Courts the system has been carried to such an absurd length that in certain cases, where an application was made to a registrar of a County Court, if he granted the application he was paid a fee, which he put in his pocket, whereas if he refused the application no fee was payable at all. In other words, the system of remuneration was such that it was to the pecuniary advantage of the registrar to grant the application. I need not say, of course, that the standard of integrity among the registrars of the County Courts is so high that no one has ever suggested that that could influence their decision, but obviously it is a very improper arrangement.
It is an entire misconception that the County Courts pay their way. They never have in our time, whatever may have been the case in earlier days. There has always been a large deficit, and no one has ever supposed that it would be possible to extract from the suitors fees which would be sufficient to make the County Courts pay. I think I am right in saying that the Treasury has always recognised that the salaries of the County Court Judges, amounting to nearly £100,000, and the whole of the expenses of the court buildings, amounting now, I think, to something like £80,000, must be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament, and that it would be impossible, without imposing unreasonable fees, to get those moneys from the suitors. Up to the time of the War the situation was such that the fees did nearly meet the expenses, including the salaries of the Judges and the cost of the court buildings, but when the War came the revenue of the County Courts went to pieces, and the deficit became enormous; and one of the merits of this Bill is that it will enable the Lord Chancellor to revise the scales of fees, which I think at the present time are in many respects unreasonable and excessive. It will enable them to be modified, and will enable a great deal of the hardship that at present exists to be mitigated, while at the same time producing a revenue more satisfactory to the Exchequer.
I should like to say a word about the Workmen's Compensation cases. My hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) said that he recognised, in Clause 6 of the Bill, the Report of the Committee over which I had the honour to preside. I can only say that he was more fortunate than myself, for I fail to recognise in Clause 6 what the Committee recommended, and I welcome the assurance of the Attorney-General that in Committee he will be prepared to accept some amendment of Clause 6. It was Sir Eric Geddes' Committee that first drew attention to the fact that, although these Workmen's Compensation cases occupied a large part of the time of the County Courts, no fees, or only very small fees in certain circumstances, are payable in respect of these cases. Everyone, I suppose, must agree that, when a man who earns his livelihood by a weekly wage meets with an accident which disables him from earning, and is entitled to compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Act, and when his employer refuses to pay him and he has to go to the Court to obtain that to which he is entitled, there ought to be nothing whatsoever in the way of Court fees, or in any other way, to prevent such a man from going to the Court and obtaining what is due to him. It is rather different when he is represented by a society of means, which can afford to employ a solicitor, who, I suppose, is paid, and counsel, who, after all, receives an honorarium—it is a little different when that, is the case, and it does not seem unreasonable to expect the society which has incurred that expense on behalf of the workman to pay a small fee to the Court for issuing a summons.
That, however, is not really an important matter. The more important matter is this: When the case has been tried and the Court has decided that the employer ought to pay, it may be a weekly sum or it may be a lump sum, is it not reasonable to require the employer to pay a fee for occupying the time and attention of the Court, because, ex hypothesi, the employer ought to have paid the workman in the first place? It was because the employer refused to pay that the workman had to go to the Court. The action of the employer has taken up the time of the Court and caused expense to the public. Is it not reasonable that in such cases a fee should be charged, which, of course, should be paid by the employer? I commend that to the Attorney-General, and I hope that in Committee that principle will be accepted. Otherwise, it means that the expenses incurred by this litigation have to be provided either by the general taxpayer out of public funds, which does not seem reasonable, or by making the suitors in other cases pay fees sufficient to cover the cost of the workmen's compensation cases. The Geddes Committee drew attention to this matter, and the Committee over which I presided considered it, and we were satisfied that in those cases it was reasonable that the employer should be required to pay a fee upon the award which the Court made against him. With regard to the workman's coming into Court, I am sure everyone will agree that there should be no hindrance whatsoever. If there is one case in which a man ought to have free entrance to the Court to obtain what is justly due to him, it is the case of a workman who has been disabled by an injury from earning his livelihood. I hope that this Bill will go through and be passed into law, and that no accident will occur to it in its passage, because it is, indeed, most necessary in the administration of justice.
It is obvious that by this time the Attorney-General has got that for which he has asked, namely, the good will of this House, and its unanimous wish that this Bill may be passed on to the Statute Book at the earliest possible moment. I do not want to repeat what others have already said, but, speaking as a practising solicitor, I should like just to underline what they have said as to the merits of the work performed by the officials in our County Courts. I think I am only expressing the feeling of the entire House when I say that the reforms which this Bill seeks to bring about are long overdue, and that there is no section of the community which more merits the assistance of this House than those who officiate from year to year in our County Courts. There is one point to which I should like to refer. If I understood the Attorney-General aright, I gather that it is the intention of those responsible for this Bill that, wherever practicable, what we know as the half-time registrar should disappear. Up to the present it is common knowledge among those who have experience in these Courts, that there has been a large number of registrars who have been allowed to continue in private practice while at the same time carrying on their official duties as registrars. I gather from the Attorney-General, if I understood him aright, that the idea is that these half-time registrars should disappear and be replaced by whole-time registrars. At the same time, I am bound to say it seems to me, from my reading of the Bill that is before us, that nothing of that nature is exactly contemplated. If I read Clause 1 of the Bill aright, it would almost seem that the half-time Registrar is contemplated as being more general than the whole-time Registrar. It may be that that is just the phraseology that is used, and that the intention of the promoters of the Bill is somewhat different. I urge upon the Attorney-General that the object should be, so far as possible—in every case it is not possible—gradually to eliminate the half-time Registrar, and to ensure that those who hold these offices devote themselves exclusively to the functions which they are expected to fulfil. That is the more necessary having regard to the footing upon which the officials of the County Courts are henceforth to be placed. If they are to be civil servants, as we are all agreed it is more than time they should be, it seems to me to be something of an anomaly if, up and down the country, we have any large number of Registrars who are only half-time civil servants and devote the rest of their time to other functions.
I had intended to deal in some detail with the Clause which relates to fees payable under the Workmen's Compensation Act, but, having regard to the appeal of the Attorney-General, I think I shall interpret the sense of the House if I do not detain it with any detailed examination of what the Bill contemplates in that connection. The only thing I do not understand, speaking as a new Member, is how a Bill comes into the House, as this one has come, containing a Clause which apparently expresses the direct opposite of what was the intention of the promoters of the Bill, for, as far as I can gather from the Attorney-General's remarks, Clause 6 undoubtedly expresses the precise opposite of what was intended. It would be a most unfortunate thing if the principle of payment of fees was introduced in the case of applications under the Workmen's Compensation Act. So far as the last speaker's remarks are concerned, I hesitate somewhat to differ from him, but if the principle which he suggests in regard to the payment of these fees was introduced, it would undoubtedly mean the introduction of an entirely new principle in the administration of our Courts. It seems to me to be unfortunate and certainly requires some careful examination whether it would be advisable to introduce the principle that fees should be paid if one result ensues, and should not be paid where there is another result. I do not know that this is the time in which to enter into that in detail, as the actual proposal is not before us. It is only a suggestion made by the hon. Member who has just sat down, but coming from that quarter I may be allowed to make that comment on it. To introduce that principle would be an entirely novel proceeding, and one which would perhaps lead us further than is contemplated at present.
I should like to emphasise what my hon. and learned Friend behind me has said, and to express my regret that no provision has been made in the Bill—perhaps provision could not have been made here—for dealing with the question of the salaries paid to County Court Judges. It is extraordinary that in these days, when every week almost we are adding to the duties of these Judges, they are still in receipt of the same salary they had before the War, in fact I believe the same salary they have had ever since 1888. If my memory serves me, the handsome remuneration to which they are entitled is £1,500 per annum and, although I am not myself a member of the senior branch of the profession, it seems to me to augur somewhat badly for the quality of future occupants of the County Court bench if that is to be the extent of the remuneration to which they are to look forward, with all the added responsibilities which devolve upon them—remuneration which the average member of the Bar who is a Member of the House will regard as certainly inadequate remuneration and nothing like the earnings of a great number of men who belong to the junior branch of the profession. I hope, before very long, the Attorney-General will see his way to remedy that very great defect and that we shall see that these distinguished public servants are remunerated according to the services they render to the community.
In listening to the chorus of approbation which has hailed the introduction of this Bill, I am conscious of somewhat mixed feelings, something I think of the feelings that the parent cuckoo must feel when it sees its offspring being received with favour by quite an alien crowd. I hope I shall not in any way diminish the enthusiasm which is felt for this Bill on the opposite side of the House if I disclose the fact that, although the Attorney-General has hatched, or is in process of hatching the egg into a complete Act, he is not the layer of the egg or the first inventor of the provisions of this Bill. The Bill is one which I gave notice to introduce when still Attorney-General, and it fully deserves the approval which it has received from both sides of the House. It may have a smoother passage under the persuasive eloquence of the present Attorney-General than it could have hoped for had I been in his place and he had been in mine. But we on this side try to deal with matters of this kind on their merits, and therefore the right hon. Gentleman may, I think, feel assured that, so far as the official Opposition is concerned, there will be very little difficulty in achieving his desire and translating this Bill into an Act of Parliament. But, although I claim some credit for some of the provisions of the Bill, I should not be fair to the House or to people outside the House, if I were not to recognise, as perhaps he may have done, because I am sorry not to have been here at the commencement of his speech, the very valuable work which has been done by a number of people before ever this Bill reached its present shape.
The problems with which it had to deal are difficult and complicated ones. The position of the registrars, the compensation to which they are entitled, the change in the rights of appointment, the position of the junior officers of the County Courts, the transition period which necessarily takes place when they are transferred from being servants of the Registrar to being civil servants—all these are matters which might readily give rise to conflicting claims which it would be very difficult to resolve. I am betraying no secret when I say that long and patient negotiations had to take place between the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is so well represented at present by the Attorney-General, between the Association of Registrars and between the County Courts Officers' Association in order that a Bill might be produced which was just to the State and at the same time fair to those whose interests were affected. It speaks a great deal for the tact and patience of those conducting the negotiations on behalf of the State on the one side and for the reasonableness of those who were conducting the negotiations on behalf of the officials concerned that the right hon. Gentleman is able to produce a Measure which is accepted by all parties as being fair and just. I think this tribute ought to be paid to those who are responsible for achieving that result.
The main provisions of the Bill have been universally approved. I do not think anyone can doubt that a method of appointment which makes the salary of a judicial officer dependent upon the fees which his Court earns is a thoroughly bad one and ought to be got rid of as soon as possible. The provisions with regard to the clerks and junior officers make a reform which in my judgment, and I think in the judgment of most Members of the House who belong to the profession of the law, was long overdue The junior officials of the County Courts are the paid servants of the registrars. They are only too often the underpaid servants. They have no sort of security of tenure. They have no hope of pension or superannuation when their service comes to an end, and although they are working for the State, the State does not regard them or treat them as its servants. That is a matter which calls for reform and which this Bill, I hope, will put an end to once for all. It is a matter affecting a comparatively small number of people. There are, I think, 1,126 clerks and something like 1,000 bailiffs who will be affected by the provisions of this Measure, and all these people have waited very patiently for the House of Commons to find time to deal with a reform which urgently affects their position, and although it may be quite true that there are important matters of State which have presented this House or its pre- decessors from dealing with the reform before, to these unfortunate people who were all the time working under a sense of injustice it must have been very difficult to be patient under the long delay. I am very glad indeed that now, at last, we are able to reward their patience by giving the Bill the Second Reading which it deserves.
There are one or two minor criticisms which have been made by various speakers which I think are Committee points rather than Second Reading points, but I should like to point out to the hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. M. Oliver), who made an appeal for more generous treatment in matters of superannuation, first of all, that, as regards all existing district registrars, it is at their own option whether they will come in under the Bill or not. If they find themselves better off outside it, they have the right to remain outside it. Secondly, with regard to the registrars who are affected by the Bill, they do not come in merely on Treasury superannuation terms, because there are in the Schedule of the Bill special terms as to superannuation, one of which ensures that their right to superannuation shall begin at the end of a service of five years in all, so that, I think, the provisions as to superannuation are fairly dealt with. There was a discussion with regard to Clause 6. The hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) pointed out that that was largely based upon the recommendations of a Committee which bad considered the matter, I think, only last year. The object, as I understood it, of Clause 6 is not to increase the burden of fees which are to be imposed upon the workers in compensation eases, but to enable the Lord Chancellor, who will have to make a new County Court Fees Order, in any event, if this Bill becomes law, to include at the same time some provision as to County Court fees, such as has been recommended by the Committee which inquired into the matter, and which it was contemplated would ensure in the aggregate that a lighter and not a heavier burden should be placed upon the suitors in workmen's compensation cases.
Clause 7 is the other one that has met with some criticism from the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood). It is rather a complicated matter. There are at present two different kinds of action in the County Court by which people recover possession of premises. One kind is the proper sort of action to bring when the relation of landlord and tenant exists. That is called a possession action, and comes under Sections 138 and 139. There is a different kind of action, which is appropriate when the relation of landlord and tenant is not existing, and when the owner of the property seeks to turn out someone who is a mere trespasser. That is known as an ejectment action, and comes under Section 59. There are cases in which it is a little difficult for the plaintiff, especially if he does not wish to go to the expense of employing a lawyer, to know which kind of action he ought to bring. He knows that he wants to get his house back, but he does not know under what Section to proceed. The object of Clause 7 is, first of all, to make provision which will render it possible, by rules of Court, to ensure that if by mistake a plaintiff starts under the wrong kind of action to recover possession, he shall not be thereby stopped but the case shall be transferred over to the right kind of action. That will save expense and time, and cannot possibly do any injustice to anybody.
The other grievance which it is sought to remedy by that Clause, as I understand it, is that at present when an ejectment action is brought the defendant can, within a month, give notice that the annual value of the premises is more than £100 and therefore that the action is outside the limits of County Court jurisdiction, and must be transferred to the High Court. That gives the defendant a very long time to make up his mind, and it involves that there must be a very long time before the action can be heard, because you must wait for more than a month in order to see whether such an application is going to be made. There is no reason why, if the defendant is in possession of the premises, he should not make up his mind a little more quickly. That will save time, money and expense, and this provision will operate to shorten the period so that he may make up his mind more quickly. I do not think these are very vital matters, but they are matters which can conveniently be altered when the County Courts Act is being dealt with, and I suppose it is for that reason that this proposal is incorporated in the Bill.
There has been reference in the Debate to the salaries of the County Court Judges. Speaking for myself, and not in any sense for the party with whom I am associated, it does seem to me that there is a good deal to be said for the view that the County Court Judge is underpaid. I am not quite sure that I would not go a little further and say that there is a good deal to be said for the view that all Judges are underpaid.
At the present time the complaint is that the lawyers have not seen to it. I regard with a good deal of sympathy the view that in regard to judicial salaries which were fixed in the case of the County Court Judges as long ago as 1888 and in the case of the High Court Judges over 100 years ago, when the whole standard of living was wholly different from that which prevails to-day, these salaries might very well be subject to revision in this House; but, of course, that is a topic which involves considerations foreign to the matter which is really sought to be dealt with to-day. I suggest, however, that it would be a matter properly to be left over for future discussion rather than being embodied in this Bill and interrupting that harmony with which the Bill has been received. With these observations, I desire to associate myself with the congratulations showered upon the Attorney-General for this brilliant production, and I can assure him that as far as I am concerned I shall do my best to facilitate the passage of a Measure which does tardy justice to a very worthy and deserving class of men, and which rewards a patience which has deserved well of this country.
I know that there is some concern in relation to another Bill and, therefore, I shall only occupy the attention of the House for a few minutes. It is not necessary for me to join in the congratulations that have been expressed in regard to the Attorney-General. I am second to none in the warmth and welcome I give to this Bill in so far as it deals with the claims of these people. In that respect it is a belated reform. I can speak for my friends when I say that we shall give every assistance we possibly can in carrying the Bill into law.
There is one criticism whch has not been expressed, and that is as to the extraordinary power which will be put into the hands of the Lord Chancellor if the Bill passes through in its present form. The criticism that I am making will not touch the proposals for the relief of the men for whom we are concerned, but I do ask the House to consider what powers are given to the Lord Chancellor in Clause after Clause of this Bill. Clause 8 relates to the alteration of the County Court districts. In the County Courts Act, 1888, there was power given by Order in Council to alter the number of Courts, the boundaries of the Courts, the place of holding the Court, the discontinuance of the holding of any Court, the division of districts and a number of other matters of very considerable moment for the locality. I can imagine how a country town might be very much prejudiced if the holding of a Court was altered or the Court was taken away. That power has been exercised by Order in Council. It is now, I understand, to rest entirely with the Lord Chancellor, and I do not know what remedy is given to the district if they thought that justice was not being brought to their own doors.
There is, further, the power that is given in Clause 1 where the Lord Chancellor for the first time is to have, as far as I can see, an unfettered discretion in the appointment of the County Court registrars throughout the country. In Clause 3 he is to have the power of appointing not only the assistant registrars but the clerks, the bailiffs, the ushers and the messengers, and whilst he is to confer with the Treasury as to numbers and salaries, the person who is to be appointed rests entirely with the Lord Chancellor. We have been told by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken that there are a thousand of one class and a thousand of another. It is, therefore, likely that some thousands of persons who are civil servants are to be appointed by one person in one Department with, as far as I can see, no examination. In every other Civil Service Department we have set up the principle that there shall be competitive examination, but under this Bill it is to rest with the Lord Chancellor, without any division of his power with the Treasury, as far as the persons appointed are concerned, to appoint thousands of people who are to receive emoluments of the State. That proposal took my breath away when I read it in the Bill, and I am surprised that there has not been some criticism of it.
The Lord Chancellor is also to decide the salary to be paid. No Estimate has been put before the House in that respect. I admit that he has to confer with the Treasury, but it is he who is to decide what is to be the salary of the messenger, the usher, the assistant registrar and the registrar and the other persons. To-day, the Lord Chancellor already exercises power which is far too much for any frail mortal. I do not think that the present Lord Chancellor is a frail mortal, but, at any rate, he is asked to exercise extraordinary powers far beyond the compass of any one man, and to give him this greatly increased power is most astonishing. It is extraordinary that the Labour Government should suggest it. I hope that when we deal with the Bill in Committee we shall see whether we cannot get some democratic control or, at any rate, more democratic control over these thousands of appointments which will have to be dealt with in one Department. We may have a wise or an unwise Lord Chancellor. This country has suffered in the past from unwise Lord Chancellors. When one Lord Chancellor died, the King said of the Keeper of his Conscience that there had not passed away so big a scoundrel in his dominions. Nowadays, we can generally trust those who occupy this high position, but it is a very great power that we propose to give to him. I do not think that we ought to have a Lord Chancellor bestriding the world like a Colossus in this way, and I am surprised that there has not been a suggestion of some check being exercised while the Bill is going through the House.
While I am in favour of the main proposals of the Bill, I object to excessive powers being given to any person or any one Department without bringing in the salutary check which we have exercised in the last 50 years in setting up our great Civil service system and in insisting that everyone desirous of becoming civil servants should pass a competitive examination so that they may be able to claim no advantage because, perhaps, they know the Member for their division, or, perhaps, because of their political persuasion, but that they shall take their stand with people who come from other homes, who are able to claim rights in regard to entering the Government service equal with their own.